LONDON - A prize-winning documentary about Colombian drug runners that was broadcast on the CBS program "60 Minutes" was a fake, a commission has concluded, with paid actors portrayed as drug dealers and the producer's hotel room disguised as a drug kingpin's jungle hideout.
An independent panel of lawyers and veteran producers said the news program "The Connection" was essentially fiction.
The film had dramatic footage of a drug "mule" said to be carrying millions of dollars' worth of heroin to London for Colombia's Cali drug cartel.
The panel concluded that there was no "mule" and no heroin, and that the "important new smuggling route" the program purported to expose does not exist.
The documentary was made by Carlton Communications, a prominent British television and film production company, and was sold to CBS in 1997. It features hidden cameras, disguised-voice interviews, secretive locations and other tools of documentary filmmakers.
The flaws in the production were first revealed in May by London's Guardian newspaper. The Guardian report prompted Carlton to set up the independent panel, which issued its devastating report Friday.
CBS did not undertake its own study of the program, but said that the results of the British probe will be reported on "60 Minutes."
"The Connection" has been broadcast around the world and has won eight journalism awards, including three in the United States. Carlton said it would return the awards and refund the fees it received from networks that bought the program.
The expansion of cable and satellite-television channels has created a large new market for documentaries, particularly on subjects that can appeal to a global audience. Producers say some filmmakers use paid actors and other false techniques to spice up their offerings.
The study panel concluded that the flaws with "The Connection" went deeper, however. It says that the basic conclusion of the program - that Colombian drug dealers have opened a new smuggling route to Europe through London's Heathrow Airport - is false.
In "The Connection," a person said to be a drug "mule" is shown swallowing rubber balloons said to contain heroin. The smuggler is then filmed arriving at Heathrow. On "60 Minutes," reporter Steve Kroft said that the "mule" had "no problem" getting past British customs and that "another pound of heroin was on the British streets."
In fact, the panel said, the smuggler was a hired actor who swallowed sugar or mints, not heroin. And when he arrived in London, customs officials immediately sent him back to Colombia because of passport problems.
The panel said it could not determine whether the film's producer, Marc de Beaufort, knew about all the false elements of his documentary. De Beaufort declined interviews but said in a videotaped statement that the suggestion he had used paid actors was "untenable."
The documentary included a segment in which the producer had to travel blindfolded for two days by car to reach a secret rendezvous with a drug kingpin.
In fact, the interview was held in de Beaufort's hotel room. "The panel . . . is troubled by de Beaufort's willingness to misrepresent what actually happened," the report said.