She became a champion of survivors of torture and helped compel the release of documents showing U.S. complicity in decades of human rights abuses in Guatemala.
Feb. 20, 2021
Dianna Ortiz, an American Roman Catholic nun whose rape and torture in Guatemala in 1989 helped lead to the release of documents showing American involvement in human rights abuses in that country, died on Friday in hospice care in Washington. She was 62.
The cause was cancer, said Marie Dennis, a longtime friend.
While serving as a missionary and teaching Indigenous children in the western highlands of Guatemala, Sister Ortiz was abducted, gang-raped and tortured by a Guatemalan security force. Her story became even more explosive when she said that someone she believed to be an American had acted in concert with her abductors.
Only after years of extensive therapy at the Marjorie Kovler Centerin Chicago for survivors of torture did Sister Ortiz start to recover, at which point she began to hunt down information about her case. She went on to become a global champion for people subjected to torture, and her case would help compel the release of classified documents showing decades of U.S. complicity in human rights abuses in Guatemala during its 36-year civil war, in which 200,000 civilians were killed.
It was never clear why she and many other Americans were targeted. She was told at one point that hers was a case of mistaken identity, an assertion she didn’t believe. Her attack came during a particularly lawless period; ravaged by war, Guatemala was being run by a series of right-wing military dictatorships, some of them violent toward Indigenous people and suspicious of anyone helping them.
Sister Ortiz’s 24-hour ordeal, initially labeled a hoax by American and Guatemalan officials, included multiple gang rapes. Her back was pockmarked with more than 100 cigarette burns. At one point she was suspended by her wrists over an open pit packed with the bodies of men, women and children, some of them decapitated, some of them still alive. At another point she was forced to stab to death a woman who was also being held captive. Her abductors took pictures and videotaped the act to use against her.
The torture stopped, she said, only after a man who appeared to be an American — and appeared to be in charge — saw what was happening and ordered her release, saying her abduction had become news in the outside world. He took her to his car and said he would give her safe haven at the American Embassy. He also advised her to forgive her torturers. Fearing he was going to kill her, she jumped out.
The trauma left her confused and distraught. She had become pregnant during the assaults and had an abortion. As often happens with people subjected to torture, much of her memory of her life before the abduction was wiped out. When she returned to her family in New Mexico and to her religious order of nuns in Kentucky, she didn’t know them.
“To this day I can smell the decomposing of bodies, disposed of in an open pit,” she said in an interview in the late 1990s with Kerry Kennedy, president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an advocacy organization. “I can hear the piercing screams of other people being tortured. I can see the blood gushing out of the woman’s body.”
When she suggested that her abductors were supervised by an American, she was smeared. “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,” she said in the interview with Ms. Kennedy.