Will case of Venezuela’s ‘narco-nephews’ affect the fate of U.S. man in Caracas jail?

A 2015 courtroom sketch of Franqui Francisco Flores (blue shirt) and Efraín Campo Flores, who were sentenced Thursday in a New York court to 18 years in jail for drug trafficking.
A 2015 courtroom sketch of Franqui Francisco Flores (blue shirt) and Efraín Campo Flores, who were sentenced Thursday in a New York court to 18 years in jail for drug trafficking. Associated Press

The decision by a New York federal court on Thursday to sentence the nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to 18 years in jail on drug charges could have a ripple effect on another high-profile case in Caracas.

Attorneys for Josh Holt, the Utah man who has been in custody in Venezuela for more than 17 months on weapons charges, say they fear their client will be punished for the fate of the so-called “narco-nephews.”

On Thursday, Holt’s lawyer, Carlos Trujillo, said he believed delays and foot-dragging in his client’s case are directly related to the New York trial of Efraín Campo Flores, 31, and Franqui Francisco Flores, 33.

The two men, who are nephews of Venezuela’s first lady Cilia Flores, were arrested in Haiti in 2015 by undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and accused of conspiring to traffic 800 kilos of Colombian cocaine — about 1,760 pounds — into the United States via Honduras.

Read More: How Holt’s honeymoon turned into lengthy nightmare

After a lengthy and high-profile trial, the men were sentenced to 218 months in jail and fined $50,000 each.

The Venezuelan government has suggested they were entrapped by overzealous DEA agents as part of what it calls Washington’s vendetta against the socialist government. Washington has been ratcheting up financial sanctions on Caracas.

Trujillo said that ever since Holt, a former Mormon missionary, was arrested in June of 2016, it has been clear that the Venezuelan government considered him a bargaining chip.

“The [Venezuelan] government had this mistaken idea that they could use his case to win benefits for the narco-nephews,” Trujillo said from his office in Salt Lake City. “That’s one of our key suspicions.”

Now that the drug sentence has been handed down, Trujillo said he worries the Venezuelan courts “might take revenge” on Holt by continuing to delay his trial.

On Tuesday, after more than 17 months of procedural delays and judge no-shows, a court in Caracas formally filed charges against Holt and his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleño, accusing them of hiding rifles and a hand grenade in their apartment.

Trujillo said he believes the timing was no coincidence, since it was clear that sentencing in the case of the Flores cousins was going to occur this week.

Read More: Court rules Holt will stand trial on weapons charges

Holt’s legal team says he’s innocent and an eyewitness to his arrest told the Miami Herald that the weapons were planted by police.

Trujillo said that because the government doesn’t have a solid case, it’s likely to keep postponing the trial.

“It took more than a year to have a judge assigned to [Holt’s] case and get a preliminary hearing,” Trujillo said. “And we fear they’re going to try to delay the trial for another year or more.”

The Flores nephews were arrested in Haiti in 2015 by DEA agents posing as representatives of a Mexican cartel. According to the U.S. government, the men told the agents they would ship 800 kilos of cocaine purchased from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrillas, or FARC, to Honduras, where the presumed cartel members would move it to the United States.

Their defense lawyers painted them as young and naïve, and said they had never actually transported drugs.

In court, however, the prosecution portrayed them as hardened criminals who had murdered more than one person in Venezuela as they tried to build a drug empire bolstered by their powerful family connections.

On Thursday, the judge said he was struck by the bumbling nature of the men, saying they "were not the most astute drug dealers who existed. They were in over their heads,” according to The Associated Press.

Shortly after their arrest, Maduro suggested he and his wife were the true targets of the sting operation.

“Do you think it’s a coincidence that the empire [the United States] created this case with the sole objective of attacking the first lady, the first combatant, the wife of the president?” he asked a crowd of supporters. “Do you think it’s a coincidence?”

Read More: Holt’s family released jailhouse audio

Holt’s case has garnered attention at the highest levels in Washington.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department asked Caracas, once again, to allow embassy officials to visit Holt in the Helicoide detention center, which is run by Venezuela’s SEBIN intelligence agency.

“Venezuela is legally obligated in accordance with the [Vienna] Convention to permit U.S. consular officers to visit U.S. citizens detained there,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “Too often, access is only belatedly granted, only to be canceled, withdrawn, or simply ignored.”

Embassy officials were not allowed to be present at Holt’s hearing on Tuesday, Nauert said.

Both Holt’s family and the State Department have said his health is failing and have pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds.

Thursday’s sentencing of the Flores cousins is only likely to exacerbate tensions between Caracas and Washington, which haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss