Pubdate: Sat, 7 Aug, 1999 
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Robert D. McFadden, New York Times
Section: page A1
Related: More articles on Colombia may be read at


Charges Filed Over Shipments From U.S. Embassy In Colombia

In April and May, Laurie Anne Hiett, the wife of an Army colonel in charge
of all U.S. 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. Hiett, 36, 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 U.S.
Customs forms declaring the contents to be books on Colombia or items like
candy, a T-shirt, coffee or candles. 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 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 New York police, U.S. Customs agents and the Army's Criminal
Investigation Division found no evidence of involvement by Col. James
Hiett, her husband.

He joined the Army in 1976 and became a colonel in 1992. He was responsible
for U.S. military activity in Colombia from July 1998 until last week, when
he stepped aside voluntarily because of the allegations against his wife.
While the purported drug-smuggling operation was not large, the allegations
brushing the embassy come at a sensitive time in the joint efforts to
combat the drug trade in Colombia, the world's No. 1 source of cocaine and
the primary country of concern for American anti-drug policy.

It will receive $289 million in aid from Washington this year, and most of
it will go to fight the drug war. Laurie Anne Hiett, who was arraigned
before Magistrate Judge Cheryl Pollak in federal court on Thursday and
ordered released on $150,000 personal recognizance bond, admitted to
investigators that she had mailed the packages, but insisted that she had
not known the contents and that she had sent them at the behest of her
husband's chauffeur, a Colombian national. The chauffeur, Jorge Alfonso
Ayala, who had been a driver for the American Embassy in Bogota for 15
years, was named as a co-conspirator and was being sought by the
authorities in Colombia. The complaint said he told investigators at the
embassy in June that Laurie Anne Hiett "abused cocaine," and that he helped
her buy it in the Zona Rosa, a notorious drug-trafficking district in
Bogota, and from "an unknown woman in a taxi" at the back gate of the
embassy. Confronted with these assertions by the investigators, the
complaint said, Laurie Anne Hiett became ``extremely agitated." She
insisted that she had got 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 me."

Laurie Anne Hiett's lawyer, Paul Lazarus of Miami, said yesterday that his
client denied the allegations, although he noted that no indictment had
been filed, and that Laurie Anne 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, which was first reported Thursday evening on the
Web site of the Village Voice newspaper. Lee 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 Queens apartment, at a rented post office box in
Queens, and at a commercial mail drop in Manhattan. Timla 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 subject to 10
to 12 years in prison. No federal charges were filed against Hernan Arcila,
who was being held 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 U.S. Embassy in
Bogota, citing privacy considerations, said it, too, could not comment. But
a Colombian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said
Laurie Anne 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. "Everybody knows that the embassy
mail works extremely well out of here," the official said. However, such
requests 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 Laurie Anne Hiett was aware of what was in the packages.

They said Customs travel records show that she even made several trips to
the United States in April and May, and indicated that the purpose of the
trips was to prepare for and help coordinate the conspiracy. According to
the federal complaint, the packages -- each about 12 inches long, 6 inches
high and 4 inches wide and weighing about three pounds -- were mailed from
the embassy's postal service, which is not open to the general public and
does not even provide services for Colombian citizens who work at the embassy.

The packages were sent between April 13 and May 26, four of them to the
Arcila apartment, but 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. Laurie Anne 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 that 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 the authorities to suspect Ayala's involvement. 
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