One Woman's Plea to Know The True Guatemala Story

Sister Dianna Ortiz began receiving anonymous letters in 1989. The first missives contained friendly suggestions to leave Guatemala, where Ms. Ortiz, a United States citizen and an Ursuline nun, had been teaching literacy and Bible studies to Mayan children. But the messages quickly escalated into ominous instructions, cut from newspapers, to "Eliminate Dianna."

Such tactics were not uncommon in Guatemala, where the Army's counterinsurgency campaign had claimed more victims than had similar dirty wars in Argentina, Chile, and El Salvador. Ortiz knew that the threats against her were not idle.

On Nov. 2, 1989, she was kidnapped and driven in a National Police car to a detention center, where she was raped, tortured, and thrown into a pit packed with human remains and swarms of rats. She was physically forced to cut another woman with a machete.

Ortiz's ordeal went on until a man called "Alejandro," whom her torturers referred to as "their boss," came to her rescue. Alejandro, who spoke broken Spanish and cursed in "an unmistakable" North American English, offered to drive her to the US Embassy, where he could enlist a friend to help her leave the country. Alejandro urged the young nun to keep her own counsel or else videotaped material of the "crimes" she was forced to participate in would be made public. It would be better, Alejandro insisted, if she could forgive and forget.

Seven years after her abduction, Ortiz has not forgotten. She has relentlessly pursued the truth about the identity of "Alejandro" and of her torturers, and the fate of the tens of thousands of Guatemalans who have paid with their lives for four decades of dirty war.

Ortiz soon learned that any effective official coverup requires victims to be blamed. In her quest for justice, the young nun was insulted, defamed, threatened again, lied to, or simply ignored. But she persevered and on March 31 began a silent vigil in front of the White House. On April 22, she announced that she was beginning a bread-and-water fast. When a reporter asked her how long she intended to do that, she asked, "How long does the US government plan on keeping the truth from me?"

This vigil did produce some positive results. In April, Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Ortiz and promised to help her obtain information. Mrs. Clinton did not rule out the possibility that Alejandro is a past or present employee of a US agency.

In early May, members of Congress presented Ortiz with a letter sent to President Clinton signed by 103 members asking for declassification of Guatemala documents; they publicly urged her to end her fast, pledging to do all they could to help her find the truth. She agreed.

Around this time, the State Department released nearly 5,000 documents pertaining to Guatemala. Of the 2,700 pages released about Ortiz's case, only 1,000 pages consisted of previously undisclosed material: embassy cables, internal memorandums, press guidance. The rest were letters the State Department had received from her supporters, press clippings, even human rights reports from nongovernmental organizations.

AS welcome as these developments are, they might not guarantee that the whole truth on the matter will be revealed. Other executive-branch agencies such as the CIA or the Department of Defense probably have the more relevant documents, as they have historically close relations with Guatemala's security forces. The State Department held back material from the public for "national security reasons." It may take more than the support of Mrs. Clinton and Congress to reveal the truth.

The past record warrants such pessimism. A year ago, Mr. Clinton directed the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) to proceed with a government-wide investigation into the deaths and disappearances of US citizens in Guatemala, and to determine whether US intelligence played any role in those cases. Parallel inquiries were launched by the Senate and the Pentagon. The IOB was mandated to release its findings in 90 days, but after the deadline passed, inquirers were told the report would be finished "by late summer." The deadline was moved to late fall, and again to June 30.

Ortiz and other American victims and survivors of state violence in the hemisphere wrote to President Clinton last May asking for information. At a mid-December meeting convened at the State Department, they were assured that the administration would come back within the next month with a proposal for the release of documents. To date, no proposal has been forthcoming.

Meanwhile, many disquieting questions linger. Who, for example, will ensure that Ortiz's torturers will be brought to justice, and what pressure is the US government prepared to exercise to break the wall of impunity that has so far protected the perpetrators? The State Department's own human rights report has stated that there is a "lack of commitment to combat the existing pervasive atmosphere of impunity."

But if justice cannot be obtained in Guatemala, the president has the power to ensure that Ortiz will, at least, be able to put her ghosts to rest by knowing who orchestrated her ordeal.

Above all, Clinton must take measures so that the charge of impunity cannot rest on the US government's doorstep. The declassification of the documents on Guatemala's dirty war must be comprehensive. All records pertaining to human rights violations must be released to the families involved and to the courageous individuals who, like Sister Dianna Ortiz, dare to seek the truth.

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