Police recover Bolivian presidential medal stolen while custodian at brothel

Police in Bolivia on Wednesday recovered a jewel-encrusted presidential medal which had been stolen the night before when its custodian was reportedly visiting a brothel.

The guard, identified by police as Lieutenant Roberto Juan de Dios Ortiz Blanco, had been meant to deliver the historic medal and a tricolor sash to the President Evo Morales to wear during his speech on Wednesday in the central city of Cochabamba, according to a police report quoted by local media.

But his flight late Tuesday was delayed and the officer instead decided to visit various brothels, the report said.

"I entered a number of these different establishments (brothels) but then returned to where I left my motor car," the report quoted Ortiz as having told police. "When I got there my backpack, which held the emblems of the nation, had been taken."

Police Colonel Jhonny Aguilera said the thieves had dumped the priceless symbols of state in the portico of a church in the center of the capital La Paz.

"Thanks to the cooperation of Unitel," a television station that received an anonymous tip-off, "we have recovered the symbols in some black bags," he told reporters.

Morales - who last wore the emblems on August 6, during celebrations marking Bolivia's 193rd anniversary - appeared at the Cochabamba military parade on Wednesday with neither medal nor sash.

He made no reference to their absence or to the theft, which had first been reported by the ministry of defence, which confirmed only that the custodian of the medal had been detained as part of an investigation.

Aguilera, the police spokesperson, said Peruvian thieves were believed to have been behind the robbery of his backpack and that authorities on the border with Peru were on the look out for the suspects.

Former president Carlos Mesa had earlier described the theft as "a hard blow for the republic," comparing the loss of the medal to "the theft of the crown of Queen Elizabeth II of England".

The medal was a gift from the Congress of the recently formed Bolivian republic to its founder in 1825 and was first used in 1826 as the presidential medal by Antonio Jose de Sucre.

The gold medal, encrusted with precious stones, is normally kept in a secure vault at the Central Bank in La Paz but is delivered to the president for ceremonial occasions.

The defence ministry said earlier that the "intelligence service and all state institutions have been placed at the disposal of investigators to find those responsible for this theft as quickly as possible".