Dianna Ortiz

Dianna Mae Ortiz (September 2, 1958 – February 19, 2021) was an American Roman Catholic sister of the Ursuline order. While serving as a missionary in Guatemala, she was abducted on November 2, 1989, by members of the Guatemalan military, detained, raped, and tortured for 24 hours before being released. After her release, Ortiz reported that an American was among her captors. This part of her account could not be confirmed.

Dianna Ortiz
Photo of Dianna Ortiz.jpg
Diana Mae Ortiz

(1958-09-02)September 2, 1958
DiedFebruary 19, 2021(2021-02-19) (aged 62)
Washington, D.C.
OccupationRoman Catholic sister

Ortiz pursued her case in a Guatemalan court and in a United States civil court. In the latter, she was the first to seek civil damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act passed in 1992.[1] She filed a case against the Guatemalan Minister of Defense, General Héctor Gramajo, in power at the time of her abduction, arguing that he had command authority. In 1995, she was awarded $5 million in damages.[2] She also filed a case with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

In 1996, as a result of protests by Ortiz and others, as well as revelations of unauthorized CIA funding of the Guatemala military, which had been prohibited by Congress in 1990, U.S. President Bill Clinton ordered the release of CIA papers associated with her case. Clinton also ordered the declassification of decades of documents related to U.S. relations with Guatemala. These showed that a Guatemalan colonel paid by the CIA was implicated in the deaths of the American Michael DeVine in 1990 and guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca Velásquez [es] in 1993. Congress closed down the CIA program. It also showed decades of United States support of Guatemala during its genocide of its rural indigenous people.

The Center for Constitutional Rights represented Ortiz in her civil case and before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which found in 1997 that the State of Guatemala had violated numerous articles of the American Convention on Human Rights in regard to Ortiz. It recommended that the government complete its long-delayed investigation and that it provide compensation to Ortiz.

Early life and educationEdit

Ortiz was born on September 2, 1958, in Colorado Springs, Colorado,[3] the middle of eight children born to Ambrosia and Pilar Ortiz, a homemaker and uranium miner, respectively.[4] Wanting the religious life from the time she was a child, Dianna entered the novitiate at age 17 at the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph in Maple Mount, western Kentucky.[4] Upon completion, she was accepted as a sister of the Ursuline Order.[5]


As a Catholic nun, Ortiz went to Guatemala in the 1987 for a two-year assignment to work with the poor and teach children to read.[5] She joined sisters already working with the indigenous population in San Miguel Acatán and other small villages throughout the department of Huehuetenango.[6] According to her account, in late 1988 the Bishop of Huehuetenango received an anonymous typed document accusing Ortiz and the other sisters in San Miguel of planning to meet with "subversives". This was followed in 1989 by written anonymous threats directed and delivered to Ortiz personally, while she was staying in more than one location, showing that she was under continued surveillance. In October 1989, she went to the retreat center of Posada de Belen in Antigua, Guatemala.[6]

Abduction and tortureEdit

Ortiz was abducted on November 2, 1989, from the garden of Posada de Belen. She said her captors were police officers who took her to a secret prison at a police academy (later identified as the Antigua Escuela Politécnica) in Guatemala City.[6] There she was tortured and raped repeatedly under questioning.[4][7]

She said a man named Alejandro was among her torturers, and that she heard him speak English with a North American accent. She wrote in her memoir that her torture stopped

when a man with an American accent entered the room and said in English, "Shit." Then he said, in Spanish, to the torturers, "You idiots! Leave her alone. She's a North American, and it's all over the news." To Ortiz he said, "You have to forgive those guys, ... they made a mistake.[5]

He was taking her to a friend (to be taken to the American embassy) when she escaped. She said he told her she had been mistaken for a guerrilla with a similar name, Verónica Ortiz Hernández. Ortiz knew this woman, an indigenous Guatemalan, and said she did not resemble her. When she questioned him about that, she said that Alejandro "insinuated that I was to blame for my torture because I had not heeded the threats that were sent to me."[8] She returned to the U.S. from Guatemala within 48 hours of her escape.

After being released, Ortiz later said:

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.[7]

She saw a doctor in Guatemala and another after she returned to the United States; both later submitted testimony that she showed evidence of torture, including extensive cigarette burns.[6] Ortiz suffered greatly from her experience; like other torture victims, she lost many of her memories from the period before she went to Guatemala. After returning to the U.S., she had to be reintroduced to her family. It took her a long time to rebuild her trust in people. In addition, she later recounted, she learned she was pregnant from the rapes. Overwhelmed by the treatment she had received, she got an abortion. This added to her survivor's guilt and emotional burden.[4]

U.S. official denials of involvementEdit

According to a Salon reviewer of Ortiz's 2002 memoir, "federal investigators and State Department officials made an active effort to cover up her ordeal and to discredit her – understandably, as the United States is the major source of funding for the Guatemalan military."[5]

Former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Thomas F. Stroock (1989–1992) said in 1995 that Ortiz's claims amounted to an allegation of U.S. involvement in her torture, which he denied. He said it was done by right-wing paramilitary forces in the country.[9]

Guatemalan media lobbyEdit

In a 1996 widely recounted interview with Ortiz on the TV news program Nightline, American journalist Cokie Roberts contested Ortiz's claim that an American was among her captors. Roberts implied that Ortiz was lying about the entire episode, despite the fact that Ortiz later won a lawsuit against a Guatemalan general she accused in the case.[10] It was later revealed that Patton Boggs, the law firm of Roberts' brother Tom Boggs, was paid by the Guatemalan government to promote a more positive image of the regime, which was widely criticized internationally for human rights abuses.[11][12][13]

According to an article on Pamela Brogan's report The Torturers' Lobby (1993), published by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), Guatemala was among several nations known to commit torture and human rights abuses and that had paid U.S. lobbying firms high fees to help keep U.S. funds going to it and "to gloss over its wretched human rights reputation".[14] For instance, in 1991, the major lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs, & Blow in Washington, DC, was paid $220,000 by Guatemala.[14] Based on the CPI report, Clinton prohibited any member of his administration from representing foreign governments after leaving the federal government. (It is generally common practice for political appointees to work later for lobbying firms to capitalize on their connections.)[14]

In June 1990, Michael DeVine, an American innkeeper who had been living and working in Guatemala for 20 years, was found killed. The U.S. pressed the Guatemalan government to solve his murder; when that did not happen by the end of the year, Congress prohibited more military funding, then worth about $2.8 million.[15]

Ortiz hunger strikeEdit

In April 1996, Ortiz was fasting outside the White House and joined by other protesters; she was seeking a release of CIA papers related to her abduction and the U.S. government's investigation. Her protests had been preceded by those of Jennifer Harbury and members of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, seeking U.S. action on learning the fates of many "disappeared" in the country. Harbury's husband Efraín Bámaca Velásquez [es], a Mayan guerrilla leader, had "disappeared" in 1992 and was presumed dead.

Numerous CIA papers were released in May 1996. While there was no confirmation of Ortiz's claim that an American national had been directly involved in her case, the papers revealed that a Guatemalan colonel on the CIA payroll ordered the 1990 killing of DeVine [15] and the 1993 murder of Bámaca Velásquez by a death squad.[16]

As a result of revelations, Clinton ordered the United States Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct a year-long review of operations of the CIA in Guatemala. Its 1996 report included a review of Ortiz's case but reserved its conclusions:

[T]he IOB believes that Sister Dianna was subjected to horrific abuse on November 2, 1989, but U.S. intelligence reports provide little insight into the details of her plight. Because the Department of Justice is still conducting an extensive reinvestigation of the incident, we do not draw any conclusions on the case at this time.[17]

Richard Nuccio, a State Department analyst, told a Congressional contact that the CIA had been funding Guatemala military operations, despite the 1990 prohibition. As a result, Clinton ordered declassification of records going back to 1954 (when a CIA-sponsored military coup overthrew the government). Analysis has revealed longstanding U.S. support for the Guatemala military through its years of state terrorism and civil war.[18][19]

Prosecution of her caseEdit

Sister Dianna filed a case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1990 based on her abduction and torture by agents of the Guatemalan government in 1989. The commission ruled in 1997 that the state of Guatemala had violated Articles 1, 5, 7, 8, 11, 12, 16 and 25 of the American Convention on Human Rights. It found that Ortiz had been placed under surveillance, was threatened, then kidnapped and tortured. It made a judgment against the state of Guatemala, with remedies suggested.[6] It noted that a domestic case had quickly been filed with the National Police in the department where the sisters were working, and that Ortiz had cooperated with the investigation, but in six years the government had made no progress on it. The commission noted that high-ranking officials of the National Police, Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense had immediately denied Ortiz's statement and tried to denigrate her account before any investigation was done.[6]

Given the difficulty of victims prosecuting torture and human rights cases, including murders, under military dictatorships, plaintiffs have begun to pursue civil suits. The first were filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which had been passed soon after the American Revolutionary War to deal with commercial issues. In the late twentieth century, this law began to be used in human rights cases.[1]

Trying to enable victims' seeking justice after not being able to gain it in countries that used torture, Congress passed the Torture Victim Protection Act (1992). Ortiz was the first to file a suit under this law, arguing that it was retroactive to the time of her torture. The court agreed, saying "torture had been universally condemned prior to Ortiz's ordeal."[1]

The civil case of Ortiz was combined by her legal representative, the Center for Constitutional Rights, with Xuncax v. Gramajo, in which eight Kanjobal Indians had filed a U.S. civil suit against General Héctor Gramajo, Minister of Defense in Guatemala (1987-1990) under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). They contended that he had command responsibility for the genocide against the Maya, which resulted in the deaths of most people in their village, as well as responsibility for other abuses. Their case was heard in federal court in Massachusetts in combination with Ortiz v. Gramajo, which was decided under the Torture Victim Protection Act (1992), the first to make use of the new law.[1][2][20]

The Center for Constitutional Rights filed against Gramajo when he was in Massachusetts doing graduate work at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The ATCA "allows Americans and foreigners to file suit for violations of international law while the defendant is in the United States".[21] The court agreed with the plaintiffs on Gramajo's responsibility, saying the former general "devised and directed the implementation of an indiscriminate campaign of terror against civilians", including the nine plaintiffs.[21] The judge ordered Gramajo to pay each of the Guatemalans $1 to $9 million each, and Ortiz $5 million. The general said he had no money. Later that year, he was barred from future entry into the U.S. under immigration laws.[1]

"The Xuncax court also added summary execution or extrajudicial execution and arbitrary detention (as differentiated from prolonged arbitrary detention) to the list of torts cognizable under the ATCA. "Numerous other cases have now reaffirmed the responsibility and civil liability of commanders and those in authority for the actions of their troops and subordinates."[1]

In its ruling, the judiciary said that "[Gramajo-Morales] ... was aware of and supported widespread acts of brutality committed under his command resulting in thousands of civilian deaths."[22]

Ortiz recounted her experience in formal testimony several times.[23]

Raul Molina Mejía in his article, "The Struggle against Impunity in Guatemala", Journal of Social Justice, vol. 26 (1999), describes Ortiz's abduction and treatment as an example of state-sponsored terrorism based on impunity. He writes: "impunity as concrete legal or 'de facto' actions taken by powerful sectors to prevent investigation or prosecution, such as amnesty laws, pardons, thwarting investigations, the hiding of documents, and tampering with legal samples were abundant in Guatemala."[24] He also notes the unsolved killing of Michael DeVine,[15] the El Aguacate massacre, and the 1990 surge of killings at the National University of San Carlos. Molina Mejía writes that the "political/psychological" aspect of this impunity, is "a dimension resulting from state terrorism, by which political options in a polity are restricted and controlled through the state's manipulation of fear".[24]

Human rights workEdit

In 1998 Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), the only organization in the U.S. founded by and for survivors of torture.[25] It provides support particularly to survivors living in the U.S., as many refugees had come from nations in Central and South America where states had sponsored terrorism against citizens.[26]

During the 2000s, TASSC became involved in issues related to treatment of detainees at the U.S. base of Guantanamo, where reports of torture had been made. In addition, TASSC tried to gain repeal of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, by which Congress authorized a system outside the U.S.'s existing civilian and military justice systems to prosecute detainees being held at Guantanamo. Congress approved this legislation after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the George W. Bush administration's military commissions, set up only under executive branch authority, were unconstitutional.[27]


Dianna Ortiz died of cancer on February 19, 2021, while under hospice care in Washington, D.C.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Ratner, Michael. "Civil Remedies for Gross Human Rights Violations". Justice and the Generals: US Law. PBS. Retrieved July 9, 2007.
  2. ^ a b [1], The New York Times
  3. ^ a b Di Corpo, Ryan. "Dianna Ortiz, nun who told of brutal abduction by Guatemalan military, dies at 62". The Washington Post.
  4. ^ a b c d Julia Lieblich, "Pieces of Bone", Agni, July 1998
  5. ^ a b c d Donna Minkowitz, "Review: Dianna Ortiz, The Blindfold's Eye" Archived October 10, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, Salon.com, November 19, 2002
  6. ^ a b c d e f Dianna Ortiz v. Guatemala, (1997), Case 10.526, Report No. 31/96, Inter-Am.C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.95 Doc. 7 rev. at 332 (1997), Human Rights Cases, University of Minnesota
  7. ^ a b "School of the Assassins". International Socialist Review. September 1997. Retrieved July 9, 2007.
  8. ^ Speak Truth To Power Defender Archived October 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Allan Nairn, "Murder as Policy", The Nation, vol. 260, April 24, 1995, as cited in Encyclopedia
  10. ^ "U.S. Judge Orders Guatemalan to Pay for Atrocities". Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext): 16. April 13, 1995. ProQuest. Web. June 9, 2014.
  11. ^ "The Torturers' Lobby". Multinational Monitor. Retrieved November 22, 2019.
  12. ^ Stein, Jeff (May 22, 1996). "The Self-Inflicted Wounds Of Colby's CIA". The Seattle Times. Retrieved December 9, 2013.
  13. ^ Sherman, John (2000). Latin America in Crisis. Oxford: Westview Press. p. 111. ISBN 0-8133-3540X.
  14. ^ a b c Julie Gozan, "The Torturers' Lobby", Multinational Monitor, April 1993, accessed June 14, 2013
  15. ^ a b c "Slaying Prompts U.S. to Halt Guatemala Aid", Associated Press, The New York Times, December 22, 1990, accessed June 14, 2013
  16. ^ Max Obuszewski, "Some CIA Mistakes...", Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel, June 7, 1996, accessed June 14, 2013
  17. ^ "Report on the Guatemala Review", Intelligence Oversight Board, CIP Online. June 28, 1996.
  18. ^ Wilkinson, Daniel (October 16, 2003). "Guatemala: A Human Rights Update". Human Rights Testimony Given Before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Human Rights Watch.
  19. ^ "The Bámaca Case - an 18-year Struggle for Justice". Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. June 8, 2010.
  20. ^ Xuncax v. Gramajo and Ortiz v. Gramajo, 886 F. Supp. 162 (D. Ct. Mass. 1995)
  21. ^ a b "US Judge Orders Ex-Guatemala General to Pay 47.5 Million", The New York Times, April 13, 1995, accessed June 14, 2013
  22. ^ International Law Reports, Cambridge University Press
  23. ^ A Global Agenda, Issues before the 47th General Assembly of the United Nations, University Press of America. New York. 1992. p. 68
  24. ^ a b Raul Molina Mejía, "The Struggle against Impunity in Guatemala", Journal of Social Justice, vol. 26 (1999)
  25. ^ "Founder". Torture Abolition And Survivors Support Coalition International. Retrieved February 26, 2021.
  26. ^ Wiltz, Teresa (May 26, 2003). "The Survivor". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 26, 2021.
  27. ^ Moore, Alexandra S; Swanson, Elizabeth, eds. (2018). Witnessing Torture (PDF). Springer. p. xxvi. ISBN 978-3-319-74964-8. Retrieved February 26, 2021.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit