Napoleon Ortigoza; Political Prisoner in Paraguay

Napoleon Ortigoza holds a check he received as compensation for the decades he was imprisoned.
Napoleon Ortigoza holds a check he received as compensation for the decades he was imprisoned. (Reuters)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

Napoleon Ortigoza, 73, the Paraguayan army cavalry officer who became one of the world's longest-serving political prisoners as a victim of despot Alfredo Stroessner, died Jan. 17 at a hospital in the capital city of Asuncion after a heart attack.

Jailed on a fraudulent murder charge, then tortured and kept from his attorney for 25 years, Capt. Ortigoza was often compared to African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa for the length of time he endured confinement.

After his release in 1987, Capt. Ortigoza was held under a vague form of house arrest and fled the country through diplomatic help. When a new Paraguayan regime ousted Stroessner, Capt. Ortigoza returned but declined to be feted as a celebrity.

In 1996, the country's supreme court cleared him of all charges, finding that his murder confession had been obtained through torture. Despite that and some financial compensation ordered by the state's human rights ombudsman, Capt. Ortigoza remained bitter about the continued freedom of Stroessner and Ramon Duarte Vera, the ex-chief of police who became Paraguay's ambassador to Bolivia.

"I don't want to see Duarte Vera and Stroessner die for what they did," Capt. Ortigoza said in 1988. "I just want them to know what it is like to be put in solitary confinement for 18 years in a cell one meter by two."

Landlocked Paraguay had a legacy of dictators who ignited civil unrest and were partly responsible for chronic poverty. Thirty presidents ruled between 1870 and 1932, followed by several strongmen.

Among the worst was Stroessner, a general who commanded the armed forces and led to power a splinter group of the dominant Colorado Party. Stroessner, now 93, ruled from 1954 to 1989, when he was overthrown and settled in exile in Brazil.

Although Stroessner's absolute rule encouraged some foreign investments, his abuses of human rights and the country's evolution as a major drug producer profoundly stained his accomplishments.

Modesto Napoleon Ortigoza Gomez, born Feb. 12, 1932, in Atyra, Paraguay, was one of the most visible victims of the Stroessner regime. In the army from 1949, the dashing cavalryman graduated at the top of his class and seemed to have a promising career.

By the early 1960s, he was serving under a commander reputedly involved in a planned coup. Capt. Ortigoza denied all involvement, later telling a reporter, "I knew better than to get involved in some anti-Stroessner game."

Capt. Ortigoza's arrest Dec. 17, 1962, was meant to warn all the military from acting against Stroessner. As a twist, he was charged with killing an army cadet who was purported to have discovered the coup plot.

"The lower-ranking officers became the scapegoats, once Stroessner decided he didn't want to create a shake-up among the higher officers," he told the Associated Press in 1988.

A military court found him guilty, but he was probably saved from the firing squad because of a Franciscan priest, who announced on a Radio Caritas program that the captain was not guilty of the cadet's death. Further, the priest promised to make a public statement about the true perpetrators based on what he claimed where church confessions by the killers.

Capt. Ortigoza received a commuted sentence of 25 years. The captain's driver also received a reduced sentence of 15 years but was held for 21.

Human rights groups persuaded Paraguayan authorities to allow Capt. Ortigoza visits from his family and church officials, but those were brief respites from the routine beatings, electric shocks and near-death submersions in water.

In time, he was moved to a cell with a bathroom.

He was released shortly before a visit by Pope John Paul II, for whom Stroessner wanted to play down Paraguay's human rights violations.

At first ordered to a remote village far from the capital, Capt. Ortigoza, then 55, was allowed to stay in Asuncion with his mother, with police making their presence known.

One of his attorneys helped him flee hidden in the trunk of a car. "Police guards fired machine guns at the car, but we got away," Capt. Ortigoza told the AP. "We hadn't planned to go to the Colombian Embassy, but when we saw the gate to the compound open, we zipped right in."

After about three months in the embassy, he received safe-conduct to Buenos Aires and then Madrid.

He returned to Paraguay after Stroessner was overthrown in a 1989 coup led by another Colorado Party leader. Through the new national constitution, Capt. Ortigoza and others who suffered abuses could petition for financial redress. He was awarded $1 million.

In his final years, Capt. Ortigoza lived modestly, a figure of military rectitude, who talked vividly with school-age children for whom the history of Paraguay's human rights violations seemed a mirage.

His marriage to Lucila Ortigoza ended in divorce.

Survivors include two daughters, Sonia Ortigoza and Mirtha Ortigoza, both of Asuncion; two sisters; three brothers; two grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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