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Colombia Busts Counterfeit Ring With U.S. Help

November 18, 2000|Associated Press

VERSALLES, Colombia — Criminals in an underground room cranked out counterfeit U.S. currency--possibly more than $1 billion worth--before police working with the U.S. Secret Service cracked the biggest counterfeiting operation in Colombia, officials said.

The counterfeiters dug out the room in the Andes of western Colombia, lined its walls with cinder block and brought in fluorescent lighting and a printing press. The entrance was hidden in a thick grove of banana trees.

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. About $22 million in Colombian-made counterfeit dollars have been seized in the United States since 1985.

Journalists flown to the site aboard police helicopters late Thursday 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. Metal plates from which the bills were imprinted were scattered on tables.

A police officer turned on the black printing press, which clanked into life and began spitting out sheets of $100 bills. A portable fan provided ventilation for the humid room.

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

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 after undercover officers infiltrated the counterfeiting gang, national police Gen. Alfonso Arellano said Friday.

Gerardo Ardila, believed to be a lower-level worker, was arrested in the underground room. Authorities were searching for the alleged mastermind, Ramiro Sepulveda, a convicted Colombian counterfeiter.

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