Cracks appear in U.S. drug case against Venezuelan ‘first nephews’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores at a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Two of Flores’ nephews face charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores at a march in Caracas, Venezuela. Two of Flores’ nephews face charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. AP

Attorneys for the nephews of Venezuela’s first lady made their strongest argument yet Friday that they’re victims of a U.S. political plot against the Venezuelan government – and in the process revealed cracks in the government’s drug case against them.

Attorneys for Efrain Campo, 29, and Francisco Flores, 30, who were charged last year with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., spent much of the day in federal court pressing federal agents to admit they’d constructed an elaborate plan to target the defendants because of their ties to the first family.

The two men’s arrest, which took place in Haiti, was considered so sensitive that U.S. Special Agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, who supervised the investigation for the Drug Enforcement Administration, briefed the Haitian minister of justice personally because of the potential fallout from Venezuela.

At the time, Campo was claiming to be the son of Cilia Flores, whose husband is Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, Zachariasiewicz said.

“We felt the minister of justice should be prepared for the political ramifications,” Zachariasiewicz said.

The federal case against the nephews has driven an existing wedge even further between United States and Venezuela. The Obama administration, which has said Venezuela has “failed demonstrably” to adhere to its obligations under international counter-narcotics agreements, has stepped up its enforcement against alleged traffickers in Venezuela’s inner circle, including indicting the Venezuelan justice minister, Gen. Nestor Reverol.

“It further puts a spotlight on the level of corruption and criminality within the Venezuelan state,” said Brian Fonseca, the director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. “That’s important from an international community perspective, not just an American perspective, where you can only do so much of this stuff before you get the Brazils and the Argentines and the Chiles to start speaking out, which is what we’ve started to see them do more and more with a sense of confidence that this is not a legitimate, law-abiding regime.”

Maduro has called the U.S. drug charges a conspiracy. His wife, a lawyer and leader in the General Assembly, accused U.S. agents of kidnapping her nephews.

The prosecution has a strong case, including alleged confessions to a complex plot to smuggle cocaine into the United States. But defense lawyers, who are anticipated to claim entrapment, revealed serious credibility issues for two of the prosecution’s key confidential sources who helped strike a deal with the defendants to smuggle the cocaine. And federal prosecutors have yet to make a hard connection that links the nephews with the presidency.

On Friday, lawyers for Campo and Flores spent much of the day hammering two of the prosecution’s key witnesses – a father and son duo who’ve since been convicted of unauthorized drug trafficking. The lawyers said that neither the witnesses nor the U.S. agents had ever seen 800 kilograms of cocaine – more than three-quarters of a ton.

Defense lawyers John Zach and David Roday spent hours grilling the father and son, noting that 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 elicited on-the-stand confessions that the father had abused cocaine and hired prostitutes while on DEA missions and had repeatedly withheld key information from federal agents and prosecutors.

The 55-year-old father, who pretended to be a member of the Mexican Sinoloa drug cartel, admitted to deceiving the government for years and selling drugs for four years behind the DEA’s back. Roday got him to acknowledge that it wasn’t until Friday afternoon, during lunch with the prosecutors, that he’d revealed for the first time that he had hired two prostitutes during a DEA mission in Venezuela and also introduced an unauthorized man into their operation.

“I did lie to them,” said the father, whose name was not revealed because of the sensitivity of the case.

The issues did not go unnoticed by the U.S. district judge hearing the case, Paul Crotty, who repeatedly pressed defense lawyers to move on.

“I got it,” Crotty said, noting the “substantial question” to the father’s credibility.

To be clear, the trial has yet to start. The public testimony of the past two days has been delivered in a hearing seeking to impeach the two confidential sources and suppress the alleged confessions. Recordings of conversations between the defendants and the informants have yet to be revealed.

But both sides revealed key aspects of their strategy during the hearing.

The prosecution has said it was clear that the two nephews had the means and capacity to deliver several hundred kilograms of cocaine. Zachariasiewicz described them as “players in the game.”

“It takes a lot of weight to put 800 kilograms of cocaine together,” Zachariasiewicz added.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez