Nobody questions the colonel

Why did James Hiett get just five months for covering up his wife's drug-running in Colombia, while his chauffeur got more time? Another case study in the drug war, in which white perps get off easy.

By Bruce Shapiro
July 15, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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He may be going to jail, but Col. James Hiett remains a virtuoso of denial. Sentenced to five months' prison time Thursday for aiding his wife Laurie's heroin smuggling, the former commander of U.S. military operations in Colombia insisted to Judge Edward R. Korman that he was guilty only of misplaced loyalty. "The only thing that I did -- that I consciously did -- was try to protect my wife after the fact."

There is a lot to be said about Col. Hiett's mild sentencing. Laurie Hiett's Colombian-born New York courier, for instance, is now serving a longer sentence than both Hietts put together -- a perfect mirror of the drug war. Not only are white drug offenders serving less time, and in far fewer numbers, than their dark-skinned counterparts. But lower level offenders -- like Hernan Aquila of Queens, who carried Laurie Hiett's heroin stateside -- typically have low-rent lawyers, and less information to plea-bargain with, than initiators of smuggling enterprises like Laurie Hiett. The least responsible actors are doing the most time.

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I could go on about the hypocrisy of Col. Hiett and his sentence. But instead, I want to return to his statement to the judge: "The only thing that I did -- that I consciously did -- was try to protect my wife after the fact." Presumably, "after the fact" means after Army investigators tipped him off to Laurie's drug running. That was when Col. Hiett set out to launder thousands of dollars of his wife's heroin profits. In fact, all evidence suggests he knew a lot more, and a lot sooner, than he was willing to admit to Judge Korman.

Laurie Hiett herself described snorting coke in front of him. His wife's trips to New York from Bogota, the sudden appearance of significant new cash in the family treasury, he was willing to let go unexplained. And when those Army investigators showed up, Col. Hiett not only spent down his wife's drug profits on household bills, but by accepting the investigators' under-the-table evidence he significantly undermined any serious inquiry.

Hiett's tight-lipped disavowal of responsibility in federal court also leaves open crucial questions -- questions that Army clearly wants to go away. At Hiett's sentencing, the mother of Army pilot Jennifer Odom, Janie Shafer, told the court that she suspects Hiett caused the death of her daughter by sharing information about the Army's operations with drug traffickers.

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Korman let Shafer speak, though he acknowledged she had no evidence to prove her allegations. "I can just imagine your suffering as a parent myself," he told her.

Clearly, if Hiett's behavior could most generously be described as motivated by massive denial, it is not his problem alone. The Army is still trying to cover up the seriousness of the Hiett scandal; in imposing even a limited sentence, Korman defied the Pentagon's recommendation that Hiett get nothing more than probation. The entire U.S. narco-military enterprise in Colombia, recently boosted with $1.3. billion, is awash in denial by U.S. officials. Instead of cracking down on Hiett and making an example of him, the Army's investigation cleared him of involvement in the smuggling and sought probation.

But the day after Hiett's sentencing, the New York Times ran a long, horrifying dispatch by reporter Larry Rohter detailing a massacre in the town of El Salado carried out by paramilitaries -- under the eye and protection of the Colombian armed forces. While paramilitaries summarily executed at least 36 villagers, Colombian armed forces set up roadblocks, preventing human rights and relief workers from witnessing the carnage.

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This is the same Colombian military supposed to be trained by Col. Hiett, his officers and his successors. This is the same Colombian military now awash in U.S. dollars, helicopters and technology.

By all accounts, Col. Hiett honed his skills at denial long before arriving in Colombia; his wife had already been through one serious bout of habitual drug use in the 1990s. But in the Colombian drug war, denial goes far beyond the domesticated: Col. Hiett turned a blind eye not only to his wife's drug profiteering but to the paramilitaries, to the well-documented collusion of Colombian officers in those death squads and to the massive corruption of the whole drug-fighting enterprise.

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Hiett's sentencing revealed not an overprotective husband, but a military policy in which blindness is the operative strategy -- a habit of mind so entrenched that neither Col. Hiett nor the Clinton administration nor the U.S. Congress can renounce it, even as the prison door is swinging shut.


Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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