SEMANA/Testimony | 10/29/2008 12:00:00 AM
‘The Army murdered my brother’
Soldier Luis Esteban Montes, gives a chilling testimony about how his squad companions killed a common farmer in order to report his death as a guerrilla combat casualty. But the victim turned out to be his own brother.
“One night, while I was talking with my family on the phone, corporal Jonathan Pineda arrived and told me, ‘Guajiro, go back to the tent because we now have the ‘man’ for our little business.’ I asked him who he was but he told me to shut up and warned that captain Jairo Mauricio García had given the order not to talk about it so the man wouldn’t realize that they were going to kill him. I asked him, ‘Where is the ‘man’ from? And he told me he was from the Guajira department. They always look for people who aren’t from the local region so that no family member would claim him. Anyway, I was very curious because I’m also from La Guajira. Then I left the tent, lit a cigarette and heard the man ask for another. I wasn’t able to see his face because there was no light or even moonlight. There was a light rain. I gave him the cigarette and we began to chat. I soon realized that it was my brother, Leonardo Montes.
“My brother had left Maicao, a city in the Guajira department, a long time ago, when I was just a nine year old kid. That is why I didn’t recognize him. But when he told me the name of my dad, I confirmed his identity. He was my brother and he was also who they chose out of chance to kill. I couldn’t believe it. Then I revealed my identity to him. I told him that I was ‘el niño’ (the boy), Luis Esteban, his brother. We hugged each other and in the middle of the emotion I told him that they were going to kill him to make him seem like he was a guerrilla. I told him to leave, but he didn’t believe me. He had become friends with the two soldiers of my company who invited him to the tent. Leonardo was sure that they wouldn’t do anything to him. He was fooled.
“After talking with him outside for 20 minutes, they called me away. So I went directly to corporal Pineda and told him, ‘You can’t kill that man because he is my brother’. The corporal didn’t believe me and told me that it would be better to speak with Captain Garcia, who didn’t believe me either. The only thing he did was insult me. I insisted. I told him to ask him for the name of my father, of my brothers, of the family, of the street in Maicao where we were born.
“From that moment on everything got messed up. The captain and I argued for several hours and my brother heard everything. At the end, I told him that now it didn’t matter whether they believed me or not, that that man they were going to kill was my brother and that they would have to kill me first. ‘Why don’t you kill one of your brothers, captain, or your dad so that you will be able to enjoy Mother’s Day? But don’t mess with my brother,’ I told him. Everyone was very angry. They couldn’t believe that the only person who they had managed to get to assassinate turned out to be the brother of a soldier in their own squad. The plan to find someone who wasn’t from the area- someone who wouldn’t have bereaved family and friends in the town and whose death would go unnoticed- that plan went to waste.
“After a while, the captain told me, ‘It wouldn’t bother me at all to kill that son of a bitch.’ Neither was it hard to find someone who would do it because each company has its two or three hit men, who are the ones who always do those things and earn a million pesos (the equivalent of US$ 454) for them.
“In a moment in which we were not being watched I took advantage to tell my brother that he should run, to jump over the bobbed wire, to cross the stream and that he should go home because they were going to kill him. He said that he wouldn’t go because it would be easier for them to murder him there. We were able to get away from the tent area a little, find a motor-taxi and he left for town. I stayed, but obviously, that night I couldn’t sleep.
“The next day I realized that everything had changed for me. My companions hated me. So I asked a colonel for a transfer because I wasn’t able to go on patrol with these people. I was also very weak, because I was having a tough bout with malaria. That same day they sent me to a different company in Puerto Libertador, a town near San Juan. I felt more at ease there. At least I didn’t fear that they would kill me. The idea of reporting my squad companions crossed my mind, but I didn’t do it at that time. I had freed my brother, which was the most important thing, and I wanted to avoid problems with my superiors.
“On like my third day in Puerto Libertador I heard that the company where I was before had ‘taken a casualty,’ I thought it could be my brother and I asked a soldier if he knew who it was. He told me no, but that a car was picking the body up to take it to the cemetery.
“I immediately went to my aunt’s house in Puerto Libertador and told her everything. I asked her to go with me to the cemetery. When we were walking there, the car with the body passed by but the tarp was down and we couldn’t see the face. When we arrived at the place, the body was on the ground wrapped in white plastic. I threw myself on him, broke the bag and realized that it was my brother, Leonardo. The grave was ready and two soldiers grabbed him by the feet and the hands and threw him in, without a coffin or anything. Supposedly they found a grenade and a gun in his hands. But there is a witness in the town who says that he sold that pistol to the Army and I remember how, a few days before April 30, two soldiers from my squad were cleaning it with urine to erase the fingerprints.
“After seeing all of that, I called my family in Maicao. I told them everything and they came to Córdoba to give him a Christian burial. It was then that I decided to sue the Colombian State. But the world came crashing down on me. I am in a permanent state of alert because I think that something could happen to me. I am afraid to eat what they give me in the Army and although I have completed three years in the institution and today I am in the Juan del Corral battalion in Rionegro, Antioquia. The only function that I am able to do is pick up everyone’s garbage. I cannot go to combat zones because I have special prevention measures. Also, many blame me because they know about the lawsuit and my history. I hope that all of this will end soon. An investigator of human rights, who is investigating the seven military members implicated in my case, has my case. The day that justice is served I will see what my future holds for me. What happened with my brother completely changed my life and I believe that I deserve a little peace of mind.”