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As farmer Jose Mariena Cartolos toiled away in the Colombian sunshine, he came across something unexpected. In the midst of digging a trench, he struck something solid, buried in the ground. And even in a country famous for its checkered and mysterious past, nobody could have guessed the incredible secret that he was about to uncover.
Image: via DW
Intrigued, Cartolos – who reportedly had only recently received a government grant to help him start a palm oil plantation – did some more digging, and he soon uncovered several blue plastic barrels that had been hidden in the earth. Moreover, what he found inside them had the potential to change his life beyond recognition.
Image: via CTV News
Cartolos had discovered a relic from some of Colombia’s most violent and bloody eras. But what was in the barrels? And who had buried them – and why?
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In the middle of the 1980s, Colombia was in the grip of a vicious underworld that pervaded almost every aspect of everyday life. The Medellín Cartel, one of history’s most notorious criminal organizations, was at the height of its power.
Headed up by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, the cartel was responsible for around 80 percent of the cocaine shipped to the United States. By boat and by plane, the organization smuggled loads of up to 51,000 pounds into the country.
Of course, all that business generated a staggering profit, and Escobar is known for being the richest criminal of all time. By the 1990s, his net worth was estimated at around $30 billion – and it could have been as much as $100 billion.
Escobar earned so much money that he built himself an insanely opulent mansion – Hacienda Nápoles in Antioquia, Colombia. The estate even included its own private zoo, which boasted giraffes, elephants, hippopotamuses and exotic birds.
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But when you’re an international drug smuggler making billions of dollars, your banking options can be somewhat limited. So rather than keep his ill-gotten gains in an account or a trust, Escobar took a more unconventional approach.
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In secret locations across Colombia and Mexico, the drug lord hid his fortune in the simplest of ways. He simply buried it. Billions upon billions of dollars, stashed in containers and buried beneath the ground – waiting to one day be recovered when needed.
Image: via TheLADbible
Unfortunately for Escobar, the long arm of the law had other plans. On December 2, 1992, he was killed in a police shootout in Medellín, Colombia. His brother Roberto – who revealed the existence of the hidden stashes of cash in his book Escobar – was locked up on charges of criminal conspiracy.
With that rather sudden end to Escobar’s reign, his fortune was largely lost to history. Aside from 8 million dollars uncovered from an underground vault, none of the treasure hunters dedicated to finding Escobar’s billions have ever had any luck.
But did a 65-year-old farmer succeed where others have failed? The story goes that Juan Mariena Cartolos accidentally discovered one of Escobar’s hiding places while digging out a trench on his land.
Image: via Don Diva Magazine
And it is reported that in those blue containers he found a jaw-dropping $600 million in cash. But is his story too good to be true?
Image: via Diario Norte Chaco
The tale of the lowly farmer who uncovered a drug lord’s fortune – and his staggering honesty in handing the haul over to the authorities – was quickly picked up by news services and websites and shared thousands of times on social media. However, some astute observers have pointed out a few holes in the story that have cast doubt on its authenticity.
One of the main problems is just how many plastic barrels Cartolos would have had to find to scoop $600 million. Given that a stack of 10,000 100-dollar bills – $1 million in total – will reach more than three feet high, 600 of these stacks would require a lot of storage space.
There is also some doubt about the authenticity of the image showing the barrel full of money that has become attached to the story. A sharp-eyed writer at Daily Haze has claimed that the 100-dollar bills shown in the photo didn’t come into circulation until 2006 – 13 years after Escobar’s death.
In spite of these rather convincing counter-arguments, there are few things that capture the imagination quite as much as buried treasure. Perhaps that explains why this story has been so widely reproduced around the world.
Everyone likes to believe that their lucky break could be just around the corner. And the notion of finding millions of untraceable dollars hidden right under your feet is certainly a romantic one.
Add to this the fact that several authoritative sources claim that Escobar really did hide several fortunes underground in secret locations – something which inspires many serious real-life treasure hunters to this day – and it’s not hard to see why people were suckered in. We want to believe stories like this.
Featuring a rags-to-riches protagonist and set against the backdrop of Escobar’s violent and romanticized Colombia, Cartolos’ tale might not be true. But it sure is a tempting dream to chase.