Nun links American to attack on her

March 31, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

Long before the White House ordered an investigation into alleged CIA involvement in violence in Guatemala, Sister Diana Ortiz began an investigation of her own.

Sister Diana, an Ursuline nun from Grants, N.M., says she was kidnapped, tortured and raped in 1989 by three uniformed Guatemalan security men. She says they took orders from an American.

She has filed a civil suit in the U.S. District Court in Boston against Gen. Hector Gramajo, Guatemala's defense minister at the time, under a law that applies to human rights abuses of American citizens abroad.

She has also petitioned the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, and she has appeared three times before Guatemala's criminal court to testify about the men -- so far unidentified -- who abused her.

(Last week, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, charged that a Guatemalan army colonel on the CIA payroll as an informant had been involved in the 1990 death of an American innkeeper, Michael Devine, and in the torture and death of a guerrilla leader, Efrain Bamaca, two years later. Mr. Bamaca was the husband of American attorney Jennifer Harbury.)

Sister Diana's story is full of drama, if not certainty about who was involved.

She lived in Guatemala from 1987 until 1989. With two other nuns, she taught children to read and write. And she received numerous anonymous threats.

It is not clear why anyone considered her a menace, but there is evidence that she was under surveillance from the beginning of her stay in Guatemala and that authorities mistakenly believed she was not a U.S. citizen.

She says she was abducted on Nov. 2, 1989, from the town of Antigua, taken to Guatemala City and held in an old military school.

During her captivity, she said in a sworn statement, she was burned with cigarettes, suspended over a basement pit containing dead bodies and raped. She says her interrogators showed her a photograph taken of her the week she arrived in the country.

Later, she said, a man came in and spoke in Spanish to the three men abusing her. She said she knew by his accent that he was American.

"I spoke to him in English the entire time and he responded in Spanish," she said. "He apologized for what had happened. . . . I think it was very clear that he gave orders to the three men. He told the men to stop because I was a North American citizen and my disappearance had become public."

The man took her away in a gray jeep and promised to help her get out of the country, she said. She believed he was connected to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City because he told her "he was going to take me to a friend" there.

But she bolted from the jeep. She took refuge in the Maryknoll House, then was put under the protection of the Roman Catholic Papal Nuncio.

Sister Diana's assertion that an American possibly attached to the embassy had been involved with the men who tortured her has drawn a sharp rebuke from Thomas F. Stroock, the U.S. ambassador at the time. In a letter to her attorney, Paul Soreff, of Louisville, Ky., Mr. Stroock called her claim "insulting, absurd and ridiculous."

Sister Diana has revisited the country several times and contacted U.S. officials there -- with results that apparently have satisfied no one.

"Initially there were a lot of problems," said John Roney, an embassy spokesman in Guatemala City. "She was greatly traumatized by the whole thing. There was initially a difficulty in talking to us, but we're working and trying to respond when she asks for help."

"Outwardly the embassy has appeared to be concerned about my case, and one of the ways they have reflected that concern is by providing me security," said Sister Diana. "But there is no way anyone can convince me a North American wasn't involved."

Six days after her abduction, Sister Diana was examined by a physician in Grants, N.M. He found more than a hundred second-degree burns on her back and abrasions on her face. The archbishop of Guatemala, Prospero Penados del Barrio, testified that he too saw the wounds after her escape.

Six months after the kidnapping, a delegation of Ursuline sisters, priests and Mr. Soreff, Sister Diana's attorney, went to Guatemala to meet with Ambassador Stroock. They also met with Guatemalan officials who alleged that she had faked her kidnapping.

Embassy officials asked why Sister Diana had not sought protection there. Joseph Nangle, a Franciscan priest, said he told the diplomats, "No one would come to the embassy because we believe you are part of the problem."

Mr. Nangle said the delegation persuaded the then-defense minister, General Gramajo, to retract statements about Sister Diana having faked the kidnapping.

Sister Diana presses on with her case. Beth Stephen, a lawyer representing her in U.S. District Court in Boston, suggests that the only compensation she can expect in her suit against General Gramajo is "making a record of what actually happened, a way of getting a public judgment that this, indeed, did happen."

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