The nephews of Venezuela’s president face 20 to 30 years in prison, experts say, for planning to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United States.
Now convicted, they don’t have many options to reduce their sentences. But one way they might cut their prison terms might be to cooperate with U.S. officials who are eager for more information on the inner workings of drug trafficking through Venezuela and across the region.
Efrain Campo, 30, and Francisco Flores, 31, nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, were found guilty last Friday of planning to smuggle cocaine from the presidential hangar at the Caracas airport to Honduras for shipment to the United States. The minimum sentence is 10 years, but they face considerably more time, considering the large amount of the drug involved.
They have four months before they’re scheduled to be sentenced. Their attorneys have filed motions seeking to throw out the verdict based on insufficient evidence. Barring that, they’ll litigate for the lowest sentence possible.
Cooperating may be their best option – albeit a long shot.
The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, or any U.S. attorney, typically doesn’t allow defendants to cooperate after going to trial, but they may make an exception in such a high-profile case and because of the explosive nature of the information Campo and Flores may have implicating other family members or high-ranking officials.
“They absolutely can shed light between the links to what they were doing and the most senior officials,” said Brian Fonseca, the director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. “Whether or not they come out with that information for risk of family in Venezuela, for loyalties, for whatever is motivating them to not, that’s the question.”
The nephews have already implicated the Venezuelan government. In recordings played at the trial, Flores boasted of having complete control of the presidential hangar at the Simón Bolívar airport in Maiquetía, outside Caracas. Campo was recorded claiming that government officials controlled the Cartel of the Suns, a group of high-ranking military officers thought to be drug traffickers.
They absolutely can shed light between the links to what they were doing and the most senior officials.
Brian Fonseca, Florida International University
When arrested in Haiti, Campo allegedly inquired about cooperating with prosecutors and asked whether the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would be interested in information about money laundering. He has since not given any additional indication of wanting to work with the government.
The notorious drug lord Carlos Lehder, a Colombian who helped revolutionized the cocaine business by using an island in the Bahamas as a way station between Colombia and the United States, was convicted and sentenced in 1988 to 135 years plus life imprisonment without possibility of parole. But a few years later he worked out an agreement with the government that reduced his sentence to 55 years by testifying about Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s ties to Colombian drug cartels.
In a similar scenario, Campo and Flores might seek to negotiate a lower sentence by providing information on the Venezuelan government, which the United States has complained is involved in the drug trade.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, said prosecutors typically didn’t give defendants opportunities to cooperate after trial, but they may make an exception given the nature of the information Campo and Flores might have.
“They might at the very least be willing to sit down with them to talk with them about what might they have,” Weinstein said. “If the value of the information is great enough they may say, ‘You know what? OK, we’re going to go against our normal protocol and we’ll agree to let you cooperate. No promises or no guarantees.’ ”
The defendants, however, would likely have to give up their right to appeal. So far, their lawyers have given every indication that they intend to continue to fight for their clients.
The U.S has been stepping up efforts against high-ranking members of Venezuela’s socialist government for their suspected role in allowing the country to become an important transit hub for narcotics.
President Barack Obama has charged that Venezuela has “failed demonstrably” to adhere to its obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.
Several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted in the United States or sanctioned under U.S. authorities.
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 Venezuela’s interior minister.
The United States estimates that about 200 tons of cocaine travel annually through Venezuela on their way to various points in the United States and Europe.
Fonseca noted the broader implications for the international community in its effort to combat illicit trafficking. He said it was very important to understand the relationship between state and non-state actors in the drug trade.
The nephews were not just focused on trafficking in small areas, but also had worked and looked to work overseas and in Canada, Fonseca said.
“These two nephews were not low people on the food chain,” he said, “but rather prominent members of this outfit of traffickers with one degree of separation of the presidency.”