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$35M in Colombia Drug Money Seized

August 25, 2001

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ In a joint U.S.-Colombian operation, police discovered $35 million stashed in the walls of two Bogota apartments _ one of the largest seizures of drug money ever, officials said Saturday.

The commander of the Colombian national police, Gen. Ernesto Gilibert, said Saturday the apartments where the money was found were used as ``private banks″ by the North Valley Cartel, a top cocaine ring.

The money was discovered on Friday, and was found packed in more than 300 plastic-wrapped bundles of $100,000 each. The cash, in denominations of $20s, $50s and $100s, was displayed at a news conference Saturday at national police headquarters in Bogota.

In Washington, U.S. Customs spokesman Dean Boyd said it was ``one of the largest single seizures of U.S. currency ever.″

Police found $15 million hidden behind a bathroom wall in one apartment in northern Bogota and $20 million behind a kitchen wall in the other apartment about a mile away, officials said.

One person was detained during the raids, but police did not release his identity.

At the Bogota news conference, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and Gilibert congratulated each other on the operation, in which the DEA and Colombian police participated.

``Every time we trail international criminals, the DEA plays an important role,″ Gilibert said.

The seizures came after Wednesday’s arrest of Felix Chitiva Carrasquilla, considered one of the top men in the North Valley Cartel, which operates out of the southern state of Cauca.

Chitiva, was arrested in Cali, 185 miles southwest of Bogota. He is wanted on two warrants in federal court in Florida, one of which stems from a drug trafficking case from the early 1990s.

Colombian police say Chitiva was responsible for a 10-ton shipment of cocaine seized in Venezuela a year ago. It was confiscated as part of an investigation, dubbed Operation Journey, that resulted in the seizure of about 25 tons of cocaine and the arrests of 43 people worldwide.

The $35 million appeared to be stashed in the two locations to be laundered, officials said.

Colombian drug smugglers provide more than 80 percent of the world’s cocaine and often smuggle back to Colombia huge amounts of dollars, which are then invested in apparently legitimate enterprises such as housing complexes, resorts, restaurants and discotheques.

Defense Minister Gustavo Bell said the confiscated fortune would be spent on jails and to beef up Colombian anti-drug forces, including to purchase technical equipment.