ASUNCION, PARAGUAY — CAPT. Modesto Napoleon Ortigoza spent nearly half his life in a Paraguayan prison, for a crime he probably did not commit. Sentenced to 25 years in jail, he was reputed to be South America's longest-serving political prisoner and the world's second-longest, after African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela.
In a dry, emotionless voice, Captain Ortigoza in an interview tells how he was arrested on Dec. 17, 1962, and accused of murder and of conspiracy against Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
"For the first 18 years, I was kept in solitary confinement in a cell one meter by two meters with a tiny window in the door," he says. "The only thing left they could have done was to take off the door and brick it up, and the cell would have been a tomb."
Ortigoza claims he was falsely accused of the murder of a young cadet as an excuse to remove him from the Army in one of General Stroessner's periodic purges.
"Ortigoza was a brilliant graduate," says Benjamin Arditti of the Center for Documentation and Studies, an independent political research group. "Stroessner used him as an example so the rest of the military would stay in line."
Ortigoza was initially sentenced to death. But he was saved from the firing squad when the Rev. Jose Arketa, a Spanish Franciscan priest, threatened to reveal on the radio the names of those really responsible for the cadet's murder, someone he said had confessed the crime to him.
Stroessner backed down from the death decree, but not from the 25-year sentence. During those decades, Ortigoza says, no military officer dared mention his name to Stroessner for fear he might be reminded of the case and order Ortigoza's death.
"What kept me going was physical exercise and the knowledge I was innocent," Ortigoza says. "Each day I thought I would leave the prison tomorrow, or if not tomorrow, the next day. Here in Paraguay, things are so arbitrary that every day I believed Stroessner could ring up and order my release."
Finally released to mere house arrest in 1988, he escaped to Madrid in March of that year with help from the Colombian ambassador to Paraguay. He returned to Paraguay last July to try to prove his innocence.
Ortigoza wants justice for the people responsible for "the loss of his youth, his career, and his family." His case has gained wide public interest where previously there was virtually none. A new book, "The Ortigoza Case," is already in its third edition, and the country's main newspaper, ABC Color, is publishing extracts.
But public interest has not yet resulted in prosecution of Ortigoza's enemies. He is particularly piqued that the man he alleges ordered his torture, Ramon Duarte Vera, is Paraguay's ambassador to Bolivia.
"I don't want to see Duarte Vera and Stroessner die for what they did," he says. "I just want them to know what it is like to be put in solitary confinement for 18 years in a cell one meter by two."