Colombian troops in theft trial

Several dozen Colombian troops are standing trial for allegedly pocketing $16 million belonging to leftist guerrillas.

    Corruption among security forces is widespread in Colombia

    After finding the buried cache three years ago, some 147 soldiers went on a binge of parties, prostitutes, wining and dining.

    They bought new cars and motorcycles, and one reportedly even used his windfall to pay for a sex change operation.

    This week came the hangover - a trial for 50 of the troops that was in its second day on Tuesday.

    If convicted of improperly failing to turn in the money, the soldiers could face sentences of 4 to 14 years under Colombian military law. With 50 defendants represented by 60 lawyers, the trial is expected to last about two months.

    The other 97 soldiers are still on the run, and a military tribunal spokeswoman said authorities suspect some have fled to neighbouring Venezuela and Ecuador.

    Rebel loot

    The anti-guerrilla unit stumbled across the money belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, while on patrol in a rebel stronghold in southern Colombia in 2003.

    Rather than reporting the find, the soldiers split the booty among themselves. Officials said each of them pocketed about $110,000 - about 55 times the average yearly salary in Colombia.

    The action was discovered when soldiers earning less than $200 a month began arriving at the military base wearing designer clothing and driving new cars.

    Local prostitutes astonished investigators and the public with stories of troops buying them motorcycles and throwing wild parties as they celebrated their windfall.

    Only about $550,000 has been turned in and will belong to the government if the soldiers are convicted.

    "Victimless crime"

    The episode has been a favorite topic of conversation in Colombia, inspiring two books and a movie. Some Colombians were appalled by the apparent lack of military discipline. Others sympathised with the temptation faced by the impoverished soldiers and viewed it as a victimless crime.

    Corruption among security forces is widespread in Colombia, where poorly paid soldiers and police battle well-financed drug-traffickers, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.



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