Born: September 2, 1958;

Died: February 19, 2021.

DIANNA Ortiz, who has died of cancer aged 62, was an American Roman Catholic nun who went to Guatemala as a missionary during a decade of US-backed wars in Central America – and went through a shocking ordeal that made headlines around the world.

In 1989, she was abducted by a Guatemalan security force, whose members gang-raped and tortured her for 24 hours. Her back was pockmarked with more than 100 cigarette burns and she later had a termination after discovering that the attack had left her pregnant. She was also dangled over a pit of corpses – “some decapitated, all caked with blood,” she recalled – and forced to kill another woman with a macheté.

Ortiz’s work as a teacher helping children from the country’s Mayan majority to read and write was regarded by the government – and its military, largely trained and funded by the US – as a threat. She was bundled into a bus in Antigua, driven 25 miles to a warehouse being used as a clandestine prison in Guatemala City and subjected to her attack by three men.

The eyes of many were opened to her own government’s involvement in Central American wars, from Nicaragua to El Salvador, when she revealed her belief that the gang’s leader was a US citizen whom she knew as “Alejandro”. She said he discovered her blindfolded, curled up on the floor, and shouted to the other men: “You idiots! Leave her alone. She’s a North American.”

On her release, she had to contend with the credibility of her story being questioned by the Guatemalan government and the US ambassador to the country. “I came out a totally different person, but also with new eyes and more attuned to the hurting, the brokenness, the oppression, the deceit of my government,” Ortiz told journalist John Pilger in a moving interview for his 2006 documentary, The War on Democracy, where she struggled to control her emotions.

Ortiz went on to campaign successfully for the release of documents showing US involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala and, in 1998, founded the Washington-based Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International.

Dianna Mae Ortiz was born in Colorado Springs in 1958, one of eight children, to Mexican immigrants, Ambroshia (“Amby”, née Esquibel) and Pilar Ortiz, a uranium miner, and grew up in Grants, New Mexico.

From the age of six, her ambition was to become a nun, so she joined the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph, in Maple Mount, Kentucky, in 1977. While there, she studied at Brescia College, graduating in 1983 with a degree in elementary and early childhood education.

She then taught at the Immaculate Conception School, Hawesville (1983-85), and the Blessed Mother School, Owensboro (1985-87), before leaving for Guatemala in 1987 to work alongside other Ursuline sisters educating Indigenous children around the highland town of San Miguel Acatán. She was abducted while visiting a spiritual retreat in Antigua after receiving death threats.

On her return to the US two days later, Ortiz remained traumatised, had little memory of her previous life and friends, and underwent counselling.

“The only piece of my identity that remained was that I was a woman who was raped and forced to torture and murder another human being,” she said more than 10 years later. “I still have little memory of my life before my abduction at 31. Instead, I have memories of the torture.”

In 1996, when 36 years of civil war in Guatemala finally ended, Ortiz held a five-week vigil outside the White House to demand the declassification of US government documents about human rights abuses in the country since 1954.

Those, and subsequent releases, revealed that US agencies were working with the Guatemalan security forces at the time of her ordeal and its embassy had contact with members of a death squad.

Although her torturers were never identified or brought to justice, other documents showed that the Guatemalan defence minister at the time of her abduction, Héctor Gramajo, had studied counterinsurgency tactics at an army school in the US state of Georgia. By then, Ortiz and eight Guatemalans had filed a lawsuit in the US against the politician for human rights violations.

In 1995, a federal judge in Boston ordered him to pay $47.5 million – including $5 million to Ortiz – and declared that he “was aware of and supported widespread acts of brutality committed under his command resulting in thousands of civilian deaths”. The money was never handed over.

Ortiz’s other campaigning as a human rights activist included roles as an organiser for the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission in Washington, from 1994 to 2000, deputy director of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace movement, from 2010 to 2012, and work with the Center of Concern on its Education for Justice project, from 2012 to 2018. She returned to her job at Pax Christi USA in 2020.

Her memoir, The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth, was published in 2002 and, a year later, a play inspired by her life, Watching Left, by Keith Bridges, was performed at the Charter Theatre, Los Angeles.

Ortiz never fully recovered her Christian faith. “The fact that I’m a Catholic nun and I’m not able to forgive – that makes me feel all the more guilty,” she said. “I’m not sure what it means to forgive.”

She is survived by her mother, four brothers and two sisters. Her other brother died in 1974.