Saturday, August 2, 2014

Final Scene of 'La Guaca Millonaria'?

Soldiers on trial for keeping guerrilla money they'd found. (Photo: El Espectador)

When, on April 14, 2003, soldiers hunting for kidnapped U.S. contractors happened to dig up a package of money, the soldiers believed the fortune would change their lives. They were right, but not the way they expected.

The soldiers were marching thru a mountainous region of Caqueta Department, searching for three United States military contractors who had been captured and kidnapped by FARC guerrillas. The soldiers had occupied a deserted FARC camp and proceeded to search for weapons the guerrillas might have buried nearby. Instead, they found packages of money wrapped in black plastic.

'Dreaming doesn't cost anything.'
The soldiers proceeded to dig up some two dozen packages containing Colombian pesos or U.S. dollars. Altogether, the cache may have totaled some 40 billion pesos - close to 20 million U.S. dollars by today's exchange rate.

Naturally, as soon as the soldiers returned to the city of Popayán, they asked for leave and went wild. Some bought expensive cars, others houses. And, according to one soldier's account, the city's brothels shut their doors to everybody except for the free-spending soldiers.

Naturally, the episode couldn't be kept secret, and the 147 soldiers - or at least those who could be found - were arrested and eventually put on trial. But prosecution was tricky. After all, nobody was sure to whom the money rightfully belonged, since the guerrillas had probably obtained it thru narcotrafficking or extortion. The soldiers were first absolved of any crime, and then, in 2013, given sentences of up to 10 years. Yesterday, a military tribunal reduced the sentences to 4 years plus fines.

But only 84 of the original men were present for sentencing. The rest were either dead or had fled.

During the past decade, some of the soldiers involved have been murdered. Others have had relatives kidnapped for ransom. In the end, authorities recovered only a small fraction of the money originally found.

But at least one of the soldiers got something lasting out of the money. He had a sex-change operation, became Lilliana and opened a spa in a secret location, according to El Tiempo.

Along the way, the episode had produced books, a TV series and a film, 'Soñar no cuesta nada' ('Dreaming doesn't cost anything'), issued in English as 'A ton of luck.'

Guacas, or buried treasures, have been something of a theme in Colombian history ever since Colonial times. And they keep appearing. After his killing in 1993, cocaine king Pablo Escobar's mansion was sacked, its floors dug up and its walls bashed in by neighbors who believed riches were stashed there. If anybody found anything, they didn't talk about it. In 2003 in the town of Tulua, a drifter lived high for weeks on a cache of money he'd discovered inside the abandoned house of an arrested drug dealer. Three weeks after the discovery, the drifter was found dead, with signs of torture. And a few months ago, a street vendor told me to go visit a certain military post, where they were selling dollars at half the market rate. The soldiers there had found a guaca and were laundering the money.

I didn't see anything morally wrong with helping some humble, long-suffering soldiers make a buck from dirty money they'd found. But it could also mean trouble, so I didn't go.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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