The nephews of Venezuela’s first lady were finishing up their lunch at a popular hotel restaurant in Haiti when a U.S. federal agent sitting in a car in the parking lot got the signal.
He turned to the Haitian police supervisor next to him to let him know. Soon, three Haitian police officers wearing masks and armed with assault rifles walked into the restaurant and confronted a very stunned Efrain Campo, 29, and Francisco Flores, 30.
“We said, ‘Police, police,’ ” an undercover Haitian police officer who’d been working with agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration told a federal judge Thursday. His name was not released to the public because of the sensitivity of the case.
The men were arrested and taken to a police station, where they were processed before being transferred to U.S. custody. The DEA agent, who had yet to have contact with the men, commented that they looked “scared s---less.”
The tale of the two men’s arrest was the first open court testimony to detail how Campo and Flores, the nephews of Cilia Flores, a powerful Venezuelan lawmaker and wife of that country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, became the defendants in a politically charged prosecution highlighting the role of Venezuela’s elite in drug smuggling.
Federal prosecutors have yet to clearly connect the two nephews’ alleged crimes to their powerful aunt or Maduro, but Venezuela has denounced the prosecution and the indictments of other Venezuelan officials as part of a U.S. campaign to discredit the Maduro government and drive him from power. The plan includes U.S. support for a recall referendum that could end Maduro’s presidency and has received the support of millions of Venezuelans.
The two men are asking U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty to suppress the alleged confessions they made during a flight back to the United States. They’re arguing that their statements while in U.S. custody are not admissible in court because they were not advised of their rights and they feared for their lives, thinking they may have been kidnapped.
Campo’s lawyer, Randall Jackson, noted the idea is not so farfetched – Venezuela has one of the highest rates of kidnapping in the world – and Cilia Flores has accused the DEA of “kidnapping” her nephews.
Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez, who helped lead the investigation, stunned the Manhattan courtroom when he testified that a confidential informant, who was a well-known drug dealer, had gotten a call in October from a Venezuelan official by the name of Vladimir or Bladimir Flores. Cilia Flores’ brother has the same name.
Gonzalez 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.
Defense lawyers in turn have described their clients as emotional young men who didn’t have the capacity to conduct such an operation. They pointed to statements from confidential witnesses who opined that the nephews didn’t have the ability to pull off such an operation.
They accused U.S. agents of conducting a flawed investigation, not properly informing their clients of their rights, failing to record important conversations and depending on dishonest drug traffickers, at least one of whom was an addict who shouldn’t have been trusted with such an important case.
If allowed in as evidence, the so-called confessions are damning. According to court documents, Campo said the two men planned to get cocaine from Colombian rebels. Asked why he got involved in the deal, Flores said: “To make money.” Flores said the deal was worth $5 million, of which he’d expected to get $560,000.
Each said they did not coordinate with any government or military officials.
“Campo added that they did not need to coordinate with anyone to accomplish this,” according to a DEA report on Campo’s alleged confession.
On Thursday, the prosecution called the Haitian police officer and a DEA special agent to challenge defense lawyers’ charges that the men didn’t fully understand what was happening and feared for their lives. Defense lawyers said it was unclear that the men who’d seized Campo and Flores were police, pointing out that they were wearing masks and fatigues that didn’t clearly display their police insignias and carried high-powered rifles.
Prosecutors, in response, gave a timeline of the men’s arrest and roughly four-hour flight to New York. Special Agent Gonzalez testified that the defendants, on their own volition, sought to explain themselves, were clearly informed of their rights orally and in writing and at times laughed with the agents.