This memoir is a deeply honest, courageous account of a torture survivor. On November 2, 1989, Ursuline sister Dianna Ortiz, an American who was doing missionary work with Mayan children in Guatemala, was abducted from a retreat house in Antigua, Guatemala, and taken to a torture center where she endured horrific brutalization including gang rape by police and security force personnel. At this center, she had encounters with tortured victims—some moaning in agony, others dismembered and already dead. One of her torturers, the "policeman," told her: "If you live to tell about this, if you somehow manage to survive, no one will believe you." The writing of this book honors a promise that Sr. Dianna made to her fellow victims: "I will never forget you. I will tell the world what I have seen and heard." Her story should be read by everyone concerned about human rights, indeed by every American citizen.
Sr. Dianna's narrative relates her very personal struggle to recover from an ordeal that shook her faith in God (one torturer told her: "Your God is dead") and severely wounded her capacity to trust herself and others. For years she suffered from toxic after-effects of torture: flashbacks, nightmares, bouts of weeping and depression, and a deep sense of shame, even evil—the lingering feeling that the "torturers are inside you." Dianna's shame and guilt were intensified by a crippling sense of moral failure the nature of which she candidly divulges and finally comes to terms with. The Chicago-based Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture offered indispensable support in her recovery; though, she states: "No one ever fully recovers—not the one who is tortured, and not the one who tortures." Now Sr. Dianna is director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) in Washington, DC. "I wanted anyone who had been tortured to know that the guilt and the shame and the rage, the feelings of being dirty and crazy, were normal and could diminish with time."(215-6)
Sr. Dianna's personal story is intertwined with the larger, sordid history of U.S. involvement in Latin America and, in particular, Guatemala. In 1954, the C.I.A. engineered the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. Over a period of 30 years, peaking in the 1980's, the U.S. money and training supported a series of repressive governments that carried out counter-insurgency warfare against its majority indigenous population that resulted in the killing and disappearance of more than 200,000 people. Whole villages were massacred by security forces, whose leaders were often graduates of the School of the Americas, located at Ft. Benning (Columbus, Georgia). Indeed the Freedom of Information Act brought to light a torture manual employed at the SOA. Under the guise of fighting communism, state sponsored terrorism sought to pacify the majority poor population in the interests of the unjust status quo. One of Dianna's torturers (José) unexpectedly asked her forgiveness for an atrocity in which he helped burn to death women and children. She also relates the murder of Bishop Gerardi in 1998, two days after he publicly released a voluminous truth commission report that assigned responsibility to Guatemalan government security forces for about 90% of the murders.
In a gripping account written with a "who-dun-it" flair that makes use of declassified government documents and the personal journals of friends, Sr. Dianna records her efforts to get to the bottom of who was responsible for her abduction and torture. A certain "Alejandro" who spoke with an American accent appeared to be in charge at the torture center. He "rescued" Dianna, telling her it was a case of mistaken identity. When Dianna chose to pursue justice against her torturers in Guatemala, she encountered much resistance. Appallingly, agents of the U.S. government, including the American ambassador, worked to discredit and defame her. It seems clear that many U.S. officials were more concerned to suppress the truth of U.S. complicity in torture and murder of innocent civilians and also to safeguard their cozy relationships with thugs on the CIA payroll. National security concerns trumped justice and respect for human rights.
Sr. Dianna finally worked with a professional artist to produce likenesses of her captors which enabled the identification of some of them, including the probable identity of the CIA agent "Alejandro." Though none of her violators has yet been brought to trial, and despite the U.S. Department of Justice questioning of her credibility, Sr. Dianna's claims to having been abducted and tortured were vindicated by the Inter-American Commission of the Organization of American States. One of the great values of her volume is to show in carefully documented detail how government officials thwarted the pursuit of justice and truth. Sr. Dianna overcame intimidation and betrayal.
Given the revelations of the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the International Red Cross report on the torture of detainees at Guantanamo, perhaps U.S. involvement in torture does not shock. Amnesty International reports that 130 countries practice torture and the number increases annually. Where's the outrage? Sr. Dianna has done an immense service to tell her "journey from torture to truth" on behalf of the countless victims of torture whose sufferings lie hidden from public view.