Jury selection will begin Wednesday in the much-anticipated drug case against the nephews of Venezuela’s first couple.
The 12 men and women selected to decide the guilt or innocence of Efrain Campo Flores, 29, and Francisco Flores de Freitas,30, also will deliver a strong message that will shape the future of U.S.-Venezuela relations.
The case has significant diplomatic implications. U.S. officials have said the arrests of Campo and Flores, whose aunt is Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, underscores how Venezuela, in the words of President Barack Obama, has “failed demonstrably”to meet its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements.
On the other hand, Maduro has called the U.S. drug charges a conspiracy while his wife, a powerful political figure in her own right, has described her nephews’ as victims of kidnapping.
Among the questions the prospective jurors will likely be asked is their knowledge of the case, whether they have been involved previously in a case involving illegal drugs, and whether they speak Spanish.
“Would any juror have difficulty following my instruction that, even if you understand the Spanish language, because you are all to consider the same evidence, you are to rely upon the English translations provided to you even if that translation differs from your understanding of the testimony,” prosecution and defense lawyers have proposed the judge ask prospective jurors.
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty of the Southern District of New York has already delivered a blow to the cousins, ruling last month after a two-day suppression in September that their alleged confessions can be introduced during their trial.
Defense lawyers have described their clients as emotional young men who didn’t have the capacity to conduct such an operation. They note that neither the witnesses nor the U.S. agents ever saw the 800 kilograms of cocaine that was supposedly to be smuggled to the United States.
You are all to consider the same evidence, you are to rely upon the English translations provided to you even if that translation differs from your understanding of the testimony.
Proposed juror question
During September’s hearing, lawyers for the defendants highlighted the credibility problems of two of the prosecution’s key confidential witnesses who helped orchestrate the alleged deal with the defendants to smuggle the cocaine.
The father and son duo have since been convicted of unauthorized drug trafficking. The pair had collected more than $1.2 million from the U.S. government for their undercover work even as they’d continued to conduct unsanctioned major drug deals.
The defense managed to wring on-the-stand confessions from the father that he had abused cocaine and hired prostitutes while on U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration missions and had repeatedly withheld key information from federal agents and prosecutors. The father admitted to selling drugs for four years behind the DEA’s back, and to abusing cocaine and having sex with two prostitutes during a DEA mission to Venezuela to meet with the defendants.
But it will be difficult for any jury member to disregard the alleged confessions. Campo said the two men planned to get the cocaine from Colombian rebels, according to the court documents. Flores said the deal was worth about $5 million, of which he’d expected to get $560,000.
During the two-day hearing, Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez, who helped lead the investigation, said the defendants were connected to the highest levels of the Venezuelan government, with access to planes and plenty of cocaine.
“They indicated they basically had the run of the airport and could dispatch a plane via the presidential ramp,” Gonzalez said, referring to the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, outside Caracas.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela also are likely to come during the trial.
Campo told one of the confidential sources that “we’re at war” with the Americans, according to transcribed recordings. According to those transcripts, Campo also said the money they made from the deal would be used as campaign cash for his aunt, who was running in the December 2015 Venezuela National Assembly elections.
Campo accused the United States of helping fund opposition forces looking to take power from the Maduro government.
“We need the money,” Campo said, according to the transcript. “Why? Because the Americans are hitting us hard with money. Do you understand? The opposition . . . is getting an infusion of a lot of money.”