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Pin-Up Girl Tells How She Spotted Suitcase Stuffed With Cash
The 'suitcase girl' who discovered $800,000 in cash and ignited a political scandal across South America - then capitalised on it to forge a career as a Playboy pin-up - has relived her moment of glory in a Miami courtroom.
María del Luján Telpuk, 28, an Argentinian former airport security officer, is testifying in court about the moment she intercepted a suitcase and provoked a row between the governments of Argentina, Venezuela and the US. Claims of high-level corruption, cover-ups and vendettas have followed and commentators have dubbed the scandal 'Maletagate'; maleta is Spanish for suitcase.
The furore catapulted Telpuk to stardom as a glamour model, dancer and television celebrity. Telpuk, who promptly underwent breast augmentation surgery, has since appeared on the cover of several magazines, including the Argentinian edition of Playboy in which she appears naked, holding a suitcase, under the headline 'Corruption Laid Bare'.
She told a Miami court on Friday what happened at Buenos Aires airport on the night of 4 August, 2007, when passengers disembarked from a flight chartered by Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA.
Telpuk asked a Venezuelan-American businessman, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, what was in his suitcase. 'At first he said books,' she told the court. 'Then he said "just some papers".' Antonini's demeanour changed when she ordered him to open it. 'He became serious and he was staring me straight in the eye. That's when I got a suspicion that something was going on,' said Telpuk. It was packed with wads of $50 bills.
Prosecutors allege that it was a clandestine payment from Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez to the election campaign of Cristina Kirchner, a left-wing ally who was sweeping to Argentina's presidency.
Both leaders have dismissed the accusation as an attempt by Washington to smear two governments which have challenged 'gringo hegemony' in Latin America.
Telpuk has testified in the trial of Franklin Durán, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman who is accused of acting as an illegal agent for his government. He and four others were arrested in Miami after allegedly pressuring Antonini, who resides in Key Biscayne, Florida, to conceal the truth about where the money came from.
The unusual nature of the charge and the elaborate FBI sting - Antonini co-operated with the Bureau - has prompted widespread speculation that the trial is a politically motivated attempt to embarrass Washington's enemy, President Chávez.
After finishing her testimony next week, Telpuk is expected to return to Argentina, where she is training to become a professional ice-skater to participate in the Skating for a Dream television show.