One of the nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, on trial for plotting to smuggle cocaine into the United States, promised that the cocaine would arrive before dark in Honduras because the plane carrying it would be departing from the presidential hangar at Caracas’ international airport, according to a recording played Wednesday in Manhattan federal court.
“I have control,” Francisco Flores can be heard saying. He refers to the drugs as “merchandise.”
The recording was the latest evidence to tie the nephews, Flores and Efrain Campo, to their influential uncle and aunt, Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores. It was intended by the prosecution to show that the two cousins were active participants in a plot to deliver cocaine to the United States.
According to the audio and video recordings, Flores approved of the plans that alleged drug traffickers in Honduras had made to receive his plane and boasted that the “merchandise” would be packed nicely in new suitcases.
Prosecutors also called to the stand an air traffic controller who said he helped devise the plan for the drugs allegedly to arrive in Honduras, where they were to be unloaded and transported to Mexico to be shipped to the United States. More testimony came from another confidential informant, who said he was at the meeting where Flores confirmed the plan.
The testimony allowed the prosecution to end its case on a stronger footing than they had on Tuesday, when the defense sliced through the credibility of a key government witness by playing a recording that captured the witness trafficking drugs from prison. Those recordings forced prosecutors to abandon their witness, a member of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel known as Jose Santos Peña.
Federal prosecutors rested their case on Wednesday after the testimony about the Honduras leg of the alleged plot.
Flores, 31, and Campo, 30, face charges that they conspired to smuggle 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States in a case that has added tension in the already troubled U.S.-Venezuela relationship.
Carlos Gonzalez, the Honduran air traffic controller, testified that he and another airport worker at the Juan Manuel Gálvez International Airport on the island of Roatán off the northern coast of Honduras had organized a plan on Nov. 5, 2015, to receive the shipment, which was to arrive 10 days later.
The drugs, he said, would be unloaded and carried to an awaiting speed boat to be taken to the Honduran coast. The load would then be transported to Mexico and then the United States, Gonzalez said. Neither Flores nor Campo were at that meeting.
The defense objected to Gonzalez’s testimony, arguing that it was irrelevant since Gonzalez had never met or communicated with the defendants. Gonzalez admitted on the stand to defense attorney John Zach that the first time he saw the defendants was in court on Wednesday.
Zach, who represents Campo, and David Roday, who represents Flores, said Gonzalez was motivated to help prosecutors convict the defendants in hopes of getting a reduced sentence. He faces 10 years to life in prison for his involvement in this and other drug schemes dating back to 2008. Gonzalez admitted to helping more than 50 drug planes land at the Roatán airport. He was usually paid $10,000 per plane, he said.
Juan Gomez, another confidential informant, then took the stand to help Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil J. Bove III describe the recordings from a Nov. 6 meeting that Gomez and Flores attended. Gonzalez was not at that meeting, but another airport worker, Roberto De Jesus Soto Garcia, was.
Soto Garcia, who has been named a co-defendant, has also been charged with conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States. The United States is seeking his extradition.
In the Nov. 6 meeting, Soto explained to Flores that his plane would need to arrive between 4:30 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15. It needed to be Sunday because few flights arrived and many of the high level security officers didn’t work. It needed to be after 4:30 because of the work shifts, but before 6 p.m. when it got dark.
Soto pressed Flores not to be late, noting that the airport didn’t have lights because of a power problem. That was when Flores assured him that he controlled the departure from the presidential hangar.
Soto said he and his associates would wait for them at the tip of the runway. They needed just 20 minutes to unload and refuel the plane so it could leave.
“We really need 10 minutes to remove the sweets from the plane,” Soto said in the recording.
Soto encouraged Flores to bring along four people who could act as tourists and be dropped off by the plane. That way the aircraft would escape suspicion and also bring another load of alleged drugs when it returned to pick them up. Roatán is known as a popular snorkeling and scuba diving location in Honduras.
Flores asked several questions about possible problems, but Soto assured him as long as he arrived on time everything would be fine. He told Flores that anyone who they came in contact with, including law enforcement, would be in on the scheme. The only problems Soto said he could not account for was weather, an “act of God” or U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Plan B, Soto said, was that the plane would land on a dirt strip in the mountains. He said that was only in event of an emergency.
The defense accused Gomez of helping orchestrate the drug arrival and having to educate the inexperienced defendants on the delivery of the drugs. Defense Attorney Michael Mann tried unsuccessfully to get Gomez to say the airport workers were actually employed by the confidential informants. In his experience, Gomez said, anyone with control over an airport is experienced.
Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Thursday morning.