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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 03:07 GMT 04:07 UK
Colombia army theft trial opens
By Jeremy McDermott
BBC News, Medellin

Colombian soldiers (file pic)
Colombia's army has fought Farc guerrillas for over 40 years
The trial has begun of 147 Colombian soldiers accused of stealing some $20m (11m) in guerrilla drug money.

Ninety-nine troops from an elite counter-guerrilla unit are being tried in absentia as they deserted in 2003.

They fled with their fortunes after finding the money, which belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Farc.

A book has already been written about the discovery of the guerrilla stash and a film is in the pipeline.

The counter-guerrilla company were sweeping through the rebel-dominated jungle of Caqueta when they found what they thought was an arms dump.

But packed within the plastic barrels were not rifles, but rather wads of cash.

Some $20m in total, the proceeds of rebel drug sales and kidnap ransoms.

Spending spree

Instead of reporting the findings, the soldiers emptied their rucksacks and packed in the bundles of notes, more than any of them could dream of earning in their whole life in the military.

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Once the unit returned to barracks, many simply deserted and the remainder went on an unprecedented spending spree, renting brothels and nightclubs and buying luxury cars and watches.

It did not take the army long to work out that something was up.

Now 48 of the soldiers are going on trial. The remainder are on the run but will be tried in absentia.

Rumours abound as to their whereabouts and what they have done with their fortunes.

One of those standing trial said he had a friend who had opened a restaurant in Ecuador with the proceeds, while another had undergone a sex change.




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