Gladys Monterroso, Wife of Guatemalan Rights Official, Details Kidnapping Ordeal

Gladys Monterroso learned firsthand about her nation's spiraling security crisis.
Gladys Monterroso learned firsthand about her nation's spiraling security crisis. (By Jay Premack For The Washington Post)
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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

Cigarette burns pock her slender forearms. A purple bruise sketches a semicircle beneath her left eye. The outlines of the ropes that bound her ankles are plain to see, even through her nylons.

Two weeks ago, Gladys Monterroso was sure "this was the last day of my life," she said this week in her first extended interview with a U.S. publication.

But there she sits, quietly defiant in a Washington conference room.

Breathing still.

Monterroso's kidnapping has become a symbol of Guatemala's collective trauma as the nation suffers through a huge surge in abductions and killings that has gone largely unnoticed internationally amid the attention focused on the violence in its northern neighbor, Mexico. Once barely known outside Guatemala, she is now a cause celebre, one with particular resonance in the Washington region. While the Census Bureau calculates that there are 34,000 Guatemalan-born people in the area, the Guatemalan Embassy estimates that the figure is substantially higher.

Article 19, an international human rights organization, condemned the kidnapping as "cowardly and despicable."

"It is a sad reminder that the past is the present and also probably the future, as long as impunity prevails," Agn├Ęs Callamard, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

Monterroso, a petite 52-year-old with dark brown eyes, teaches the law to university students in an almost lawless nation. But it is her personal life that made her a target. She is the wife of Sergio Morales, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman.

For 3 1/2 years, Morales has been scouring and digitizing an extraordinary trove of millions of documents discovered by chance in a rotting warehouse. The archive contains the secret files of Guatemala's notorious national police agency.

Assassins have tried to silence Morales with bombs. They have tried to silence him with bullets.

None of that has worked.

So last month, they came for his wife.

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