Pubdate: August 8, 1999
Source: The Observer, UK
Copyright: Guardian Media Group plc. 1999
Author: Robert McFadden, New York


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 from the American Embassy in Bogota. Each
was sealed in brown paper and weighed several pounds.

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

But the names of the recipients were fictitious, and the parcels
turned out to contain a total of 15.8lb of pure cocaine with a street
value of up to $230,000 (pounds 144,000), according to a criminal
complaint filed on Thursday in Federal Court in Brooklyn charging
Hiett and two others with 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, US Customs
agents and the Army's Criminal Investigation Division found no
evidence of involvement by Colonel James Hiett, the suspect's husband.
He joined the Army in 1976 and became a colonel in 1992. He was
responsible for US military activity in Colombia from July last year
until last week, when he stepped aside because of the allegations
against his wife.

Hiett admitted to investigators she had mailed the parcels, 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 operation was not large, the allegations come at a sensitive
time for efforts to combat the drug trade in Colombia, the world's No.
1 source of cocaine. The country will receive $289 million in American
aid this year, and most of it will go to fight the drug war.

Hiett, 36, was arraigned and released on a $150,000 bond on Thursday.
The chauffeur, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, an embassy driver for 15 years, is
being sought by Colombian authorities. The US criminal complaint said
he had told investigators that Hiett abused cocaine, and that he had
helped her to buy it.

Confronted with these assertions, the complaint said, 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'. When pressed, she said, 'I'm afraid they'll kill me.'

Hiett's lawyer, Paul Lazarus, said yesterday that his client denied
the allegations and had not yet been required to enter a plea.

Lee Dunst, the assistant federal prosecutor in the case, declined to
comment beyond the complaint, which accused Timla Arcila, 61, and her
brother, Hernotan Arcila, 53, of receiving the parcels.

Timla Arcila was named as a co-defendant and was arraigned and
released on bail on Thursday. Conviction on the federal charge of
conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute is punishable
by 10 to 12 years in prison.

No federal charges were filed against Hernotan Arcila, who is being
held on an unrelated charge of narcotics possession, which carries a
maximum penalty of life in jail.

Spokesmen for Colombia's Ministry of Defence, which oversees relations
between Colombian and US security forces in the drug war, and for
President  Pastrana, declined to comment on the case, as did
the US Embassy and the Colombian Embassy in Washington.

But a Colombian government official, speaking on condition of
anonymity, said Hiett's contention that she had mailed parcels at the
request of her family's driver did not seem far-fetched. He noted that
the mail service in Colombia is unreliable, and that Colombians close
to foreign diplomats often asked them to send mail.

Such requests, however, are usually limited to letters, not parcels,
and to show that nothing illegal is being sent the packages are left
unsealed when given to diplomats. 'I think she was being extremely
naive,' the official said.

But investigators said there was ample evidence that Hiett had been
aware of what was in the parcels. They said Customs travel records
showed she had made several trips to the US in April and May,
allegedly to prepare for and help coordinate the conspiracy.

- ---
MAP posted-by: manemez j lovitto