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Camilo Ernesto Mejía was born on August 28, 1975, in Managua, Nicaragua. He was named for Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest who died in combat, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the iconoclastic Argentine revolutionary. Four years before the Sandinistas overthrew Nicaragua's military dictatorship, Camilo's father, Carlos Mejía Godoy, was a celebrity of the left; his revolutionary songs and radio satire condemning President Anastasio Somoza Debayle's feared military police captured the zeitgeist of the Nicaraguan people. His music was played throughout Latin America.
But five months after Camilo's birth, his parents separated. His mother, Costa Rican-born Maritza Castillo, took the youngster and his older brother Carlos to New York, and then to her native country, for two years, before returning to Nicaragua. Back home she began a love affair with Camilo Ortega, one of three brothers leading the Sandinistas. (Daniel Ortega served as president from 1979 to 1989 and recently reassumed the role.)
Camilo Ortega died in battle that same year. "We watched the revolution unfurl," Castillo recalled during a recent conversation outside a Starbucks in Sunny Isles Beach. Despite her Costa Rican birthright, Castillo is a pure Nicoya, even dropping "que barbaridad" into every other sentence a common thing among her countrymen. The 52-year-old wears eyeglasses and has brown eyes, dark tan skin, and curly hair down to her chin.
In 1979, following the Sandinista victory, Castillo and her sons moved into a five-bedroom house in a posh Managua neighborhood. The family had a maid and a gardener. Mejía Godoy, who by then had remarried, lived a few blocks away and was a deputy in the Nicaraguan National Assembly. Camilo and his brother soon began attending a school reserved for the children of government officials, including those of Daniel Ortega.
"Since Camilo was a baby he was very sure of himself," Castillo says affectionately. "When he was about eleven or twelve, Camilo decided he was going to visit his grandfather in Costa Rica without my permission." He took off alone on a bus, and it wasn't until he reached the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border that he called his mom. "I ordered him to come home right away, but he wouldn't listen," she says. "I had to call the border authorities to send him back to Managua."
Contacted by telephone in the Nicaraguan capital, Mejía Godoy explains, "We raised [Carlos and Camilo] to be independent. Camilo was very mature for his age. And he always talked about having a career in literature or the arts."
In 1991, after the fall of the Sandinistas, Castillo and her boys moved again to Costa Rica. Three years later they headed for Miami, where Camilo attended night school at American Senior High in Miami Lakes. Castillo landed a job as a Publix cashier; Camilo worked at a local Burger King, where he swept the parking lot, cleaned bathrooms, and broiled burgers. He had a two-hour break before school, so his days would usually start at 5:30 a.m. and finish at 10:00 p.m.
Camilo didn't attend prom or graduation. He received his high school diploma in the principal's office. When he was nineteen years old, the armed forces beckoned him with the promise of financial stability and college tuition. His parents were dead-set against it. "I thought it was a terrible idea," Mejía Godoy recalls. "I asked him, 'What are you going to do if you have to go to war?' But he insisted he needed to do it in order to pay for his school."
Adds Castillo, "The recruiter filled his head with pajaritos that he would see the world and make a lot of friends."
Camilo says he joined the army to become independent of his parents. "My father was the official singer for the Sandinista Revolution," Camilo says. "I guess I wanted to escape it, find my own way, do my own things, and I found the military. I never really thought I would end up in a real war."
So in 1995 the nineteen-year-old joined the Army and left for Fort Benning, Georgia.
Following basic training, Camilo spent three years of active duty in Fort Hood, Texas. "I was a mechanized infantryman," Camilo relays. "So I was assigned to a Bradley personnel carrier. My unit used to test all the new weapons systems that the army was buying from government contractors."
When he wasn't playing war with the Bradley, Camilo participated in light infantry drills. One of Camilo's exercises was to help carry and load an M60 machine gun. "The M60 is very heavy," Camilo says. "It has an extra spare barrel, a mounting system, and you carry a lot of ammo."
Then a private, Camilo recalls lugging about 100-plus pounds of gear up a hill, then passing through an obstacle course simulating a minefield. Though a three-man team was supposed to carry the M60, he and his partner were required to move it. But he took the tough assignment with humor. "After each exercise we would have this review session where the people involved gave their opinion on what went well and what went bad," Camilo recalls. "When it was my turn, my reply was, öI don't know, because there is no team here, I am the team.' Everyone laughed because I was the lowest-ranking private in the room."