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Sending a Brutal Message About Human Rights
Guatemalan Professor Recalls Hours as Captive

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.

The week of March 23 was supposed to be triumphant for Morales. On that Tuesday, he would unveil his first report culled from the archive, a report that implicates national police in atrocities during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. On Wednesday, he would watch two police officials face accusations in the civil war-era disappearance of a well-known activist. On Thursday, his proposals to cleanse police forces of corrupt officers would be signed by the president.

But less than half a day after releasing his report, he started getting frantic calls. His wife hadn't arrived at her office. She'd missed her afternoon appointments.

It wasn't until that evening -- 12 hours after being abducted -- that Monterroso, bruised and bloodied, resurfaced. For the next week, strangers lined up outside her hospital room to bring her flowers and pray for her. Still recovering, she came to Washington this week for private meetings with members of Congress and activists in hopes of drawing attention to the security crisis in Guatemala. Kidnappings doubled to nearly 500 in 2008, and this year Guatemala is on pace for 7,000 killings.

Between meetings, Monterroso paused for a sandwich in a conference room at the headquarters of the Organization of American States, a grand building overlooking the Mall, with tiled floors and a lush courtyard evoking a Latin American mansion. Trailed by her husband and three aides, she arrived in a stylish, tailored black suit and heels.

She glanced at the floor shyly as she began to talk about what happened.

It was not yet 7:30 a.m., Monterroso recalled, when she set out for the one-block walk from her office to a restaurant where she meets other professors for breakfast every Wednesday. She saw men in hoods, and for a moment thought nothing of it. During Lent each year, university students don hoods and roam the streets asking for money in a ritual known as the Huelga de Dolores, or the Sorrow Strike.

But these men didn't ask for money, she said. They grabbed her and threw her into an SUV. They blindfolded her and drove for half an hour, then roughly pushed her into a basement.

"I kept saying, 'I didn't do anything. You're confused,' " she recalled.

The men cursed at her. Still hooded, they held a pistol to her temple. She sobbed. They pushed the pistol barrel into her mouth, threatening to kill her, she said.

Her mind wandered.

She thought about her daughters, ages 21 and 23, both of whom live with her.

"I was thinking, 'I won't be there for their weddings. I won't be there when they have their children,' " she said.

The men forced her to take pills, though she does not know what kind. They poured liquor down her throat, all the while refusing her pleas for an explanation. They laughed at her. And they raped her.

At her home, Monterroso's daughters were in a panic. They had been trying to reach their father, but he was outside the city, beyond cellphone range. Her colleagues were looking everywhere for her.

What was strange about all this is that the kidnappers had not called to ask for a ransom. This is one of the main reasons that international human rights activists assert that Monterroso's abductors took her hostage in hopes of intimidating her husband.

Without explanation, Monterroso said, her captors pulled her out of the basement and drove her away. They dumped her in a park. She was still blindfolded. Her wrists and ankles were bound.

Woozy from the liquor and the pills, she heard a man's voice. She thought she was going to be assaulted again. But she soon realized the man was asking to help her.

Monterroso realized she was barefoot. Her underwear was gone. She was disoriented. She had no idea where she was.

She bent over and vomited.

The repercussions were immediate. The announcement of her husband's police reforms -- scheduled for the next day -- was postponed.

After a week in the hospital, Monterroso flew to Houston for tests. AIDS is on the rise in Guatemala and she agonizes at the thought of waiting six months for definitive results of an HIV test.

Now her days will be spent under the gaze of bodyguards, she said, her eyes welling with tears. Her freedom is gone, she said.

Yesterday morning, Monterroso and her husband boarded a plane and flew back to Guatemala, where he plans to resume his work with the police archives.

"We have to continue," Monterroso said before leaving. "We have to live."

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