NEW YORK (AP) _ A woman portrayed by investigators as a powerful leader in the male-dominated illegal drug industry made her first appearance in a U.S. courtroom after being returned from Brazil.

Mery Valencia appeared in federal court Wednesday just hours after arriving in New York City from Rio de Janeiro, where she had been held since her February 1997 arrest there.

If prosecutors succeed in drug conspiracy cases in New York City and Los Angeles, Ms. Valencia will never be free again.

Federal prosecutors said Ms. Valencia, a naturalized U.S. citizen, oversaw a drug ring from her native Columbia that spread millions of dollars worth of cocaine throughout the United States.

Before her arrest, she allegedly underwent plastic surgery to disguise her appearance.

Her lawyer, Merrill Rubin, said she would plead innocent. The government supposedly has tapes and documents but he has not seen any of the evidence ``so there's not much I can say about it,'' Rubin said.