Pubdate: Fri, 06 Aug 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company



In April and May, Laurie Anne Hiett, the wife of an Army colonel in charge
of all United States military operations in Colombia, mailed six packages
to New York City from the American Embassy in Bogota. Each was sealed in
plain brown paper and weighed several pounds.

Ms. Hiett sent four of them to an apartment in Queens and the others to
mail drops in Queens and Manhattan. She wrote her name clearly on the
return addresses and filled out United States Customs forms declaring the
contents to be books on Colombia or items like candy, a T-shirt, coffee or

But the names of the recipients were fictitious, and the packages turned
out to contain a total of 15.8 pounds of pure cocaine with a street value
of up to $230,000, according to a criminal complaint filed on Thursday in
federal Court in Brooklyn charging Ms. Hiett and two others in a bizarre
drug-trafficking conspiracy that took advantage of the embassy's special
mailing privileges.

A three-month undercover operation by the New York police, United States
Customs agents and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division found no
evidence of involvement by Col. James C. Hiett, her husband. He joined the
Army in 1976 and became a colonel in 1992. He was responsible for United
States military activity in Colombia from July 1998 until last week, when
he stepped aside voluntarily because of the allegations against his wife.

Ms. Hiett admitted to investigators that she had mailed the packages, but
insisted that she did not know the contents and had sent them at the behest
of her husband's chauffeur, a Colombian national.

While the purported smuggling operation was not large, the allegations
brushing the embassy and a high anti-narcotics official come at a sensitive
time in the joint efforts to combat the drug trade in Colombia, the world's
No. 1 source of cocaine.

Colombia will receive $289 million in American aid this year, and most of
it will go to fight the drug war.

Ms. Hiett, 36, was arraigned before Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak in
federal District Court in Brooklyn on Thursday and ordered released on
$150,000 personal recognizance bond. The case was first detailed on the Web
site of The Village Voice.

The chauffeur, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, who had been a driver for the embassy
in Bogota for 15 years, was named as a co-conspirator and is being sought
by the authorities in Colombia. The complaint said he told investigators at
the embassy in June that Ms. Hiett "abused cocaine," and that he had helped
her buy it in La Zona Rosa, a notorious drug-trafficking district in
Bogota, and from "an unknown woman in a taxi" at the embassy's back gate.

Confronted with these assertions by the investigators, the complaint said,
Ms. Hiett became "extremely agitated." She insisted that she had received
the packages from Ayala, who "obtained them from individuals in a taxi
outside the embassy." But when pressed, she said, "I'm afraid they'll kill

Ms. Hiett's lawyer, Paul D. Lazarus of Miami, said yesterday that his
client denied the allegations, although he noted that no indictment had
been filed and that Ms. Hiett had not yet been required to enter a plea. He
said he was not prepared to make further statements until he had a chance
to study the case.

Lee G. Dunst, the assistant Federal prosecutor in the case, declined to
comment beyond the complaint, which accused Timla Arcila, 61, and her
brother, Hernan Arcila, 53, of receiving the packages at their apartment at
31-47 92d Street in Jackson Heights, Queens; at a rented post office box in
Elmhurst, Queens, and at a commercial mail drop in Manhattan.

Ms. Arcila was named as a co-defendant and was arraigned and released on
bail on Thursday. No dates for later hearings were set. Conviction on the
federal charge of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute
it is punishable by to 10 to 12 years in prison.

No Federal charges were filed against Hernan Arcila, who was being held at
the Queens House of Detention on an unrelated charge, filed by the Queens
District Attorney, of criminal possession of narcotics in the first degree,
which carries a penalty of up to life in prison.

Spokesmen for Colombia's Ministry of Defense, which oversees relations
between Colombian and American security forces in the drug wars, and for
President Andres Pastrana declined to comment on the case. The Colombian
Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment, and the
United States Embassy in Bogota, citing privacy considerations, said it
could not comment.

But a Colombian Government official, speaking on condition of anonymity,
said Ms. Hiett's contention that she had mailed packages containing cocaine
unknowingly at the request of her family's driver did not seem far-fetched.
He noted that mail service in Colombia, as in many Latin American
countries, was unreliable, and that Colombians close to foreign diplomats
often asked them to send mail.

Such requests, however, are usually to mail letters, not packages, and to
show that nothing illegal is being mailed the packages are left unsealed
when given to American diplomats or members of their families. "I think she
was being extremely naive," the official said.

But investigators said there was ample evidence that Ms. Hiett was aware of
what was in the packages. They said Customs travel records showed that she
even made several trips to the United States in April and May, allegedly to
prepare for and help coordinate the conspiracy.

According to the Federal complaint, the packages -- each about 12 by 6 by 4
inches and weighing about 3 pounds -- were mailed from the embassy's postal
service, which is not open to the general public and does not even provide
services for Colombians who work at the embassy.

The packages were sent between April 13 and May 26, four of them to the
Arcila apartment in Jackson Heights, the two others to the mail drops in
Queens and Manhattan that were said to have been rented by Timla Arcila. On
May 23, a Customs official in Miami, conducting a routine search,
discovered cocaine in one of the packages, which was addressed to a
Jacqueline Wellipon at the Queens apartment. Ms. Hiett's name was on the
return address.

Law-enforcement officials then began an undercover investigation. The
package containing the cocaine was delivered to the Arcilas, who accepted
it saying the addressee was not home. The brother and sister were arrested,
and a search of their apartment found more cocaine, $13,000 in cash and
notes that led to suspicions of Ayala's involvement.

Other packages containing cocaine were found at the mail drops, and
officials said customs declarations, admissions by the Arcilas and other
evidence made them conclude that at least six packages of cocaine were sent
from the embassy, five directly by Ms. Hiett and one by another woman
acting for her. The other woman, not identified in the complaint, was
described as a witness and was not regarded as a suspect.

Each of the six packages, for which Arcila said he was paid $1,500,
contained 1.2 kilograms of cocaine, or about 2.64 pounds. In total, the six
packages contained 7.2 kilos, or 15.84 pounds, which narcotics
investigators said had a street value in New York of up to $230,400.
Investigators said others who were believed to have paid Arcila were being

When first questioned, Ms. Hiett said Ayala approached her several months
earlier and asked if she could mail a package for a friend from the
embassy, and she said she had agreed. She said the package was wrapped in
brown paper and sealed when she got it, though she wrote the address and
return address, as Ayala had specified.

Why she listed contents at all if she did not know what they were was

The case comes at a sensitive time in relations between Washington and
Bogota over joint efforts to combat cocaine and heroin trafficking that
intelligence officials believe is supporting left-wing guerrillas. Critics
contend that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between
the drug fight and combat with the Colombian guerrillas.

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