The medical reports on Dianna's burns struck me as the most convincing
evidence of her trauma, and I found no one who had offered another
explanation for her wounds that made sense. There was no smoking gun, I
was convinced, no secret in Dianna's past that would suggest a propensity
for lying. Perhaps this should have been enough to accept her story.
After all, only Dianna and her assailants would ever really know what
happened in the prison.
But the seriousness of her claims, and the suggestion of possible U.S.
complicity in human rights abuses, demanded a more thorough look at the
plausibility of her allegations. Clearly the U.S. Embassy had its own
agenda. But even some of her supporters admitted privately that they
doubted Dianna's depiction of the pits, which sounded too fantastic to be
believable, and wondered whether Dianna's torturers would force her to
assist in the killing of another woman. Were there any precedents for such
behavior? And in such a traumatized state, could any survivor be trusted
to tell the truth?
I wanted to know how people who worked with survivors assessed their
credibility, and I began by calling Mary Fabri, a psychologist at The
Marjorie Kolver Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture in
Chicago, who had counseled Ortiz since she moved to the Su Casa Catholic
The aim of torture, Fabri explained, is to break a personality and render
someone powerless. "Torture is overstimulation, somebody constantly
intruding on your physical space with blows to the body, penetration, loud
noise, electrical shock, cigarette burns," she said. "The memories are
just encoded in our minds. The body remembers.
"What I found essential in terms of believing Dianna is that her response
is so consistent with torture survivors. She was unable to make eye
contact. You could not ask her questions. She couldn't tolerate the sight
of a uniform. I remember trying to go into a building with a security
guard. We devised a plan: she would walk in sideways with her back to the
guard. She couldn't tolerate cigarette smoke or any smell of alcohol
because her abductors smoked constantly and drank wine. We would encounter
someone with a cigarette and she would freak out. When someone has that
external cue they forget where they are, the fear gets stimulated, and
their impulse is to flee.
"My sense of Dianna is that she has been incredibly consistent with the
basic story. There are little shifts in what she might have said or how
people responded to her. She said a machete knife, and it may have been a
hand knife. But a detail like that is not essential. These are things
that people focus on when they don't want the story to be true."
Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch/Americas, whose reputations rest on their ability to judge the
plausibility of survivor testimony, also stood by Dianna's account. "There
is ample evidence that [Ortiz] was kidnapped and tortured," said Anne
Manuel, deputy director of Human Rights Watch, Americas. "That is
irrefutable. Victims of torture almost invariably are killed so there are
few cases to compare hers with. But cigarette burning interrogations are
common in Guatemala, as is showing a person photographs of alleged
subversives." Lowering captives in pits dug outside, she notes, is also
"Pits are everywhere," said Victoria Sanford, a Stanford University
anthropologist and consultant for the independent Guatemalan Forensic
Anthropology Foundation, which has been conducting exhumations at the sites
of massacres. "People were put in holes about three meters deep that could
be anywhere from one to three meters in diameter. Typically, they had
buckets of cold water thrown on them and they were left there for
twenty-four to seventy-two hours. Soldiers would urinate and defecate on
them. In El Tablon, Chimaltenango, a deep well was used as a torture
chamber. A thirteen-year-old boy was thrown into that well full of dead
bodies and rats."
Guatemalan Congressman Amilcar Mendez, a longtime human rights activist and
1990 recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, told me that
the Guatemalan Army regularly forced people to participate in acts of
torture. It was perhaps the most effective means of rendering an
individual powerless and rendering members of the community powerless who
fear they'll be next.
The Army has forced fathers to kill their sons, Mendez told me. "One man
gave his testimony: 'I can't sleep because I killed my son.'"
The likelihood that a North American with U.S. Embassy ties was on the
scene is far more difficult to assess. Still, former C.I.A. analyst David
McMichael told me: "I would not be surprised that a North American with
either an advisory or working relationship with the local security service
would be present at an interrogation or arrest, or take a personal interest
where a United States citizen was involved. There was a close working
relationship in Central America between the military and intelligence and
the American counterparts and advisors, and some of these guys were on the
The relationship began early. Recently declassified C.I.A. documents
confirm that the C.I.A. engineered the 1954 coup that toppled the
Democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman-and led to
decades of military led governments. The documents included instructions
on how to assassinate ten people in a conference room.
The U.S. has trained more than sixteen hundred Guatemalan military
personnel at the U.S. Army School of the Americas now in Ft. Benning,
Georgia. In September 1996, the Pentagon released seven S.O.A. training
manuals that were used in the 1980s to teach torture, extortion and murder.
A Defense Intelligence Agency biographical sketch from 1967, when the
S.O.A. was based in Ft. Gulick, Panama, stated that Guatemala's future
defense minister, Hector Gramajo, studied counterinsurgency techniques.
And in 1991 he gave the school's commencement address.
Public disclosure of intelligence concerning human rights abuses in
Guatemala remains rare. After Guatemalan guerrilla leader Efrain Bamaca
Vel Esquez disappeared and was tortured by the military in 1992, for three
years U.S. officials told his wife, Harvard-educated lawyer Jennifer
Harbury, that they had no information about him. But Harbury obtained a
Defense Intelligence Agency document that said the U.S. Embassy officials
in Guatemala were told of Bamaca's death in 1993. And in the spring of
1995, Congressman Robert Torricelli said that a Guatemalan officer, an
S.O.A. graduate on the C.I.A. payroll, had been involved in Bamaca's
As a result of Torricelli's revelation, Clinton directed the Intelligence
Oversight Board to conduct a government-wide review of possible U.S.
involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala. The I.O.B. later reported
that since 1984 "several C.I.A. assets were credibly alleged to have
ordered, planned, or participated in serious human rights violations, such
as assassination, extrajudicial execution, torture, or kidnapping while
they were assets."
The C.I.A., the report states, was aware at the time of many of those
An author I know, who has written eloquently about her own trauma,
announced to me that she didn't believe Dianna, a conclusion she'd reached
after seeing her interviewed on T.V. The writer knew little about
Guatemala, and she didn't know many of the details of the abduction. "But
her story," she said, "just didn't add up."
I had known more about the history of Guatemala, and I, too, had found
stories of bodies writhing in a pit more surrealistic than terrifying.
Believing Dianna's story, or the story of any survivor of torture, meant
acknowledging an unfamiliar moral universe, in this case a system of state
terror that advocated the torture of men, women, and children to instill
fear in their villages, as well as U.S. complicity in that terror. It
meant acknowledging that a U.S. citizen was not shielded from the abuse,
and that, in the end, U.S. embassy officials cared more about supporting a
policy than a citizen.
Ironically, Dianna's flashbacks, which had struck me as evidence of
instability that rendered her claims suspect, only proved further evidence
of her trauma. To assume that enduring torture makes one prone to
distortion and vulnerable to outside influences, is to render survivors
powerless to defend themselves and serve as witnesses to the realities of
Psychologists who treat trauma survivors talk of "terrible knowledge," an
awareness of atrocities that radically alters one's view of the world. I
started to divide the world into those who knew and those who didn't-and
those who believed those who knew. And suddenly the need to find answers
felt that much more urgent.
Attorney Jennifer Harbury, the widow of guerrilla leader Efrain Bamaca,
says she knows few torture survivors who have been able to demand answers
about their cases. "Most go into hiding or have nervous breakdowns or they
kill themselves." Dianna may look fragile, Harbury says, but she had the
strength to talk about her abduction even when it meant enduring
flashbacks. And she was willing to go to great lengths to find out what
the U.S. government knew about her case and the cases of tens of thousands
of Guatemalan torture survivors who could never speak publicly without
fearing for their lives.
On Palm Sunday, 1996, she began her most public and dramatic action: a
vigil in front of the White House to pressure the government to release
information about U.S. complicity in human rights abuses in Guatemala since
1954. Initially, she seemed buoyed by the attention. Perched against two
patchwork pillows she had brought from home, she greeted visitors with a
smile and a handshake, and wrote down messages in her notebook. Each day
she arranged her gifts of flowers, fruit baskets, Guatemalan textiles, and
painted crosses: symbols of support that had been slow in coming. At her
feet lay the sign that summed up her purpose: Where is Alejandro?
Guatemalan refugees came by on foot and in wheelchairs to ask similar
questions. So did North American survivors of violence in Guatemala, such
as Meredith Larson, who had been stabbed by two men while volunteering for
a human rights group. Sisters were among the most frequent visitors, a few
in habit, most in pants, and two Ursuline nuns stayed with her throughout
the vigil. Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a long-time human rights activist,
flew in from Detroit to sit with Dianna for hours in silence. It was an
odd sight of which few took notice-a bishop and a nun sitting on a blanket
in front of the White House.
Dianna's family came to Washington, rejecting her attempts to protect them
from public scrutiny. With her mother, a gentle soft-spoken woman, and her
sister, who reminded me of Dianna at her most animated, she was more upbeat
than I'd seen her in months.
A year earlier, Jennifer Harbury had held a fast that resulted in the
government releasing information about her husband, Efrain Bamaca. Now
Dianna was hoping that her vigil would push the government to release
information about U.S. complicity in human rights abuses in Guatemala since
the 1954 C.I.A.-engineered coup.
There had been no progress in an investigation of her case in Guatemala,
where government officials had accused her of not cooperating despite her
four court appearances there and a judicial reenactment of the abduction
that caused her to have flashbacks in the street. But in an earlier
victory in Boston, a Federal judge awarded Ortiz and eight Guatemalans a
$47.5 million judgment against Hector Gramajo, whom, the judge ruled,
directed "a campaign of terror against civilians," including Ortiz.
(Gramajo has yet to pay.) And in the spring of 1995, President Clinton had
authorized the Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct the government-wide
inquiry into what the C.I.A. and other federal agencies knew.
I don't know if it was the tedium or the unusually cold weather that got to
Dianna first. She rarely slept in her makeshift encampment or touched the
food friends brought her. Visitors expressed concern about her thinness
and exhaustion, but Mary Fabri, who was visiting from Chicago, noted that
Dianna was just experiencing publicly what she had privately for years.
Soon she retreated more and more, avoiding the gaze of visitors as she
listened to music on her Walkman and watched the rollerbladers along
Pennsylvania Avenue. On the coldest days, when most of the men and women
living in the park sought refuge in buildings, a homeless Native American
man called Chief showed her how to drape plastic sheets over her encampment
and secure them with rocks to keep out the draft.
Men who might have frightened her in other surroundings became her
protectors, bringing her blankets and bottles filled with flowers and
sleeping on benches nearby to watch over her. "She hones into pain," said
her lawyer, Anna Gallagher. "That's why I think she's calm around these
people. They have incredible pain." Indeed, in the park she seemed
oblivious to the scents of alcohol and cigarettes that once sent her
reeling. And she listened attentively as they told her about their lives.
A Vietnam veteran named Keith told me he was trying to cut back on drinking
in her honor. He rarely succeeded though, and often stumbled onto her
blanket carrying bunches of flowers. He'd never heard her talk so he
assumed she couldn't talk. But he had faith that she'd recover.
"One day you will speak," he said, taking her hand in his. "It won't be
easy. You'll begin with the vowels and the consonants will follow."
As the weather grew colder, public concern increased for the silent nun,
often from the most unlikely places. On at least two occasions National
Security Advisor Anthony Lake left the White House late at night to walk to
the park and inquire about her welfare.
"Are you with the Secret Service?" an Ortiz supporter asked Lake, who he
"I work over there," Lake said, pointing across the street. "I've been
checking every other day just to make sure she's fine."
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton caused a bigger stir when she invited
Dianna into the White House for a meeting and told her that she would try
to get an early release of some documents.
And when Deputy National Security Advisor Nancy Soderberg said that the
administration wanted to "underscore that people at high levels of the
White House are following [her case] closely and that we are trying to get
the information she is seeking as fast as we can," it looked like a
stunning departure from the previous administration.
"We're trying to get to the bottom of her case and find Alejandro if we
can," she told me. "We have absolutely no reason not to believe her."
Dianna received hundreds of pages of declassified State Department
documents in the spring of 1996, but they contained virtually no
information about her assailants or possible U.S. complicity in human
rights abuses that would verify her story. And when the Intelligence
Oversight Board issued its report on Guatemala on June 28, 1996, it
contained only one conclusion about Dianna Ortiz: She "had been subjected
to horrific abuse."
I.O.B. officials told me repeatedly they were awaiting the completion of a
Justice Department investigation into her case so they could produce a full
report on the findings. But in late 1997, Frank Fountain, counsel for the
I.O.B. said there was not enough intelligence information to warrant a
report, and the Justice Department decided not to release its summation of
its investigation to the public. Not even Dianna received a copy.
Daniel Seikaly, an Assistant U.S. Attorney during the investigation, told
me that he had not been able to "establish that a crime had occurred and
identify the person who committed it." Parts of her story, he said, "could
not be corroborated." What remains unclear, however, given that the report
has not been made public, is the thoroughness of the investigation.
I was surprised, for example, when Seikaly said that Justice officials did
not interview "anyone who claimed to have been interrogated" at the
politicnica, sources who might well have provided crucial information about
how the facility was used at the time of Dianna's abduction. He told me
that he had not contacted Carmen Valenzuela, a prominent Guatemalan
physician now based in Washington, D.C., who says she was held at the
politicnica in early 1990. The State Department, cables show, was well
aware of her case.
Establishing a precedent for the pit Dianna described was also crucial in
evaluating her testimony. Seikaly told me that "we never found anything
indicating pits where bodies were kept and people were thrown while they
were alive," a conclusion that makes Dianna's story seem bizarre. What's
odder is that the Justice investigators (and Ambassador Stroock) had no
knowledge of the vast number of pits found throughout Guatemala,
particularly at military installations, and well-documented by human rights
groups such as Human Rights Watch/ Americas and the Guatemalan Forensic
Seikaly said that the Justice Department looked at "a number of people
[who] fit the physical description" that Dianna provided of the assailants,
though ultimately they were unable to identify a perpetrator. But how
effective investigators were in tracking down suspects and assessing their
testimony remains open to question, as are investigators' assessments of
the conduct of U.S. Embassy officials. Seikaly says that to his knowledge
embassy officials never passed on misleading information or did anything to
weaken Dianna's case.
Dianna pressed to see the report, but Seikaly refused to give her a copy
and discouraged her from filing a Freedom of Information Act request to
obtain one. "I told her a F.O.I.A. request raised privacy issues," he
said. As in any case involving rape, he noted, the report contained highly
personal information. "And it's not as if we can give it to her and not
give it to your magazine or The New York Times," he told me. But Kate
Martin, General Counsel of the National Security Archive, said that Sister
Ortiz could have applied for the report under the Privacy Act and it would
have been released only to her.
Seikaly assured Dianna that while he would not give her the report, he
would not allow anyone from the State Department to see it either,
including the former ambassador. When I interviewed Stroock in January of
1998, however, he told me he had just read the Justice report on Ortiz.
And he urged me to get a copy.
In mid-1997, the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission
on Human Rights reached very different conclusions in a comprehensive
report on Dianna's abduction.
"The Commission finds that Sister Ortiz is a credible witness and that her
consistent statements support a finding that she was kidnapped and taken to
a clandestine detention center where she was tortured." The report went on
to say that her judicial reconstruction of the event supported her story as
did the statements from two doctors confirming her burns. The Commission
also concluded that it was "highly probable that Sister Ortiz was also
raped by her captors."
Furthermore the Commissions found "that acts carried out against Sister
Ortiz were committed by the agents of the Government of Guatemala, who
"violated the human rights of Dianna Ortiz."
But by this time few people were listening, and no major newspaper reported
Will Dianna ever get answers? Torricelli has his doubts. "If someone
related to a U.S. government agency witnessed that crime and entered the
room, I doubt anyone would be foolish enough to place their name or
recollection in an official U.S. government document. If they did, I
suspect that document was destroyed a long time ago." Daniel Ellsberg, who
released the Pentagon Papers, is more optimistic. He believes that Dianna
will get information about her abduction and U.S. complicity, but it may be
years or decades. After all, the first C.I.A. documents on the 1954
C.I.A.-instigated coup have just been declassified four decades after the
In Guatemala, information has been coming more quickly since the war ended
in December of 1996. To date, anthropologist Victoria San-ford says,
thirty-seven exhumations around the country have uncovered evidence of
massacres and other atrocities "that would stand up in any U.S. court."
Sanford, who has taken testimony from some three hundred fifty survivors,
notes that evidence from exhumations supports survivor claims about the
number of deaths and methods of torture. Even urban Guatemalans who
doubted that such atrocities occurred, she says, have been forced to come
to terms with the magnitude of the horror.
So far, U.S. officials have given no such credence to survivor testimony.
Embassy officials receive little or no training in how to treat survivors,
listen to their claims and evaluate their testimony. Nor do asylum
officers handling immigration cases, who rejected more than ninety-eight
percent of Guatemalan political asylum requests during the height of the
war, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Only in
December of 1997 did the I.N.S. sponsor an unusual two-week pilot program,
in which asylum officers were taught how to determine whether refugees were
torture survivors without triggering traumatic memories.
Clearly, refugee stories need to be evaluated and false claims weeded out.
But the answer is not to assume, as interviewers too often do, that all
witnesses of torture are too unstable to be credible. Experts in torture
have, for years, proposed more humane ways of investigating such cases and
judging their merits.
When Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the Center For Victims of
Torture in Minneapolis, testified before a House subcommittee on human
rights in May 1996, he called for the training of State Department
officials, political asylum officers, and refugee workers on identifying
the signs and symptoms of torture, and for increased support and funding
for the State Department human rights office so it can monitor trials and
human rights situations involving torture. And he called for strengthening
policy against American involvement in acts of torture, "either directly or
I worried about what would happen to Dianna if she never got answers about
her abduction or recognition from the U.S. government that she was telling
the truth. So much had rested on getting the documents and identifying the
perpetrators. How was she going to heal without knowing?
"I can't talk to you about healing," she told me not long after the vigil.
"Because right now I don't feel as if I've healed at all."
When she began speaking more about the importance of insisting on justice
whatever the outcome, I felt relieved. Perhaps government officials hadn't
believed her, but for the first time she seemed to take comfort in the fact
that thousands of supporters in the U.S. and Guatemala did. The vigil was
"a miracle that has renewed my faith in humanity," she wrote to her
supporters with rare exuberance. "I witnessed people like you from all
walks of life, from Latin America to Asia."
But Dianna's miracle did not mean a sudden healing. There would be no
answers for now, and there would never be a cure. Perhaps the brilliance
of torture is the ongoing shame it instills in its victims. Dianna may
have learned to appreciate and find sustenance in community. But she still
lived with the flashbacks, and she still had to make sense of suffering of
a magnitude few human beings have the strength to survive.
For every good day, there would be long stretches when she would wonder
whether she'd healed at all. Often when I called her I found myself hoping
that I would catch her in an upbeat moment, as much for my own comfort as
for hers. It's the not-so-subtle message survivors get from those of us
who don't want to accept that some pain is permanent.
Holocaust survivors, noted Douglas Johnson of the Center for Victims of
Torture, have symptoms their entire lives. Even their children have higher
rates of suicide and clinical depression than the general population. And
still, many survivors show remarkable resilience, finding a sense of
meaning and purpose that allows them to live with the reality that the
intrusive memories will never go away.
Whether Dianna ultimately decides to remain a nun strikes me as less
significant than her determination to recapture the faith that once
sustained her. "For seven years I prayed to a silent and distant God," she
wrote to me when writing was easier than talking. "Today I know that God
was never silent. The God I know is a God who dwells in people."
Although she still wonders at times whether dying would have been better
than having "to deal with the memories and question why I survived when
others didn't," the question is becoming less haunting. "I am realizing
that there is a reason why I survived," she wrote. "Perhaps the reason is
to echo what is going on in Guatemala, Honduras, Bosnia and all the
countries that have been governed by military regimes that control and
terrorize whole populations."
Still, witnessing exhausts and sometimes kills. And her challenge is to
fulfill her purpose without destroying herself in the process. She
continues to press for release of documents on U.S. involvement in human
rights abuses in Guatemala, and she is helping to develop a manual for
survivors of torture for the National Institutes of Health. But she's
keeping a lower profile as she tries "to find avenues that leave me less
Being out of the limelight has done wonders for her. Today, the animated
woman with silky brown hair bears little resemblance to the fragile nun I
once knew. She's traveled to Latin America and gone on extended retreats
in the country. For several weeks she took care of her two young nieces.
But I still wonder whether she sleeps at night, and whether cigarette fumes
still take her back to that place. And my mind keeps returning to a silent
nun sitting in front of the White House, watching the rollerbladers and