The following is the story of Dianna Ortiz, an Ursuline nun from New Mexico, who worked with Indigenous Guatemalans in the eighties during the Reagan administration. This is an edited version of her statement. The full statement can be read here.
I want to be free of these memories. I want to be as trusting, confident, adventurous, and carefree as I was in 1987 when I went to the western highlands of Guatemala to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture. But on November 2, 1989, the Dianna I just described ceased to exist. I tell you this story only because it reflects the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in Guatemala, a country ravaged by a civil war that began in 1960 and lasted thirty-six years. Most of the victims, like me, were civilians targeted by government security forces.
(Dianna still has few memories of her life before her attack.)
As I sat reading in the garden of a convent, where I had retreated to think about my options after receiving increasingly violent death threats, I heard a man’s deep voice behind me: "Hello, my love," he said in Spanish. "We have some things to discuss." I turned to see the morning sunlight glinting off a gun held by a man who had threatened me once before on the street. He and his partner forced me onto a bus, then into a police car where they blindfolded me. We came to a building and they led me down some stairs. They left me in a dark cell, where I listened to the cries of a man and woman being tortured. When the men returned, they accused me of being a guerrilla and began interrogating me. For every answer I gave them, they burned my back or my chest with cigarettes. Afterwards, they gang-raped me repeatedly.
Then they transferred me to another room and left me alone with another woman prisoner. We exchanged names, cried, and held onto each other. "Dianna," she said in Spanish, "they will try to break you. Be strong." When the men returned, they had a video camera and a still camera. The policeman put a machete into my hands. Thinking it would be used against me, and at that point in my torture wanting to die, I did not resist. But the policeman put his hands onto the handle, on top of mine, and forced me to stab the woman again and again. What I remember is blood gushing—spurting like a water fountain—droplets of blood splattering everywhere—and my cries lost in the cries of the woman.
The policeman asked me if I was now ready to talk, and one of the other torturers, the man who had threatened me on the street, mentioned that they had just filmed and photographed me stabbing the woman. If I refused to cooperate, their boss, Alejandro, would have no choice but to turn the videotapes and the photographs over to the press, and everyone would know about the crime I’d committed. This was the first I had heard of Alejandro, the torturers’ boss. But soon I would meet him.
I was taken into a courtyard and interrogated again. The policeman wanted me to admit that I was Veronica Ortiz Hernandez. Earlier he had shown me a photograph of a long-haired, indigenous woman. "That’s you," he’d said. "You are Veronica Ortiz Hernandez." She looked nothing like me. He was still insisting on this, and asking me the name of a man in another photograph he had shown me.
The policeman raped me again. Then I was lowered into a pit full of bodies— bodies of children, men, and women, some decapitated, all caked with blood. A few were still alive. I could hear them moaning. Someone was weeping. I didn’t know if it was me or somebody else. A stench of decay rose from the pit. Rats swarmed over the bodies and were dropped onto me as I hung suspended over the pit by the wrists. I passed out and when I came to I was lying on the ground beside the pit, rats all over me.
The nightmare I lived was nothing out of the ordinary. In 1989, under Guatemala’s first civilian president in years, nearly two hundred people were abducted. Unlike me, they were "disappeared, gone forever." The only uncommon element of my ordeal was that I survived, probably because I was a U.S. citizen, and phone calls poured into Congress when I was reported missing. As a U.S. citizen, I had another advantage: I could, in relative safety, reveal afterwards the details of what happened to me in those twenty-four hours. One of those details: an American was in charge of my torturers.
I remember the moment he removed my blindfold. I asked him, "Are you an American?" In poor Spanish and with a heavy American accent, he answered me with a question: "Why do you want to know?" Moments before, after the torturers had blindfolded me again and were getting ready to rape me again, they had called out in Spanish: "Hey, Alejandro, come and have some fun!"
And a voice had responded "Shit!" in perfect American English with no trace of an accent. It was the voice of the tall, fair-skinned man beside me. After swearing, he’d switched to a halting Spanish. "Idiots!" he said. "She’s a North American nun." He added that my disappearance had been made public, and he ran them out of the room.
Now he was helping me on with my clothes. "Vamos," he said, and he led me out of the building. He kept telling me he was sorry. The torturers had made a mistake. We came to a parking garage, where he put me into a gray Suzuki jeep and told me he was taking me to a friend of his at the U.S. embassy who would help me leave the country.
For the duration of the trip, I spoke to him in English, which he understood perfectly. He said he was concerned about the people of Guatemala and consequently was working to liberate them from Communism. Alejandro told me to forgive my torturers because they had confused me with Veronica Ortiz Hernandez. It was an honest mistake.
I asked him how they could have mistaken me for a woman who did not resemble me in any way. And why were the threatening letters I had received addressed to Madre Dianna and not to Veronica Ortiz Hernandez? He avoided my questions and insinuated that I was to blame for my torture because I had not heeded the threats that were sent to me. I asked him what would happen to the other people I had heard screaming and saw tortured before my eyes. He told me not to concern myself with them and to forget what had happened.
In English again, he made it clear that if I didn’t "forgive" my torturers, I would face consequences. "We have the videotapes and the photographs," he said. Soon the jeep stopped in traffic. We were near an intersection and up ahead was a red light. I took advantage of the opportunity, jumped out of the jeep, and ran.
I thought that was the end of my torture. It was only the beginning. Because I didn’t "forget" about the other people being tortured, because I filed suit against the Guatemalan security forces instead of forgiving my torturers, and because I revealed that they were supervised by an American, I faced consequences. The Guatemalan president claimed that the abduction had never occurred, simultaneously claiming that it had been carried out by nongovernmental elements and therefore was not a human rights abuse. Only one week after my abduction, before any true investigation had been conducted, the U.S. ambassador suggested that I was a political strategist and had staged my own kidnapping to secure a cutoff of U.S. military aid to Guatemala.
Two months later, after a U.S. doctor had counted 111 cigarette burns on my back alone, the story changed. In January 1990, the Guatemalan defense minister publicly announced that I was a lesbian and had staged my abduction to cover up a tryst. The minister of the interior echoed this statement and then said he had heard it first from the U.S. embassy. According to a congressional aide, the political affairs officer at the U.S. embassy, Lew Anselem, was indeed spreading the same rumor. (What ever will they do when they no longer have the 'gay' excuse with which to blame their victims.)
In the presence of Ambassador Thomas Stroock, this same human rights officer told a delegation of religious men and women concerned about my case that he was "tired of these lesbian nuns coming down to Guatemala." The story would undergo other permutations. According to the Guatemalan press, the ambassador came up with another version: he told the Guatemalan defense minister that I was not abducted and tortured but simply "had problems with [my] nerves." (Now we have the old female 'nerves' excuse. I guess the lesbian tryst thing didn't fly very far.)
During this time, the United States was working arm in arm with the Guatemalan army to achieve a secret foreign policy objective–defeating the Guatemalan guerrillas. And my case was bad publicity for the army. Because I had mentioned the American boss, it was also bad publicity for the U.S. government, whose overt foreign policy objectives in Guatemala were promoting democracy, stability, and respect for human rights. In the ambassador’s words, my case could "damage U.S. interests." In a letter urging State Department officials not to meet with me to take my testimony, the ambassador put it this way: "If the Department meets with her...pressure from all sorts of people and groups will build on the Department to act on the information she provides...I’m afraid we’re going to get cooked on this one...."
The Organization of American States, after completing a four-year investigation of my case, found in 1997 that I indeed was abducted and tortured by agents of the Guatemalan government, that the details of my testimony were credible, and that the Guatemalan government had "engaged in repeated unwarranted attacks on [my] honor and reputation."
The Guatemalan justice system was not so forthcoming. I made three trips to Guatemala to testify against the government, something no torture survivor had ever been able to do. Again, my passport opened up possibilities for me that Guatemalans would never have. Pressing charges would mean certain death for a Guatemalan who managed to survive torture. I identified the place where I was detained and tortured, and participated in a reenactment of my abduction.
On my return to the United States, I received intimidating phone calls and anonymous packages. One contained a dead mouse wrapped in a Guatemalan flag. I suspect that Guatemalan military intelligence agents or members of a U.S. intelligence agency were behind these attempts to intimidate me.
The intimidation did not end with anonymous threats, but carried over into the courtroom. As I sought justice, I was cast as the criminal, much as women who file charges of rape are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The lawyers’ accusations against me and their aggressive interrogations triggered flashbacks. The case languished in the Guatemalan court system. No suspects were ever identified.
In 1996, I held a five-week vigil before the White House, asking for the declassification of all U.S. government documents related to human rights abuses in Guatemala since 1954, including documents on my own case. A few days into my vigil, I was granted a meeting with First Lady Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton admitted what no other U.S. government official had dared to concede during my seven-year search for the truth behind my abduction and torture in Guatemala: she said it was possible that the American in charge of my Guatemalan torturers was a "past or present employee of a U.S. agency."
I don't suppose it comes as any shock that Sr. Ortiz's torturers and their boss, received training from the US School of the Americas located at Fort Benning, Georgia. This is the school which is picketed by thousands every November. This is the same rally which was the brain child of that 'heretical' priest, Fr. Roy Bourgeios. This is also happens to be the school on whose board of directors sits Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino, a Bush appointee.
Sr. Ortiz's story is incomprehensible, but I'm certain, we will hear similar stories from detainees of Guantanamo and other Black Ops hideouts. As was the Reagan CIA, so is the Bush CIA.
Barack Obama made campaign promises to close both Guatanamo and the School of the Americas. He needs to deliver. He also needs to convene a special prosecutor to investigate personal culpability on all levels of the Bush Adminsitration. Our torture policy is not just a black eye for our definition of ourselves as a moral democracy, it has also been estimated to have been a major factor in the deaths of upwards of 2000 of our soldiers in Iraq and been the single biggest recruitment tool for our terrorist adversaries. Torture was not just a moral disaster. It was also a strategic and tactical disaster.
There are many aspects of Sr. Ortiz'z story which serve to illustrate the level of moral bankruptcy which our government functionaries will sink to in order to protect their and their administration's abuses of power.
Blaming the victim, using spurious claims of lesbianism, challenging the veracity of her testimony, claiming national security issues, are typical strategies of powerful men caught in traps of their own making.
Protecting the institutions which feed them is the primary mission of the bought and paid for party apparatchik. We've seen this whole thing played out in the Catholic hierarchy in the sexual abuse crisis for the last seven years. When the pursuit and protection of power becomes the sole focus of an institution, there are no rules of decency. There is no perception of the 'other' as worthy of human compassion.
Lest one think the Vatican is somehow different, think again. In their opposition to the French and European Union call for the world wide decriminalization of homosexuality, the Vatican is willing to allow for the torture and imprisonment of homosexuals in 85 countries in order to protect their notion of 'traditional marriage'. In eight of these countries men are executed for the crime of being homosexual. It seems homosexuality has replaced communism as the biggest threat to entrenched Catholic interests.
Cardinal Miggliore, the Vatican ambassador to the UN, even goes so far as the justify this imprisonment, torture, and execution of homosexuals as necessary in order to protect the state.
"If adopted, they would create new and implacable discrimination's," Migliore said. "For example, states which do not recognize same-sex unions as 'matrimony' will be pilloried and made an object of pressure," Migliore said. (Pilloried? isn't that kind of like tortured? How awful for these states.)
He also states that the Vatican in no way wishes to imply that they agree with any discrimination against homosexuals. Just like Guatemalan officials wished us all to know that they weren't torturing anyone, or disappearing anyone, or working with our CIA in these efforts, and the Bush administration wanted us to swallow their hogwash about not being engaged in torture---until the pictures came out. Until the truth came out.
In the end, Truth always wins out, but like the story of Sr. Ortiz proves, it won't come out unless it's forced out by people committed to a cause which goes beyond themselves, and this forcing doesn't involve torture. It just involves implacable integrity. Something sadly lacking in both the hypocritical Bush administration, and the Church's hypocritical stance on homosexuality.