Sr Dianna Ortiz OSU, undated photo courtesy of the Ursuline Sisters of St Joseph
Sister Dianna Ortiz, a prominent human rights campaigner who took part in a number of significant protests that helped to expose US documents revealing American involvement in human-rights abuses in Guatemala, has died of cancer at the age of 62.
Members of the Guatemalan military abducted, raped and tortured Sr Ortiz in 1989. Initially denied by US officials and the Guatemalan president, the story of her captivity hit headlines across the world when she claimed an American had been involved in her ordeal.
A sister of the Ursuline order and a US citizen, Ortiz went to Guatemala’s western highlands in 1987 to teach local children and instruct them in Bible studies. Ortiz had arrived amid the decades-long civil war, fought between government forces and Marxist rebel groups. An estimated 200,000 were killed during the conflict, many of them “disappeared” or murdered in a campaign of state violence against civilians.
Over the next two years, Ortiz received numerous anonymous and menacing letters, trying to intimidate her into leaving the country. “I was a US citizen and I assumed that my citizenship would protect me,” she told NPR, “but what I learned was that was not the case.”
On 2 November 1989, she was abducted from the gardens of Posada de Belen, a religious centre in the city of Antigua.
She was taken to a warehouse in a police car, where her captors interrogated her about her work with indigenous communities — suspected of leftist sympathies — before blindfolding her and raping her repeatedly.
Her captors burned her with cigarettes during the interrogation and accused her of planning to meet with ‘subversives’. The doctor who examined Ortiz after her escape found over 100 cigarette burns on her body.
According to Ortiz, her torture stopped after an American intervened. The man she called Alejandro, on finding her, swore in English before reverting to Spanish to order her release and driving her away. Apologizing, he told her that her captivity had been a case of mistaken identity.
Ortiz managed to escape the car when it stopped in traffic. Finding herself in Guatemala City, she hid in a local’s home before contacting her religious community who came to collect her. She returned to the US within 48 hours of her escape.
After her ordeal, Ortiz struggled to remember her pre-Guatemala life, no longer recognizing friends or family. When she discovered that she was pregnant because of the rapes, she aborted the child.
“I felt I had no choice,” she told the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights organization. “If I had to grow within me what the torturers left me, I would have died.”
She filed cases in Guatemalan and US courts. In 1995 a US federal judge ordered former Guatemalan defence minister and retired general Héctor Gramajo to pay $47.5m of damages to Ortiz and eight Guatemalans whose families and friends had been killed by Guatemalan soldiers. Neither Ortiz or her fellow plaintiffs received their share.
The following year she went on hunger strike outside the White House, successfully pressuring the US to declassify documents about its involvement in Guatemala.
Though heavily redacted, the stream of documents showed that the US was involved in equipping and training Guatemala’s security forces that committed acts of genocide during the country’s civil war in the 1960s.
In another case she fi led to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the body found that the Guatemalan military had breached the American Convention on Human Rights.
In 2002, Ortiz wrote a memoir with human rights advocate Patricia Davis, The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey From Torture to Truth, about her experience, her struggle to be believed and her attempt to heal.
In 1994, Ortiz started working with human rights groups, including the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission in Washington, helping to found Coalition Missing and the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. Last year she was made deputy executive director of Pax Christi USA, the American branch of the international Catholic peace movement.
She died on 19 February in hospice care in Washington after 43 years in the Ursuline order. Born 2 September 1958, she was one of eight siblings. She is survived by her mother, four brothers and two sisters.
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