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El Dorado fever

BOGOTA, Colombia — Stumbling upon millions of dollars is everyone’s fantasy but in Colombia gilded dreams come true more often than you might think.

Thanks to the country’s lucrative cocaine trade, traffickers must hide huge sums until they figure out how to launder their drug dollars. Some bury their money. Others build elaborate vaults in the false walls and floors of their luxury homes.

Then there are the Neanderthals who just leave it in the trunk of the Toyota. Last week, Colombian police found $16 million and then another $12 million jammed in the back of two vehicles parked on the streets of Bogota.

The police, however, aren’t always first on the scene.

When narcos are arrested or killed, news of their demise can kick off a frenzy in which mobs of bounty hunters raid the homes of kingpins, tearing down ceilings with crow bars and breaking up cement floors with sledgehammers.

A few months ago I visited Hacienda Napoles, the vast country estate of the late Pablo Escobar.

I was expecting glitz but his mansion was a mess. The floor was pocked with holes and the blue tiles of the empty swimming pool were shattered — all the work of unauthorized excavators tunneling for rumored riches.

Another infamous smuggler, the late Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, buried much of his treasure near his hometown of Pacha, a few hours north of Bogota. During one particularly rainy year, a nearby river rose and Pacha residents spotted barrels of cash bobbing in the water. Later, they drained a lagoon after it was rumored that a truck full of the drug lord’s gold bars could be found on the bottom.

Buried treasure is one of the themes running through Law of the Jungle, my book about three U.S. military contractors who were kidnapped by Marxist rebels.

When the hostages were rescued in July 2008, it was headline news. Less known is that the original Colombian army search party was, shall we say, “sidetracked” when troops stumbled upon $20 million buried in the jungle by FARC guerrillas.

The soldiers promptly filled their pockets, deserted, and blew much of their cash in the bars and bordellos of the Colombian outback. When I asked why they had gone AWOL in their search for the Americans, one of the troops — referring to their stacks of $20, $50 and $100 bills — pointed out that they’d already found three gringos: Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin.

But the money didn’t buy happiness. Some of the soldiers were thrown in the stockade for looting. Others were tracked down and killed by revenge-seeking rebels.

Despite the danger, there seems to be no stopping the freelance search parties.

Last month, three Colombian soldiers and four civilians set out for FARC territory to look for an underground cache. All seven are now missing and it is widely believed that they are being held hostage by guerrillas.