updated 7/3/2006 8:04:10 PM ET 2006-07-04T00:04:10

A platoon of Colombian soldiers was combing the jungle for three American defense contractors taken captive by leftist rebels when a young soldier slipped, piercing with his machete a buried treasure beyond his wildest imagination.

What private Wilson Sandoval discovered on that day in 2003 was a cache of nearly $16 million in cash allegedly belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's oldest rebel group.

The wild revelry, frenzied spending spree and drunken sex orgy that followed their find is now being made into a feature film. But for the 53 soldiers standing trial before a military tribunal here, no Hollywood ending seems in sight. Facing four to 14 years for improperly failing to turn in the money, they proclaim their innocence.

"The only ones negatively affected by their conduct was the FARC," said Jaime Lombana, one of the lawyers representing the soldiers at the trial, now in its third week.

Sandoval, accused of pocketing as much as $2,000, testified last week. "I found the money fair and square and wasn't hurting anyone, or jeopardizing the country's security by taking it," he said.

The soldier, crying on the witness stand, claimed he's suffered three attempts on his life by anonymous attackers trying to take the money he claims to have returned to his superiors.

Another accused soldier, John Jairo Vivas, told the court martial that he was so poor after being discharged from the army that he had to survive by collecting and recycling trash on the streets of Bogota.

"If the money was divvied up, I didn't receive a penny," said Vivas, who's accused of walking away with $60,000.

Little recovered so far
Only $551,000 of the stolen booty has been recovered and 94 more soldiers implicated in the incident remain at large. Investigators suspect many have fled the country, and at least one fugitive is believed to have spent the windfall on a sex change operation.

Proof that the soldiers turned over the cash to their superiors appears to have vanished.

Some Colombians were appalled by the apparent lack of military discipline. Others sympathized with the soldiers, who earn less than $200 a month, and viewed it as a victimless crime.

In August, a movie about the events, "Sonar No Cuesta Nada" (Dreaming doesn't cost anything), will be released.

The film, based on real events, focuses on a prostitute in the southern city of Popayan who said she received thousands of dollars from the newly enriched soldiers back from the jungle.

Corruption among security forces is widespread in this South American nation, where poorly paid soldiers and police battle well-financed drug traffickers, leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries.

Locked in a four-decade civil war to topple the government, the rebels raise money through drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. Colombia is the world's No. 1 cocaine producer.

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