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State Department: Guatemala Hid Evidence of Abuse of U.S. Citizens

May 7, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Successive Guatemalan governments hid evidence of military violence against Americans in the 1980s, according to newly declassified State Department documents.

``We find that the Guatemalan government has not always been open with us, or with the American public, about what happened to American citizens,″ State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said upon release of the documents Monday. ``There has been a cover-up in the past.″

The documents were among 20,000 released by the State Department on the suspected murders and tortures of 18 Americans dating to 1984 in Guatemala, which has been accused of widespread human rights abuses by the military.

The documents also show that U.S. Embassy officials in Guatemala considered an American nun’s account of being kidnapped, raped and tortured by military personnel in 1989 as a ``hoax,″ but investigated anyway for fear of bad publicity.

But Burns said Monday that now, despite a lack of firm evidence, the U.S. government has ``no reason not to believe″ Sister Dianna Ortiz. Sister Ortiz until recently had been on a bread-and-water fast and vigil outside the White House to pressure the government to release documents relating to her case and other rights cases.

The Guatemalan Embassy said it had received copies of the documents and would pass them along to the country’s Supreme Court for investigation.

``The government deeply laments the events involving Sister Ortiz and many others,″ the embassy said in a statement.

According to the State Department documents, one alleged cover-up attempt involved American innkeeper Michael DeVine, whose 1990 killing prompted a presidential investigation that is still under way.

Thomas Stroock, then U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, said in a September 1992 cable that ``nearly all of the military members involved in or with knowledge of the crime are still trying to cover it up.″

In other memos to the State Department, Stroock named presidents Vinicio Cerezo and Jorge Serrano and defense ministers Juan Leonel Bolanos and Luiz Enrique Mendoza as primary impediments to discovering the truth behind DeVine’s death.

In the end, according to the State Department documents, it appears the Guatemalan military had ordered DeVine questioned because of a bogus tip that he possessed a missing military rifle. There is nothing in the documents to suggest any high authority ordered him killed, but Burns cautioned that the investigation remains open and no ``definite final conclusions″ will be reached until its completion.

Sister Ortiz, who is from Grants, N.M., said she was disappointed that none of the documents provided clues to the identities of her attackers or of an American with alleged U.S. Embassy ties who she said rescued her.

``What the documents do reveal is a pronounced bias against me from the very beginning,″ Sister Ortiz said. The U.S. Embassy was ``paying lip service to the need to find the truth in my case and secretly undercutting me, slandering me, and trying to prevent the truth from emerging.″

The documents said her refusal to talk to U.S. representatives right after the attack and her efforts to publicize her case ``leads us to question the motives and timing behind the story.″

The embassy noted she was ``allegedly kidnapped″ just a week before a vote in Congress on funding for Guatemala.

U.S. officials continued to pursue her case, however, for fear of negative publicity. One 1990 memo said, ``The case may break open again soon as ABC may air their show.″

Sister Ortiz, who was in Guatemala to teach Indian children, says she was abducted at gunpoint by military personnel, raped repeatedly and burned with lighted cigarettes. She said a man called Alejandro appeared to be in charge, spoke colloquial English and spoke of contacts at the U.S. Embassy.

Sister Ortiz of Grants, N.M., said Alejandro broke up the torture session, telling the Guatemalans that she was a U.S. nun whose disappearance had been reported.

She said he removed her blindfold, helped her with her clothes and then began driving her somewhere, saying he had U.S. Embassy ``contacts″ who could help. She said she grew frightened and fled the jeep when it stopped in traffic.

Ortiz’ attorneys on Monday filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in federal court in Washington against several U.S. agencies, including the State and Defense departments and the CIA, in yet another attempt to get all U.S. documentation on her case.

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