The much-anticipated trial that allegedly will tie the family of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores to illegal drug trafficking begins Monday.
Federal prosecutors plan to establish that two nephews of the Venezuelan first family – fighting to keep their family in power – sought to monetize their political connections by using one of the largest airports in the country to dispatch massive loads of cocaine to the United States.
Defense lawyers will try to paint Flores’ nephews, Efrain Campo and Francisco Flores, as pawns targeted by a U.S. imperial agenda set on crippling Maduro at a critical time when he’s trying to maintain control of his country.
They’ll argue that the political value of arresting the pair trumped the integrity of the investigation and that the excitement of arresting someone connected by blood to the first family “took over the narrative,” in the words of someone familiar with the case.
Campo, 29, and Flores, 30, face 10 years to life in prison if convicted of charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States, though the higher end of that sentence is considered unlikely.
Still, any sentence at all is going to inflame already tense U.S.-Venezuela relations. The cousins’ 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. Chavez died in 2013.
The case against her nephews, including Campo, who refers to her as his “mother” in recordings, comes as Maduro’s government is struggling to stay in office during an economic and political crisis. Protests erupted last month after the government announced it would block an opposition-led referendum that could have led to Maduro’s ouster.
The Obama administration backed the referendum process and has raised concerns that Maduro’s leadership is worsening the country’s economic crisis, but the U.S. has resisted taking any unilateral action that would raise accusations of imperialism.
Ladies and gentlemen, what more do you want?
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor
President Barack Obama has charged that Venezuela has “failed demonstrably” to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.
His administration has also stepped up its enforcement against alleged traffickers in Venezuela’s inner circle. Eight current or former Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned for narcotics trafficking activities since 2008. In August, federal prosecutors charged Venezuelan Gen. Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, the former general director of the country’s narcotics office, with participating in drug trafficking. He’s now the interior minister.
“The bigger picture here is what kind of environment is the Venezuelan state enabling?” said Brian Fonseca, the director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. “The case itself shines a light on the fact that you have this small degree of separation between drug traffickers and Venezuelan leadership.”
The federal government has a strong case. It includes alleged confessions from the nephews and recorded conversations talking about smuggling cocaine into the United States.
The DEA says an informant was contacted about a possible drug deal by a Venezuelan official with the same name as Cilia Flores’ brother.
According to transcripts of the recorded conversations between the defendants and the confidential informants, Campo planned to get the cocaine from Colombian rebels. He talked about being at “war” with the U.S. and Venezuela’s opposition. He wanted the cash to support his “mother’s” congressional campaign.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what more do you want?” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. “Even in today’s CSI world, where everybody wants DNA, fingerprints, videotape of a transaction that goes down. . . . They have all that. And they confessed.”
But defense lawyers, who may also claim entrapment, have argued since the summer that their clients lacked the ability and means to pull off such a complex deal.
They argue that Campo and Flores were lured by the informants who contacted them about a lucrative narcotics deal and that the informants said they would supply the planes, the cocaine and the buyer.
The pair’s New York-based lawyers, led by Randall Jackson and David Rody, have revealed serious credibility issues for two of the prosecution’s key confidential sources, who recorded some of the most damning evidence.
The bigger picture here is what kind of environment is the Venezuelan state enabling?
Brian Fonseca, FIU’s Gordon Institute for Public Policy
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 father admitted during a preliminary hearing to abusing cocaine and hiring prostitutes while on a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration mission to Caracas.
And DEA agents never seized any of the drugs that were allegedly going to be sold.
“They have billed this as the prosecutors are going to demonstrate the defendants intended to use their political connections to facilitate the exportation of cocaine to the United States,” said a person close to the case who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. “But they have no cocaine. There is no actual evidence of any importation into the United States. That’s not typical. It’s quite abnormal.”