The Common Good
July-August 1996

Death's Dance Broken

by Julie Polter, Rose Marie Berger | July-August 1996

Dianna Ortiz's Vigil for Truth.

On Thursday, November 2, 1989, at 8 a.m. in Antigua, Guatemala, Sister Dianna Ortiz was dragged into hell. The 28-year-old Ursuline nun, originally from New Mexico, was kidnapped by two men from the Guatemalan security forces and taken 45 kilometers to a secret prison at La Escuela Polytecnica (the old police and military training school) in Guatemala City.

Twenty-four hours later, when a man called Alejandro shouted for the men to stop mid-rape, he put his boot in a door which, for most abducted Guatemalans, is closed irrevocably by death. Alejandro led Ortiz to a gray Suzuki jeep, back into the autumn light of Avenida La Reforma, 10 blocks from the U.S. Embassy. No longer "disappeared," she escaped from him toward the Old City, the cathedral, to become one of the "undead."

Every step Ortiz has taken since her escape has been toward learning the truth of what happened to her. Truth is the necessary ingredient for healing her shattered life and reclaiming her violated body. Truth enables a survivor of abuse to overcome the isolation described by Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria: "Don’t come any closer/there’s a stench of carrion/surrounding me."

Truth, however, is the first casualty of war. In Guatemala in 1954, the CIA sponsored and trained mercenary forces to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz’s democratically elected government. The CIA-engineered coup put Col. Carlos Castillo Armas in power. Armas reversed the Arbenz land reform programs, abolished taxes for foreign investors, eliminated the secret ballot, and plunged Guatemala into a reign of terror.

For 30 years Guatemala suffered a revolving door of military dictators, including the notorious Brig. Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who was an elder in the Guatemalan Church of the Word (El Verbo). Finally in 1986, Vinicio Cerezo’s Christian Democratic Party replaced the juntas; but by 1989, kidnappings, death threats, bombings, and murders were again on the rise. Black handkerchiefs were again nailed to the doors of teachers and catechists. Rios Montt maneuvered to get his name back on the ballot.

In August 1989, human rights offices in Guatemala City were bombed. In September, four students from San Carlos University were murdered. Newspapers reported an increase in U.S. military presence in Guatemala--Green Berets training Guatemalan paratroopers and Black Hawk helicopters with mounted machine guns patrolling the highlands. The counterinsurgency campaigns left 150,000 Guatemalans dead and 45,000 missing.

THE SCARS ON ORTIZ’S WRIST and back are reminders that all politics is personal. Almost seven years after requesting information on her case from the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, and receiving nothing in return but slander, excuses of "lost" files, and lukewarm sympathy, Ortiz took her case to the White House. While the Clinton administration kindly said they had no reason to disbelieve her story, she also had no reason to believe that U.S. intelligence agencies were not connected to her torturers.

Ortiz’s silent vigil for truth, begun on Palm Sunday, lit a small flame in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, then spread like wildfire across the United States and abroad. The Internet hopped with requests for information and ways to offer support. In San Salvador’s plaza, 30 people kept a silent witness for Ortiz. In Owensboro, Kentucky, supporters held a candlelight service in front of the federal building. As news coverage increased, people from throughout the D.C. area came to sit, pray, hand out flyers to tourists, bring flowers and fruit, and spend the night with Ortiz.

She had a small, low-set hut, covered with a bright blue plastic tarp, to serve as a rain shelter and storage place. A blanket was spread in front, and Ortiz sat there on pillows 21 hours a day. She wrapped up in quilted coats and sleeping bags during the cold early days of the vigil and later blocked the sun’s harsh rays with a large umbrella.

At least two people stayed with Ortiz at all times; sometimes as many as 30 ringed the area. At night supporters slept in shifts in sleeping bags around her. Several of the homeless men in the park became part of the vigil, including Elijah, whose first day of homelessness was Palm Sunday. He spread his tarp and sleeping bag behind Ortiz’s shelter every night.

On April 29, with Ortiz’s permission, the community surrounding her turned up the heat on the government. Every morning for a week, people gathered at 9 a.m. in front of the White House for civil disobedience. They included government workers, lobbyists, a flight attendant, a 70-year-old woman visiting her son in Baltimore who decided to join him in getting arrested, teachers, nurses, students, rabbis, priests, and especially Catholic sisters from at least six orders, coming in support of one of their own. For about half of all who participated, it was their first time being arrested.

The illegal liturgy began and ended in prayer. The morning community read responsively from Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel’s "Threatened With Resurrection": "Be with us in this vigil/and you will know what it means to dream.../how wonderful it is/to live threatened with resurrection." Ortiz draped a length of red Guatemalan cloth over a large wooden cross. While she remained in the park, a Franciscan priest bearing the cross led the rest of the group, singing and praying, across the street to the White House sidewalk, where it is against the law to demonstrate without official permission.

The U.S. Park Police cleared the area of tourists and issued warnings over a bullhorn that the group was in violation of federal regulations--a dissonant counterpoint to the comforting melodies of "Ubi Caritas" and "Peace Is Flowing Like a River." In the midst of the group’s ongoing song and scripture reading, the police officer approached each person, handcuffed them, and led them to the police wagon to be searched and photographed. Ortiz stood silently, watching.

After five hours of processing, the arrestees returned to the vigil and Ortiz greeted each one with a sign of peace. When more than 100 people had been arrested, the State Department released several thousand pages of documents, and Dianna prepared to make another public statement.

Ortiz’s simple prose style disarms the cynics and confounds the blusterers. She opened her May 6 press conference this way: "Over five weeks ago, I stood in Lafayette Park, along with other survivors of torture in Guatemala. The tulips were only slips of leaves; patches like open hands. During two of the past five weeks I have fasted, losing 25 pounds. In Guatemala, approximately 10 people have been tortured since the tulips budded and bloomed." Hardened cameramen wept.

THE STATE Department documents revealed two things. First, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala initiated a smear campaign against Ortiz immediately upon report of her abduction. Second, a March 19, 1990 document refers to needing to "close the loop on the issue of the North American named by Ortiz.... The EMBASSY IS VERY SENSITIVE ON THIS ISSUE." Two completely blacked-out pages follow.

While the documents are insufficient, Dianna’s vigil clearly opened a portal for the Holy Spirit. In early April, while waiting to appear on NBC’s Today Show, Ortiz met Jeanne Boylan, an expert forensic artist who had drawn the sketches of the Oklahoma City terrorists and the Unabomber.

After hearing Ortiz’s story, Boylan, a pentecostal Christian, offered her services. For four intense days, she worked with Ortiz to reconstruct her memories of the torturers and of Alejandro.

"At first it took Dianna an hour to look at Alejandro. She hyperventilated and then passed out," Boylan recounted. "I’m stunned at the credibility question. It’s part of my job to look for falsity factors. With Dianna I found nothing to indicate deception of any kind. Her descriptors were phenomenal, highly identifiable."

The torturers’ names are still secret, but at the May 6 press conference their faces were unveiled. "This is the one dressed as a policeman," she said in a strong, clear voice. "This is the neat one. This is the indigenous man they called José."

As her mother and sister convulsed in tears, Ortiz pointed to the Anglo man in curly black wig and sunglasses. "This is Alejandro. He is not a figment of my imagination. He is real. I have felt the evil of my torturers dance within me. I was afraid to get close to anyone because I would contaminate them with my evil. But today, with the release of these sketches, that evil is no longer within me. Today I can say, I am free."

With the revelation of the sketches to the press, and the receipt of a letter to President Clinton signed by 103 members of Congress asking for the declassification of all U.S. information on human rights cases in Guatemala since 1954, Ortiz’s dramaturgy moved toward a close. She concluded the vigil on the feast of St. John at the Latin Gate with a beautiful service in the park. Her mother and sister looked on while Ortiz burned the sketches of her torturers in a clay pot with sacramental sage. While the community sang "Amazing Grace," she released brightly colored balloons into the warm spring sky.

Ortiz is filing a lawsuit in the Federal District Court against the CIA, FBI, Department of Defense, and the State Department, all agencies where more than a year ago she requested documents about her case under the Freedom of Information Act. The federal court will require each agency to respond to her request within a certain amount of time, perhaps finally bringing to light information about Guatemalan human rights abuses in general, and the case of Sister Dianna Ortiz in particular.

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