The Defenders

Dianna Ortiz

“My experience of torture left me feeling lifeless and with a lack of purpose. I came to recognize that my spirituality at that given moment was surviving — stitching back together my shredded trust in God, my hope in humanity, and my dignity as a woman.”

Dianna Ortiz was born in Grants, New Mexico in 1961. She was the middle of eight children born to her parents, who were Mexican immigrants. According to her parents, Dianna stated that she wanted to be a nun when she was just six years old. She remained committed to this goal throughout middle and high school and, in her late teens, traveled to Kentucky to join the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, a 400-year-old Roman Catholic order dedicated to the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy.

After becoming a nun, Dianna taught kindergarten in Kentucky for 10 years, but she felt called to work helping the poor. In 1987, she moved to Guatemala to serve as a missionary among indigenous people in the western highlands. She later explained that she wanted “to teach young indigenous children to read and write in Spanish and in their native language and to understand the Bible in their culture.”

It was a dangerous time in Guatemala. The country had experienced decades of civil war following a 1954 coup that ousted the popular, progressive, democratically elected president and replaced him with a series of right-wing military dictators, some of whom committed genocide against indigenous people. About a year after her arrival, Dianna began receiving threatening letters telling her to leave the country. She returned to the United States for a time, but later returned to Guatemala to fulfill what she felt was her calling.

On November 2, 1989, Dianna was abducted by Guatemalan military security forces and taken to a compound where she was repeatedly interrogated, raped, and burned with cigarettes. She was also forced to kill another female victim with a machete. After 24 hours of torture, a mysterious American called Alejandro rescued her. While transporting her to the American Embassy, he explained that the military had captured the wrong person. He told her that, as a Christian, she should forgive her assailants for what they had done. When he started threatening her, saying she should have heeded earlier warnings, Dianna jumped out of the SUV when it stopped at a red light and ran.

Dianna was given sanctuary in the Vatican Headquarters in Guatemala where she spent two days in a state of shock. The following day, she traveled to the United States. When she returned home to New Mexico, she was so traumatized she didn’t even recognize or remember her parents.

As she slowly began to recover, Dianna wanted justice. She sought the assistance of the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, but he accused her of staging her own kidnapping. Guatemalan officials also accused her of faking the kidnapping, and she received anonymous death threats on the phone and in the mail. Undaunted, Dianna made three trips to Guatemala to testify against the government. She also took up her case in United States courts and achieved a measure of victory when a federal judge in Boston ordered the Guatemalan defense minister to pay her $5 million. Unfortunately, the victory was largely symbolic because the defense minister lacked the funds to pay her.

Dianna continued to seek justice. Determined to find out the truth about what happened to her and to help Guatemalan victims, she went on a five-week fasting vigil in front of the White House, demanding that the United States government declassify all documents about human rights abuses in Guatemala since a 1954 coup. She eventually compelled the United States to declassify long-secret documents, which revealed details of United States cooperation with Guatemalan security forces before, during, and after the time of her abduction.

In 1998, Dianna she founded Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC), the only organization in the United States founded by and for survivors of torture. TASSC provides legal, psychological, and medical support to survivors living in the United States, including many refugees who have come from Central and South America nations after experiencing state-sponsored terrorism. In 2002, Dianna published The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth, a memoir about her experience and her ongoing search for healing and justice.


Torture has been outlawed internationally for decades. 172 countries have signed on to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits torture, and 165 countries have supported the UN Convention against Torture. Nevertheless, many countries have not criminalized torture under their national laws, and many governments around the globe torture people in violation of international law. Between 2009 and 2013, the human rights group Amnesty International received reports of torture in 141 countries, three quarters of the world.

Torture takes many forms. It can be physical, sexual, and/or psychological. It is most often inflicted as a form of punishment or to coerce information and confessions from prisoners. One of the more controversial forms of torture is what the U.S. called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which was used against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and at secret CIA “black sites” around the world post-9/11. Techniques included waterboarding, prolonged standing, sleep deprivation, constantly blasting music, and freezing temperatures.

TASSC was one of many human rights groups that fought to end the practice. A report by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the use of “enhanced interrogation” concluded that the techniques used were not only brutal but also ineffective. Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to ban coercive interrogations.

Human rights groups have focused on a number of strategies to stop torture. They are advocating for lawyers to be present during interrogations and for doctors to be allowed to examine detainees. They are fighting to make confessions obtained through torture inadmissible in courts, and they insist that people who perpetrate torture be brought to justice.



Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

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Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.