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US Soldiers 'smuggled' cocaine from Colombia

Five United States army soldiers are being investigated for allegedly trying to smuggle 16 kg (35 lbs.) of cocaine from Colombia aboard a US military aircraft, United States and Colombian officials announced on April 1, 2005.

The soldiers, whose names were not released, were detained on March 29th, said Lieutenant Colonel Eduardo Villavicencio, a spokesperson for the army's Miami-based Southern Command. Villavicencio did not disclose where the five were being held, saying only that they were in the United States.

"This is an ongoing criminal investigation," he said, declining to release any other details.

"The Department of Defense is working closely with Colombian authorities and US law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation," William Wood, the US ambassador to Colombia, said in a statement. "I congratulate our law enforcement agencies for their excellent cooperation in uncovering this drug smuggling scheme."

A US Embassy spokesperson also declined to provide additional information. Colombia's Defense Ministry confirmed an investigation was underway, but wouldn't discuss the case further.

The soldiers had been under surveillance by US and Colombian investigators for "some time," a Colombian defense ministry spokeswoman told The Kansas City Herald. Officials waited for the soldiers to attempt to enter the United States with the drugs before arresting them.

The United States has provided more than $3 billion in aid over the past four years to help Colombia battle popular unrest and drug trafficking that fuels the 40-year-old insurgency. Up to 800 US troops are permitted in Colombia, according to US law, to train Colombian armed forces and to provide logistical support.

Up to 600 Americans also are allowed in the country as US government 'contractors.' It was the second major scandal to hit the US military in Colombia in recent years.

In 1999, the wife of the former commander of US anti-drug operations in Colombia, Laurie Hiett, pled guilty to shipping cocaine and heroin with a street value of $750,000 to New York City in diplomatic parcels through U.S. Embassy mail to an accused drug dealer in Brooklyn. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

Her husband, Colonel James C. Hiett, later pled guilty to helping his wife launder $25,000 in illicit profits and was given a five-month prison term and a dishonorable discharge.

The case embarrassed the Pentagon at a time when former US President Bill Clinton was pitching the plan to back Colombian government forces.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine and a major supplier of heroin to the United States.

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