Army officer Jorge Sanabria stumbled upon a huge cache of drug dollars buried in the Colombian mountains. He let his tired and hungry soldiers keep it.

"There is still a hundred million dollars out there in the hills - cash," muses Lieutenant Jorge Sanabria of the Colombian Army as he sips a beer then picks up a thick beef rib.

Sanabria rips apart the meat like a happy dog. Beef blood slides down his right arm and drips off his elbow. His young daughter smiles proudly.

I am drinking with a wanted man in the hills outside of Bogota, Colombia. As he slurps and burps, Sanabria looks relaxed for a man who received nasty threats for years and insinuates that the cute little girl next to him would be snatched.

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"He's like Hitler, sleeps in a different place every night, never tells people where he really is," says Jorg Hiller, a Colombian screenwriter who guided me to this remote rendezvous. "Five people have already been murdered because of this money.

Sanabria might just be the luckiest millionaire in the entirely mad, and ultimately futile War On Cocaine. He never sold cocaine. He didn't launder cocaine money (well at least for most of his life).

He found US$150 million (NZ$222 million) in cocaine cash. One hundred and fifty million dollars. Stashed inside oil drums, buried in a remote corner of Colombia.

Each oil drum had US$8 million in stacks and bricks of US$100 bills. At least 20 barrels were unearthed, probably more. Sanabria is planning to go back and get the money he left behind, so he keeps most of his insider details top secret.

The pile of cow ribs disappears, and the cast of empty beer bottles extends across the picnic table.

As the sun tracks across the horizon, Sanabria and a growing coterie of associates tell me about the history of hidden treasure in Colombia.

"They are called a Guaca [pronounced Walk-A]. It is an indigenous word," says Adriana Chacon, Sanabria's lawyer, who often sounds like his spokesman.

"In the aboriginal history, they hid their treasures in clay pots and hid them in the ground. In the begining of the 20th centuries we created Los Guacqueros [Walk-Keros] who went to find and unearth the guacas ... the soldiers called this su guaca [their treasure] because it was a treasure they found."

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"I was sent to unbury a huge fortune, probably several hundred million, a huge treasure," said Colonel Hernan Mejia, an elite commander in the Colombian Army Special Forces. "This guy had so many exits from his ranch. At every exit he had a suitcase with US$6 million hidden under the floors, in the roof, behind a mirror. No matter which way he left, there was always a bag of cash."

Describing the huge number of hidden treasures in Colombia, Adriana Chacon, Sanabria's lawyer points to the shaggy green mountains surrounding Bogota. "The mountains of Colombia? That's our Central Bank."

* * *

Sanabria and his men were practically starving to death on the morning one of his young soldiers came running back to the base camp, fistfuls of US $100 bills falling out of his hands. After months of fighting guerrillas and insects (and losing on both fronts) the 72 men of Sanabria's patrol, known as Hunter Batallion, lived in tents surrounded by monkeys. "We had been fighting the guerillas for weeks, and this camp was theirs. We took it over and were resting for a few weeks; the guys were tired and we had no food."

The rustic campsite had recently been used by Colombia's largest guerrilla group, known as the FARC. Once a feared insurgency waging civil war, the FARC long ago dropped their revolutionary rhetoric and became cocaine dealers, moving thousands of pounds of pure cocaine into Mexico, earning an estimated US$500 million a year. Sanabria and his men, without knowing it, had been camping for days atop the FARC's Central Bank, millions in drug cash, buried below their sleeping bags.

"I thought it was counterfeit, there was really no way to believe that was real money," explains Sanabria. "From the first moment, I decided not to report it because of the bad treatment they [Colombian Army officials] had given my men. If you could see the sad faces of these dudes. They began to tell me how their mum suffered from hunger, about a sick sister who needed a house ... there was never any doubt [that we would keep the money.]"

As commander it was his call. Sanabria kept it simple - finders keepers. Over the next week, the men abandoned their fight against the guerillas as they dug up barrel after barrel, each stuffed with as much as US$8 million.

The soldiers sat around the campfire, dreaming of the houses, the women, the new life that beckoned. After two weeks in the bush, the young millionaires developed their own economy. Toilet paper sold for US$100. A radio with batteries for $1000. "You can have a half million dollars," said one soldier, "but you can't put a price on a new toothbrush."

But with army helicopters busy in other operations, the men were stranded. And hungry.

"We were millionaires but had nothing to eat," said one soldier who survived by cooking slugs on the fire and shooting animals out of the treetops.

Sanabria organised a hunting schedule. Every day the group went out and shot monkeys. Morale slipped away as disease, hunger and snakes kept Sanabria's unit perpetually uncomfortable.

"The jungle eats you," said Chris Ryan, a former British SAS commando and author of

The One Who Got Away

. "After being in the jungle for weeks, I remember taking a bath and had these red spots on my knee and an itch down around my ankle. I scratched and scratched and then the skin broke open. Like 15 spiders crawled out."

When the helicopters arrived the troops piled aboard. The men had so much cash they simply could not carry it all. So each man made a painful decision - he filled his rucksack and pockets with wads of cash. Even the canteens were emptied of water so that rolls of bills could be stuffed inside. All the rest was put back in the barrels and reburied in the hills. The men were able to carry out an estimated US$46 million. But twice that much, nearly US$100 million, was left behind.

One of the pilots commented on the unusually heavy load as he gunned the helicopter engines. "You guys are really loaded down."

No one dared answer.

Sanabria repeated his orders as the helicopter headed back to base. Don't tell anyone. Don't spend it. Follow my instructions, he said, and we'll all be rich.

Within hours of landing back at their army base near the town of Popoyan, the young troops went mad.

One soldier bought a new Ford pickup, decked with tinted windows and a sound system like a night club. Another soldier roared on to base atop a sparkling motorcycle.

Downtown Popoyan was awash in gossip, a group of soldiers had entered the brothel, kicked everyone out and paid US$60,000 cash for the beginning of what would be a two-day orgy.

Other soldiers converted local taxi drivers into their personal chauffeurs. They piled into shoe stores and filled the taxi trunk with boxes of new sneakers and sweat suits. One man bought a bottle of expensive perfume and then drank it on the spot. A soldier who found the local hairdresser cute had his haircut three times in the same day. The Casa de Cambio, money changing shops, simply ran out of local Colombian currency.

Army officers immediately heard strange tales from the field. A mass of rich soldiers partying like kings. A group meeting was called. Hunter Battalion were to present themselves at formation the following morning.

The soldiers who showed up were arrested. A manhunt was launched throughout Colombia for the majority of soldiers, who deserted en masse.

Each man took his own route. Some went home, but many came up with creative escape plans.

One soldier fled to Margarita Island in the Caribbean and bought a small hotel which he ran under a fake identity, also purchased for cash. Another bought an Argentine bus company and laundered his cash by running empty buses back and forth across South America.

Private Lenin was the most original. A young gay, he had joined the army to earn some cash for his family. But in the homophobic army he was terrified of being discovered and dreamed of having a sex change operation and converting himself into a woman.

Now he had the cash to pay for his dream, Lenin travelled to Ecuador, successfully changed sex and moved back to the picturesque town of Armenia where he opened a nail salon and spa, happily married to a policeman.

Though the Colombian Government tried to portray the soldiers as criminals, the Colombian public adopted them as folk heroes.

"The majority of Colombians believe it was just for those soldiers to keep the money. They are guys who risked their lives," said Rodrigo Triana, a Colombian movie director who is directing

Regreso a la Guaca

[

Return to the Treasure

] a soap opera based on the adventures and tragedies of the soldiers who found the cash.

"They didn't go looking for it. They found it. That is war booty. And war booty is for whoever finds it."

Eventually all the soldiers were released. Many were allowed to keep the money. But for many of the soldiers, the discovery became known as "The Cursed Treasure" [La Guaca Maldita], as violence followed the trail of drug money.

"It [the discovery] was a tragedy. Several soldiers were murdered, others had their families kidnapped, threatened or were robbed blind of all their money," says Triana.

"For most of them it was more of a tragedy than good news."

"They found a lot of money out there," says Chacon. "But they also found a stash of trouble."

Sanabria is still looking for trouble as he plans to sneak back into the jungle, retrieve the remaining loot and divide it among his men. It is five years since he first found the cocaine cash.

His first mission ended in total failure as the guerrillas were waiting with an ambush.

"We found wooden stakes, like 2-3 metres high, sticks with cyanide on the points. We found a tower with a .50 calibre machine gun to go after the helicopters that would land there," Sanabria describes the guerrilla infrastructure near the buried treasure. "That meant they were waiting for us."

Dozens of anti-personnel mines were buried around the cash stash.

"On the first night, they entered [the area] a captain died from a landmine and two soldiers also died," said Mejia. The mission was aborted, but Sanabria lives with the dream of that cash. No one else has the co-ordinates. Only he can find the US$100 million in his secret stash.

LUCRATIVE AND DEADLY BUSINESS

For a decade the United States has poured billions of dollars in military and civilian aid into wiping out Colombia's drug trade.

The investment has yet to pay off. In June, the United Nations reported that coca cultivation in Colombia surged 27 per cent in 2007, which meant the country remained the world's largest coca producer.

Cocaine has overtaken coffee as Colombia's top export, churning out over 610 tonnes a year.

Behind these figures lies a toll of human misery. As many as four million people have been forced from their homes by armed rebels and paramilitaries engaged in a bitter conflict with the Colombian Army.

Human rights groups say illegal groups assert territorial control by engaging in acts of terror, including the use of selective assassinations, to maintain strict control over communities. Land mines protect guerrilla territory in many parts of the country.

The lucrative cocaine trade continues to flourish despite the smashing of major cartels. In the 1990s, the Cali and Medellin cartels were dismantled and just this week another drug kingpin, Diego Montoya Sanchez, admitted counts of drug-trafficking, racketeering and murder.

At its peak, his cartel supplied the US with 60 per cent of its cocaine demand - a trade worth about US$10 billion ($14.7 billion) over two decades.

Despite his capture the business goes on. Last year Colombia's crop accounted for 62 per cent of the world's cocaine production, a trade the UN estimates to be worth US$70 billion worldwide.