Published on Thursday, April 27, 2000 in the Miami Herald
US Double Standard On 'War On Drugs' Angers Colombians
by Tim Johnson
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Some prominent Colombians are outraged that a U.S. Army colonel who helped his wife hide drug-trafficking profits last year while he headed U.S. counter-drug operations in Colombia may get only a slap on the wrist -- an 18-month jail term or less.
SHAME screamed the cover of a recent Semana news magazine. A lengthy article inside lashed out at U.S. ``double standards'' on drug issues.
Colombia's top crime fighter, Prosecutor General Alfonso Gomez Mendez, accused Washington of hypocrisy.
``This would surely be a scandal for Colombia if a sentence of this magnitude were handed down for a crime of this nature,'' Gomez Mendez said.
Federal Judge Edward R. Korman told U.S. Army Col. James C. Hiett at a hearing last week in New York City that he will follow federal sentencing rules and give Hiett a 12- to 18-month prison term June 23.
Hiett was the senior military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota last June when U.S. prosecutors accused his wife, Laurie Anne Hiett, of using the U.S. Embassy mail system to send six packages of cocaine and heroin to an accused drug dealer in Brooklyn. The packages contained narcotics with a total street value of $750,000.
At the time, U.S. military officials said Hiett told them he knew nothing of his wife's activities.
But at a hearing last week, Hiett dropped the denials and admitted to the federal judge that his wife had given him ``in excess of $25,000'' in the spring of 1999 after making several quick trips to New York City and that he failed to tell investigators about the cash.
``In April and May of 1999, I used approximately $14,000 of cash to pay various personal bills. The remaining $11,000 in cash remained in my possession in Bogota,'' Hiett told the judge.
Hiett, 48, said he did not suspect the money was dirty until Army investigators told him in early June that his wife had sent drugs from Colombia to New York City.
Even so, Hiett told the judge, ``I then took steps to dissipate this cash by paying bills . . . and depositing some of the cash in our accounts.''
Hiett admitted to using some of the drug cash to pay hotel bills in June in Boca Raton and in Myrtle Beach, S.C., a Visa card bill and to buy several money orders to deposit the funds in bank accounts in his name and his wife's.
At the hearing, Hiett pleaded guilty to a crime known as misprision of a felony, which is the criminal failure to tell authorities that his wife was laundering drug-trafficking profits by carrying cash from the United States to Colombia.
Why Hiett was not charged with a more serious felony is not clear.
``I can't comment on what the charging options were,'' assistant U.S. Attorney Lee G. Dunst said in a telephone interview from his New York City office.
Laurie Hiett faces sentencing May 5 on 13 counts of drug trafficking, and may receive between seven and nine years in prison.
Over the past decade, Washington has often criticized Colombia for sentences as low as six years given to leaders of the Medellin and Cali cartels, although prison terms were stiffened in 1997.
Gomez Mendez, the Colombian prosecutor, said he respects U.S. sovereignty in giving prison terms to confessed felons but that the two nations should maintain ``a principle of reciprocity'' in jail terms.
``The case is disgraceful,'' wrote columnist Antonio Caballero, who said he believes Colombian authorities are biting their tongues in anger as they await approval of a $1.3 billion proposed U.S. counter-narcotics package currently tied up on Capitol Hill.
POLICE CHIEF ANGRY
National police chief Rosso Jose Serrano, praised by Washington as a valiant drug fighter, also lashed out at the sentence, describing it as discouraging.
Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, declined to discuss the controversy Wednesday during a visit to Bogota.
``That's a matter between the Hietts and the civil courts,'' Wilhelm said. ``I think it's inappropriate for me to comment.''
A U.S. congressional staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he found it embarrassing to respond to Colombian officials asking about the case during a recent trip.
``I can certainly see where the Colombians would be mad,'' he said. ``I'd be mad if it were the other way around.''
Copyright 2000 Miami Herald