Venezuelan president’s ‘Narco Nephews’ were no strangers to violence, text messages show

In this courtroom sketch, a U.S. marshal stands guard in the background as defense attorney John Reilly, left, Francisco Flores, center in blue shirt, Efrain Campos, second from right, and defense attorney Rebekah Poston make an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in New York.
In this courtroom sketch, a U.S. marshal stands guard in the background as defense attorney John Reilly, left, Francisco Flores, center in blue shirt, Efrain Campos, second from right, and defense attorney Rebekah Poston make an initial appearance in Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, in New York. AP

In one text exchange, the cousins made fun of the reaction from a drug trafficker who owed them money when he was told that there was already a contract out on him. In others, they shared gruesome details of hits already committed, including photos of a severed head. And in yet another exchange, they argued over the killing of somebody who talked too much.

The text messages gathered from cellphones belonging to nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro portray a vastly different picture from defense arguments that portray them as confused young men — too stupid to be drug dealers — entrapped by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for political reasons.

And the backdrop of violence laid out in their own words via text messages by Efraín Campo and Franqui Flores are likely to weigh heavily in sentences that Judge Paul Crotty is expected to announce on Thursday, even as pleas of leniency pile up in federal court in Manhattan in favor of the convicted nephews, the sons of siblings of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores.

According to defense attorneys, a sentence of less than a mandatory minimum of 10 years would suffice to carry out justice in a conspiracy case to import 800 kilograms of cocaine where no drugs were ever produced.

But the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York is asking for a life sentence, arguing that they are violent criminals who entered into drug trafficking to help finance an oppressive dictatorship.

“The defendants embarked on this path for the stated purpose of helping their family maintain political control in Venezuela, through a regime controlled by relatives currently engaged in ‘a fundamental assault on the freedoms of the Venezuelan people,’ and to enrich themselves while their countrymen starved in the streets,” argued the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.

A recommendation issued by the Probation Office in its Pre-Sentence Report (PSR) also is in line with what the U.S. Attorney is asking, and that doesn’t bode well for the nephews, said Felix Jimenez, former DEA chief inspector, who has been following the case.

“If the PSR’s recommendation is close to that of the Attorney’s Office then we are likely to see a sentence very far apart from that recommended by the defense. I wouldn’t be surprised if they receive a sentence close to 20 or 25 years,” Jimenez told el Nuevo Herald.

Normally, in cases of conspiracy where no drugs are seized the accused receive sentences near the bottom of the guideline. But the evidence presented during the trial pointed to the nephews forming part of a violent criminal organization where differences are settled with death.

In its sentencing recommendation to the judge, the U.S. Attorney’s Office claims that the text messages obtained from the cousins’ cellphones show that they were involved in “violent debt-collection efforts related to a prior failed drug deal.”

In one of those messages, Campo and Flores discuss a meeting they had with dealers who owed them money. One of their associates got angry and told the dealers they were at risk of losing their lives.

According to court documents, one of their associates told the dealers that they were already paying “a murder contract for them” and that they “had sent his dogs.”

Campo remarked that he found funny the way the dealers who owed them money reacted. “Did you see their faces when he said that to them? […] hehehe […] so funny. hahahaha,” he wrote.

In the conversation, Campo said that he was pleased with the end result because they had managed to convey the message clearly. “In their face so that later there wouldn’t be any gossip. In fact that was a good move,” he wrote, according to the court documents.

But he also complained that his associate, Javier, lacked diplomatic skills and wore his heart on his sleeve.

“What I don’t think is good is that Javier lets his emotions take over and he blurted out: ‘yes but even if he pays us later there is still a hair [bad blood] and one day he is going to have to pay us for what he was doing even if not for another five years,’ in other words, even five years later, we’ll still cut him up.”

The reference to “cut him up” might have been a reference to an appalling trend taking place in Venezuela between rival criminal organizations of executing enemies and disposing of them in pieces to send a signal.

The text messages obtained by the DEA show that the nephews were at least familiarized with the practice. In one of them, Campo and Flores sent the photo of a severed human head, and of a dismembered torso in another.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office report does not establish the link between the decapitated victim and the nephews, Flores sent photos soon after that of two men and a woman, and an exchange of messages in which he told an associate that Campo “wants to talk so they won’t mess with the girl.”

Campo responded to Flores: “Don’t send that to me […] Tell him that I will speak in person and that if he can’t do anything to speak to us frankly that I will take care of that through another venue, but I am not going to let her die like that for no reason.”

The fate of the girl is not known, but the following day, Flores sent Campo messages from an associate who wrote: “They already murdered a guy that they suspected had also told on him. They cut him up too.”

In the text messages, according to court documents, Campo gave signs of not being happy with the killings. But his complaints appear to have been mostly related to the problems they were causing with law enforcement, despite the fact that his uncle — Cilia Flores’ brother — is an important figure in Venezuela’s Federal Investigations unit, known by the Spanish acronym CICPC.

Campo explained his concerns to an associate identified as Peter in another series of text messages, but he was told that the killings were unavoidable.

“Yeah buddy, I understand, but you know this business is all about honoring one’s word and you know how Colombians collect their due buddy, otherwise tell me how can one collect anything. Anyway, the dude that died was a danger for us and for you because he asked too many questions and was too much of a jerk off,” Peter answered in the exchange.

“Sure,” Campo wrote back. “But this was not the moment because he said a lot of things and now the guy I sent you is running his mouth all over the place.”

Peter did not seem too pleased with that comment, and replied: “Yeah buddy, but darn, that dude has to pay buddy.”

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter:@DelgadoAntonioM