Remembering Dianna Ortiz

A year ago today Dianna Ortiz parted ways with her body. The gifts she has left remain: a center for torture survivors that she founded and ran, TASSC International; the contributions she made to the last place she worked, Pax Christi, where she was Deputy Director; the memories and legacy she left with us here at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, where for many years she was a staff and later a board member; and, of course, the painful witness she gave to the atrocities of the Guatemalan army, carried out in collaboration with the US government.

By way of giving a window into that collaboration: the US Ambassador in a 1991 cable referred blithely to “numerous contacts we have made over the past few years, including with members of a death squad.” He outlined in the cable how the Guatemalan death squads operated. In all likelihood, using this knowledge, he sent someone to rescue Dianna twenty-four hours into her torture. Dianna asked the American sent to take her out of the clandestine torture center, which she later identified as the Escuela Politecnica, what would happen to the others who remained there under torture, the others she saw, the others she heard screaming? The man said, “Don’t concern yourself with them.”

For decades, not concerning themselves was the modus operandi of the US government, which at best turned a blind eye to the atrocities occurring in Guatemala and at worst actively assisted the most brutal army in the hemisphere as it carried out acts amounting to genocide.

Dianna was fierce. She spoke the truth. She blazed a trail that we do our best to follow.

She was also gentle, and as well as leaving a testimony of pain, she left a witness of love. She calls us to heal ourselves, reach out to one another, and fight for the rights of the most defenseless. That call to (the gentle) arms of courage, community, and action is essential today. Guatemala is weltering in a maelstrom of injustice. In the past week, five prosecutors and former prosecutors investigating high-level corruption were arrested on baseless charges and await trial. Four of those detained are women. Like Dianna, in spite of suffering intimidation, threats, and harassment, they are not backing off of the truths they’ve discovered, no matter who those truths implicate and what the truths cost.

In the years after escaping from the American who brought her out of the torture center—only to threaten her when she said she would not remain silent—Dianna felt she had to speak for the people she saw dying in that basement prison; for the people she saw already dead and thrown into a pit. She spoke in spite of the pain it caused her, in spite of the flashbacks, in spite of allegations from US embassy personnel that she must have sneaked out for a lesbian love affair and the 111 cigarette burns on her back were the result of a lesbian love tryst.As Dianna spoke for those who could not speak, we who were her friends and colleagues and walked with her on part of her journey will attempt to guess what she would say, were she here, in response to the intensifying crisis in Guatemala. Dianna would ask–What kind of aid is going from the US government to the Guatemalan military? To the police? What kind of nonhumanitarian aid is going to the government? Cut it off until human rights are respected.

Otherwise, she would say gently—otherwise we are complicit.

Visit our memorial page to see photos and leave a memory or comment. 

Thank you for standing with us as we remember Dianna, and thank you for working for justice for the Guatemalan people.

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