The lawyers for the nephews of the Venezuelan first family painted their clients as too gullible and naive to pull off the complex drug scheme the U.S. government charges they led.
“To put it bluntly, it comes down to a handful of stupid, stupid decisions by my client and his cousin,” said defense attorney John Zach.
The federal trial against Efrain Campo, 29, and Francisco Flores, 30, charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States, began Monday.
The jury of 10 women and six men, four of whom will become alternates, will hear what is expected to be a 10-day trial that has international implications for the relationship between the United States and Venezuela.
Campo and Flores cut their hair and shaved their beards for the trial. They were dressed in ties and blue and tan sweaters – a strong contrast from the prison jumpsuits they’d worn for a preliminary hearing in September.
Federal prosecutors have accused the defendants of using their family connections to orchestrate a massive cocaine deal worth tens of millions of dollars in the United States.
They promised the jury it would hear the defendants talking about sending cocaine to Honduras that they knew was destined for the United States. They said the jury would see pictures of Campo handling a brick of cocaine and hear Flores bragging about having complete control of a special hangar at the airport outside Caracas, Venezuela.
“A hanger controlled by the president of Venezuela,” Emil Bove, assistant U.S. attorney, said in his opening statement.
Bove raised even more intrigue when questioning Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez about cryptic text messages between one of the DEA confidential sources and a man who used the initials of former President Hugo Chavez as his moniker. Chavez, who led a socialist revolution in Venezuela, died in 2013.
Neither Bove nor Gonzalez explained who the person was or the context of messages that referred to “the architect.”
It’s no secret to say the Venezuelan government is at odd with the United States.
John Zach, defense attorney
The defense characterized the case as a botched sting operation that produced zero cocaine. Campo’s and Flores’ lawyers accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration of targeting their clients because of their close family connection to Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores, who helped raised Campo from a young age.
“It’s no secret to say the Venezuelan government is at odd with the United States,” Zach said. “The two countries don’t get along at all.”
Zach said the fact that the government had never obtained any cocaine was reason enough for the jury to have “reasonable doubt.”
Defense attorney Michael Mann, who represents Flores, said the case was really about three confidential informants who’d exploited the inexperience of the nephews. One of those informants is now dead and the other two are in prison after being caught lying to the DEA about unsanctioned drug deals they’d done while receiving more than $1.2 million from the U.S. government.
The father, a member or former member of the Sinaloa drug cartel of Mexico, and his son admitted to smuggling crystal methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin into the United States behind the DEA’s backs.
“The government is going to ask you to take these guys seriously,” Zach said.
The defense said the informants had targeted their clients because they saw a big payoff and exploited their naiveté. Zach used the term “stupid” to describe his client or his actions at least a half-dozen times. A real drug trafficker would have picked up on the scheme quickly, he said.
The government told the jury to focus not on whether they liked the informants but whether they believed their testimony. Bove asked the jury to use their common sense as they listen to testimony and see evidence that includes the alleged confessions and video recordings against the defendants.
“The defendants were caught red-handed,” Bove said.