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U.S. court date brings drug charges close to Venezuela’s first family

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores at a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Two Flores nephews will return to federal court Thursday on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores at a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Two Flores nephews will return to federal court Thursday on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. AP

The longtime allegation that Venezuelan government officials are deeply involved in illegal drug trafficking is about to get an airing in U.S. federal court.

On Thursday, federal informants are expected to testify before a U.S. district judge in New York that two nephews of Venezuela’s powerful first lady confessed to conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms – more than three-quarters of a ton – of cocaine into the U.S.

Efrain Campo Flores, 29, and Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, arrested during a sting in Haiti, are seeking to suppress their alleged confessions. They argue that federal agents didn’t advise them of their rights and destroyed evidence that would have helped their case.

It’s the latest development in the high-profile case, which experts say further links the political elite of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Republic to the drug trade.

“It’s fairly clear that whether it’s passive or direct implicit involvement, public officials and high-level, well-connected ‘boligarchs’ are connected to the illicit trafficking of drugs,” said Brian Fonseca, director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University, using a nickname for Venezuela’s powerful.

Last month, Venezuelan Gen. Nestor Reverol was indicted in the United States on charges that he’d accepted bribes in exchange for warning cocaine traffickers of raids. U.S. prosecutors also contend he allowed cocaine shipments to leave Venezuela and returned seized drug money to traffickers.

The next day, President Nicolás Maduro named Reverol Venezuela’s justice minister. Maduro called the U.S. drug charges a conspiracy.

At least two Drug Enforcement Administration informants in the nephews’ case were killed after the arrests, according to court documents and personal accounts of people familiar with the situation.

The men’s aunt and Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, is a lawyer and influential congresswoman who is a former president of the National Assembly. She also served as the lawyer for then-jailed Hugo Chavez before he became president and led a socialist revolution in Venezuela.

Campo further stated that he could’ve gotten the drugs out of the airport very easily because of who he was and because of the access he has at the airport.

Drug Enforcement Administration

The arrests of Flores’ nephews come as Maduro’s government is struggling to stay in office during a humanitarian and economic crisis marked by widespread shortages of food and medicine. More than a million people came together in the center of Caracas last week in a demonstration demanding Maduro’s departure.

According to court documents, Campo said they planned to get the cocaine from Colombian rebels. Asked why he got involved in the deal, Flores said: “To make money.” Flores said the deal was worth $5 million, of which he’d expected to get $560,000.

It’s fairly clear that whether it’s passive or direct implicit involvement, public officials and high-level, well-connected “boligarchs” are connected to the illicit trafficking of drugs.

Brian Fonseca, Florida International University

“Campo further stated that he could’ve gotten the drugs out of the airport very easily because of who he was and because of the access he has at the airport,” DEA agents wrote in a report detailing the alleged confession. The airport referred to is the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, outside Caracas.

A lawyer for Campo did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the documents, Flores said the pair’s bodyguards knew of the alleged drug shipment and would help load the drugs, but that otherwise they were acting alone. Campo said that if he told anyone in his family about what he was doing, “they would kill him.”

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