Hunting Colombian guerillas

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Audio Transcript:

Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerillas tells the tale of how a group of Colombian soldiers on a mission to rescue hostages from FARC rebels stumbled upon a stash of buried cash. Marco Werman speaks with the book's author, John Otis.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Remember the three American contractors held captive for years in the Colombian jungle? Colombian soldiers rescued them, along with politician Ingrid Bettencort, from leftist guerillas in the summer of 2008. That story got a lot of attention. Less known is the tale of an earlier, but failed rescue mission. Some Colombian soldiers out in the jungle didn't find the hostages, but they found something else, a massive pile of buried cash. It's detailed in a new book by John Otis, called "Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombia Guerillas". John, by the way, is a frequent contributor to this program. John, how these soldiers came up the stash is remarkable and it'll have to be the opening scene if you ever write a screenplay about this story. Start with the monkey meat.

JOHN OTIS: Okay, well these are Colombian soldiers. They were being pushed really hard. They'd been out in the jungle a long, long time and they'd run out of supplies, so they were killing monkeys and stewing monkeys over open fires and that was their food. So they were pretty angry and they were pretty much about ready to mutiny. That's when one of these soldiers from eating all this horrid Amazon chow, he had an upset stomach and he ran out into the bushes to relieve himself and while he was out there, he stumbled upon all this money that had been buried by the guerillas.

WERMAN: And how much are we talking about John?

OTIS: In the end, they dug up about 20 million dollars in Colombian pesos and U.S. cash.

WERMAN: A lot more than any of these soldiers had ever seen in their lives.

OTIS: Yes, we're talking about soldiers who were earning $44.00 a week and they were on one of the most dangerous missions in one of the most risky areas of Colombia and they were also a little resentful because they were looking for these high paid U.S. military contractor guys who were making six figures and these Colombians, they were making 200 bucks a month.

WERMAN: A high risk job, easy to justify how you might keep that money. What did they do with it?

OTIS: They stuffed their pockets. Once they got back to base, they pretty much deserted. They went into the local town and took over the bordellos and took over the bars and just started blowing their money on whiskey and prostitutes. Some of them bought appliances and flat screen televisions, but the problem is they left a trail a mile wide and military MP's started to come after them almost immediately.

WERMAN: And so what ultimately happened to all of these millions of dollars? I guess they spent some of it, so less than what the originally found.

OTIS: They spent some of it, some of them once they were rounded up by the MP's turned it over. A few managed to escape, get out of Colombia. Some went to Ecuador, some went to Panama, and we don't really know what happened to them. One of the soldiers got a sex change operation and opened up a string of beauty parlors in the city of Cali.

WERMAN: The secret lives of the Colombian Army. Legally, whose cash was this?

OTIS: Most of this money was the evil profits of drug trafficking and ransom payments made to the guerillas because the guerillas are heavy involved in the kidnapping trade. In other words, the money had already been stolen, so the soldiers were stealing the money from the robbers, so to speak, so in that sense the legal against these soldiers once they were put on trial was very difficult because the soldiers argued hey, that money didn't belong to the state, it didn't belong to anyone. We found it. And basically the defense of the soldiers was long the lines of finders, keepers.

WERMAN: So these soldiers went on trial? How many went on trial and what was the charge?

OTIS: 147 soldiers went on trial and they were charged with stealing government property. They were convicted, but later the conviction was thrown out. But once they were free, they ended up in even greater danger because then the fark guerillas were angry that they had stolen the money from the guerillas, started to come out after them.

WERMAN: Yeah, I was going to say how did the fark react to all of this. I imagine these are people you wouldn't want to take millions of dollars from.

OTIS: The fark guerillas put together a special hit team to track down these soldiers and kill them. They managed to do that in a couple of cases. In another case that I detail in the book, one of the soldiers had used his money from the stash to buy his father a coffee farm. The guerillas found out, they came after the soldier and couldn't find him, so they kidnapped his father. Now the soldier felt so bad about getting his father into so much trouble, that the soldier went up into the hills to find the guerillas and he offered to trade himself for his father. So they freed his father, they took the soldier hostage and then ended up executing the soldier.

WERMAN: John, how damaging was this loss of millions of dollars for the fark?

OTIS: You know Marco, the fark is thought to earn probably anywhere between 300 and 500 million dollars annually from drug trafficking and kidnapping people for ransom. Nobody really knows exactly, but the thing is they have stashes of cash all over the jungle because they can't very easily open up high interest bank accounts in Bogota and other cities. They have to do something with all this cash and so they bury it in the jungle. So it's actually a little bit more common than you think that people in Colombia find stashes of money.

WERMAN: A stash of millions in the Colombian jungle, just one of the tales in "Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerillas". John Otis is the author. Thank you very much John for speaking with us.

OTIS: Thanks Marco.