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The Secret Experiment (part 1)

Several years had passed since Felipe Montejo had seen his good friend. He was excited about the prospect of having lunch at the beautiful ranch in Sesquilé, Cundinamarca that Lilian Laserna had inherited from her mother.

He could distinctly remember the verdant evenings among the Bogotá Savannah that they would contemplate from the 100-year-old house with towering windows and classical furniture of the time, with a collection of colonial art boasting paintings by Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos; a touch that gave the place an even more aristocratic air. The ranch was surrounded by well-kept gardens that contained a variety of plants and flowers and where one would constantly see the service workers roaming around who were in charge of attending to the needs of the guests.

There, Felipe had met Liliana’s family and had spent countless weekends enjoying time with mutual friends and passionate discussions about politics, science, literature, and religion. All in all, this was a family made up of political visionaries and entrepreneurs with privileged minds that was not lacking in educators, senators, secretaries of the state, ambassadors, and former presidents; all who had left their mark on Colombian history.

Liliana is the daughter of Mario Laserna Pinzón, the founder of the University of the Andes – Colombia’s most prestigious university. A brilliant man, he was born in Paris in 1923 to an affluent family from Tolima. He triple-majored in physics, math, and humanities at Columbia University, got his masters in philosophy from Princeton, and did his doctorate degree also in philosophy at the University of Berlin. Among other things, he was the president of the Conservative Party in Colombia, ambassador to the country in France and Austria, and senator representing the then-disbanded-turned-political-party guerilla group M-19 “because they had Bolivarian roots and I am a great believer in the Bolivarian philosophy,” he once said in an interview with the newspaper, El Tiempo.

Laserna Pinzón spoke multiple languages and, while at Princeton, he met the genius behind the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein. He had not yet turned 26 and Einstein was already 70; but, despite their generational differences, they shared a passion for physics.

Laserna Pinzón convinced him to get involved with the International Board of Advisors at the University of the Andes. Einstein accepted the offer and supported his idea to create a university that was secular and independent from the state. Of this friendship, there remains a fruitful epistolary exchange that led to the creation of the University of the Andes in 1948.

The young entrepreneur married Liliana Jaramillo and had 5 children.

Dorotea, Catalina, Carmen Julia, Liliana, and Juan Mario Laserna Jaramillo.

Dorotea; married the son of former-president Guillermo León Valencia and had four children. Among them, the distinguished Uribista senator, Paloma Valencia Laserna.

Catalina; obtained her doctoral degree in anthropology from Cambridge University. She has worked in an educational program with Harvard professors. Currently, she lives in Boston with her American husband and their two daughters.

Carmen Julia; married the European noble, Remi Jacques Le Caron de Chocqueuse, with who she has a son. Their divorce sunk her into a grave depressive state. She jumped out of a window at the hospital where she was being treated; an unfortunate incident that left her disabled and in a wheelchair.

Juan Mario; died in a traffic accident in the outskirts of the city of Ibagué in June of 2016. He had been a senator, secretary of housing, and co-director of the Colombian federal reserve. He married and divorced an American woman with who he had children.

And Liliana Laserna; a painter and sculptor who graduated from the Boston University College of Fine Arts. She had one daughter and lives on her farm in Sesquilé.

Liliana Laserna met her friend, Felipe Montejo, in Boston in 1982. She was 26 and Felipe Montejo, a highschool student from the outskirts of the city, had turned 16.

They were introduced by one of Felipe’s brothers, and since then Liliana became a sort of mentor and, in part, became a crucial influence on some of the decisions of a boy who was still unsure on which major he wanted to pursue.

Felipe, in turn, admired her intellect, her artistry, (she gifted him several paintings), her eccentricity, her defiant and unconventional attitude, her ability to speak multiple languages. Liliana was born in Geneva, Switzerland and had studied, along with her siblings, at the most prestigious schools and universities of Colombia, the United States, and Europe.

This time, for the scheduled lunch at Liliana’s farm, Felipe, who was a lawyer, had traveled to Bogotá from the US, where he had been living for over 25 years.

Felipe and Liliana stayed in constant contact over the phone. They confided in one another. They would advise each other and share information about the latest developments in their lives. Felipe was one of the few friends who Liliana could count on.

On that day in January of 2016, Felipe’s mouth was watering at the thought of the succulent meal they were about to have. He was nostalgic for those Colombian flavors and dishes filled with chicharrón and chorizo, the barbecued meat, and the blackberry juices that he, as a college student living in Colombia, enjoyed so many times when Liliana would invite him on trips to several of the family’s haciendas.

When he arrived to the farm “Las Juntas de Achury Boitiva” alongside his American partner and another friend, the disappointment he felt was so deep that it transformed into another affirmation of the suspicion that he had started feeling a long time ago.

The gardens were completely destroyed and the house looked abandoned, with empty walls that were peeling and marred by the humidity. Felipe and his friends noticed the torn upholstery of the couches when they were invited to sit in the living room of the colonial house. They noticed that on the floors, that were dirty and unkempt, there was even dog feces. To put a cherry on top of it all, the dust and emptiness had overpowered the place.

Liliana welcomed them with aguardiente on a sunny afternoon during which she would not stop smoking.

She also introduced them to her boyfriend, Camilo Fidel Pinzón Gómez, with who Felipe has sporadically spoken on the phone during the moments it would take Liliana to get on the line.

He was significantly younger than Liliana and didn’t have any apparent formal education, but seemed like a cunning young man.

Liliana Laserna Jaramillo had been living with Camilo Fidel on the farm for, at least, the past 10 years. According to versions of the story told by close family friends, they met one time when Liliana’s TV broke. Camilo showed up to fix it and they began a romantic relationship that has raised all kinds of suspicions and resentments among Liliana’s closest friends and family, including Felipe. Liliana Laserna had told him during one of their many phone calls that Camilo Fidel had, at some point, been involved with the guerrilla.

Felipe had never heard of Camilo having any sort of job during all of the years that he had been living in Liliana’s house on her farm. Nevertheless, during one of their more recent phone calls, Liliana mentioned to Felipe that Camilo Fidel was working as a bookkeeper for a Russian citizen who sold weapons in Colombia. Felipe’s doubts about his friend’s partner continued growing. Every time that Liliana would tell Felipe a story about Camilo Fidel, it was full of unlikely, suspect details full of mystery.

Felipe was sure of one thing: Camilo Fidel’s relationship with Liliana was convenient; for the purpose of taking advantage of her financially.

Upon his return to Bogotá, Felipe also wanted to meet Liliana’s daughter.

Liliana got pregnant on one of her trips to Germany. She was determined to become a single mother, so she returned to Colombia to give birth to her daughter on January 18th, 1998. She named her Jesseca Helene Laserna Jaramillo.

Within her first few years, the girl was diagnosed with autism and Liliana entered a frenetic stage in her life in which she obsessively investigated any and all information that she could find online about this condition, its causes, and a possible cure.

During various phone conversations, Felipe began noticing Liliana’s obsession with this and other topics.

The meetup on the farm in Sesquilé was no exception. Liliana began to talk about the topic, and her partner, Camilo Fidel, opened up a computer to show Felipe and his friends websites with conspiracy theories about the origins of autism.

Lili, as Felipe lovingly called her, told the group that vaccines were the cause of autism. She emphasized that vaccines were produced by large pharmaceutical companies that were controlled by the Jewish establishment and was all part of a Jewish conspiracy.

At the same time, Camilo Fidel showed them information, from other unreliable sources, that described alternative treatments using STEM cells to regenerate organs and neurons that could also be used to treat autism.

In the middle of this conversation, Felipe asked Liliane about her daughter, Jesseca Helene. He wanted to meet her. Her response left him shocked.

Liliana told him that the following day was her daughter’s birthday and they were going to visit her at the mental institution where she had been kept for some time now while participating in an experiment using STEM cells that was looking to find a cure for autism.

Felipe asked about the name of the institution and the doctors who were overseeing the experiment. Liliana’s response left him even further disturbed.

According to Liliana Laserna, the experiments were being conducted in a secret place. The enterprise was happening without records or permits from the corresponding authorities in charge of regulating clinical trials “because not even the World Health Organization wants to find the cure to autism.”

In her version of the events, Liliana told that researchers from Germany, Switzerland, and China had all traveled to Colombia to work with autistic children from different countries in hopes of finding a cure via a secret experiment.

The experiment, according to Liliana, was being overseen by a nephew of the German scientist Wenher Von Braun, an aerospace engineer that who worked for the Nazis developing ballistic missiles.

Additionally, Liliana told him that she had received a letter from her daughter, who had serious language and communication disabilities, in which she thanked her mother for everything that she had done for her and mentioned that her condition was improving a lot.

Liliana assured them that the girl “would be cured in a year and a half.” Liliana told this story in the presence of Camilo Fidel who, according to Felipe, encouraged his partner’s secretive and conspiring stories.

Felipe began to understand why her friends and family slowly started leaving her. He re-confirmed that Liliana’s behavior and narratives were in accordance with the mental disabilities that, with the neurological degradation of her daughter, worsened over time.

When it came time to have lunch, Liliana called a taxi to go into town and get food. Felipe, his friends, and Camilo Fidel stayed on the farm and chatted while they walked through a pasture. In the middle of a conversation about familial disputes, Camilo Fidel surprised Felipe with another affirmation that, this time, did not seem so far-fetched: “Liliana’s mother accused me of having raped Helene; imagine that, brother, with all that I adore that girl.”

Liliana returned from town with lunch for everyone. It wasn’t as succulent as they were hoping: chicken, potato salad, and Tang juice.