The wife of an Army officer who until recently commanded a U.S. military unit running anti-drug operations in Colombia has been charged with smuggling cocaine into the United States, federal authorities said yesterday.
Laurie Hiett, 36, wife of Col. James Hiett, surrendered to federal authorities in Brooklyn on Thursday and was arraigned on a charge of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. She was released on $150,000 bond after the court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Dunst said.
The federal criminal charge against Hiett and two others, first reported by the Village Voice newspaper in New York, comes at a time of increased attention to the U.S. anti-drug effort in Colombia. Barry R. McCaffrey, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, returned from a visit to Colombia last week and suggested the need for $1 billion more to combat drug traffic in the region, with about half of the extra money going to Colombia. Yesterday, McCaffrey told a House subcommittee that an "emergency situation" was developing in Colombia because of a higher-yielding coca crop under cultivation.
In the past, the administration has twice "decertified" the Colombian government from receiving U.S. aid -- in 1996 and 1997 -- for its failure to combat the illegal drug trade with adequate vigor. But the current government, headed by President Andres Pastrana, is generally seen as more aggressive in its counternarcotics efforts.
Yesterday, military officials said that their own investigations of the allegations against Hiett had uncovered no evidence implicating her husband.
"There was a military investigation immediately after the allegations were made and that investigation revealed no evidence that he had any prior knowledge of the alleged criminal actions of his spouse nor did he have any involvement in this incident," said Raul Duany, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
Duany said James Hiett took command of the 200-member military group stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota last summer. He said Hiett asked for a voluntary transfer to another assignment after the allegations arose against his wife and will be leaving Colombia soon.
According to court documents, the alleged smuggling scheme involved the mailing of six packages, each containing about 1.2 kilograms (2.7 pounds) of cocaine, from the embassy post office between April 13 and May 26. Laurie Hiett mailed five of the packages and arranged for a friend -- apparently the wife of another military officer -- to mail the sixth, the court documents said.
The investigation was set off by what was described in the court papers as a "routine search" of a package in Miami that contained cocaine. The package bore Laurie Hiett's return address.
According to the federal government allegations, outlined in an affidavit seeking arrest warrants last June 25, the packages were mailed to two people in New York. One of them, Hernan Arcila, was arrested by New York police in May and is jailed on state drug possession charges. He told police investigators that he received $1,500 for each package he received.
The other person packages were mailed to was Tilma Arcila, identified as Hernan Arcila's sister, who was arrested Wednesday, arraigned in federal court and released on $175,000 bond.
The court documents said Hiett told military investigators that she mailed the packages at the request of her husband's embassy driver and did not know they contained cocaine. The government also charged the driver, Jorge Alfonso Ayala, a Colombian national and 15-year embassy employee, with being part of the alleged smuggling scheme. Dunst said Ayala had not been arrested and was last known to be in Colombia.
According to the affidavit, Ayala told military investigators that Laurie Hiett "abused cocaine" and had asked him to help her obtain cocaine. It said when asked about these allegations, Hiett "emotionally denied the charges."