Counterfeiters cranked out millions in underground room

VERSAILLES, Colombia - Its entrance hidden in a thick grove of banana trees, criminals in an underground room cranked out millions of counterfeit U.S. dollars - possibly more than $1 billion - before police cracked the biggest-ever counterfeiting operation in Colombia.

Displaying ingenuity and daring, the counterfeiters dug out the room in a mountainside of the verdant Andes of western Colombia, lined its walls with cinderblock and brought in fluorescent lighting and a printing press.

The enterprise ended Thursday with a bust that highlights a problem in a country better known for drug trafficking. According to the U.S. Embassy, one-third of counterfeit money circulating in the United States is made in Colombia. Some $22 million in Colombian-made counterfeit dollars have been seized in the United States since 1985.

''This, unfortunately, is a national talent, because these are self-trained counterfeiters who produce (money) with a great degree of perfection,'' national police Gen. Alfonso Arrellano said.

Anyone passing within a few feet of the banana trees in the isolated farming and coffee-growing region would have no way of knowing that a multi-million-dollar cottage industry - and a subterranean one at that - was in operation.

Journalists flown to the site aboard police helicopters late Thursday, within hours of the room's discovery, saw $3 million in bogus bills lying in stacks on tables and hanging by clips from string stretched across the 15-by-20-foot room. Cans of ink and dye stood on shelves mounted on the walls. Metal plates from which the bills were imprinted were scattered on tables.

A policeman turned on the black printing press, which clanked into life and began spitting out sheets of $100 bills.

''Everything you need to make dollars is here,'' said Arrellano, the police general. ''And this room, which is like a bunker, was built with sophisticated engineering techniques.''

A task force of 100 Colombian police, assisted by U.S. Secret Service agents, spent a year and a half trying to find the moneymaking factory and finally discovered it with the help of ''intelligence operations,'' Arrellano said Friday. He did not divulge their sources.

When heavily armed police swooped in on Thursday, they found one man, Gerardo Ardila, in the underground room and arrested him, Arrellano said. Ardila was believed to be a lower-level worker.

Authorities were searching for the alleged mastermind, Ramiro Sepulveda, who previously served a two-year prison sentence for counterfeiting, police said. The Secret Service has been looking for Sepulveda for years, according to Arrellano.

The Secret Service in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Bogota did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

The underground operation was capable of printing $3 million per week and had probably been doing so for about 10 years - producing more than 1 billion bogus dollars, Arrellano said. That could make it among the biggest operations for counterfeiting illicit greenbacks ever uncovered in the world.

Quality is another matter.

The bills, in denominations of 100s, 50s and 20s, look genuine at first glance. But anyone familiar with U.S. currency can see on closer inspection that something is wrong. The texture of the paper doesn't feel right - it's slightly glossy - and the printing looks fake.

Police said much of the bogus money was probably destined for neighboring Ecuador, which officially switched to the dollar in September as the country's official currency. Ecuadorean officials had predicted counterfeit dollars from Colombia would flood Ecuador because many locals would not be able to recognize fake bills.


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