Robbery, not drug smuggling, was Venezuelan nephews’ plan, lawyer says

In this May 1, 2016, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters alongside first lady Cilia Flores during a labor day march in Caracas, Venezuela. Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of working with the opposition to sow dissent where none exists.
In this May 1, 2016, file photo, Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro waves to supporters alongside first lady Cilia Flores during a labor day march in Caracas, Venezuela. Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of working with the opposition to sow dissent where none exists. AP

The nephews of Venezuela’s president and his wife were planning to rob two federal confidential informants of $20 million and never planned to deliver any cocaine to be smuggled into the United States, the nephews’ lawyer suggested in federal court Tuesday.

“It is a fact, isn’t it, that they said they intended to keep the money and not deliver the drugs?” defense attorney Randall Jackson asked during cross-examination of the federal agent who led the investigation.

Jackson raised the scenario during the second day of testimony in the trial against Efrain Campo, 30, and Francisco Flores, 31, who are charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Campo and Flores are nephews of the powerful Venezuelan first lady, Cilia Flores, and her husband, President Nicolás Maduro.

Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez started the day on the stand. Jackson continued a line of questioning that sought to paint Gonzalez as leading a shoddy investigation that was based on two unreliable confidential sources who lied to the Drug EnforcementAdministration and dealt cocaine and methamphetamine while collecting more than $1.2 million from the U.S. government for supposedly informing on other drug dealers.

“You lost control of your informants,” Jackson told Gonzalez.

On the stand for nearly five hours Monday and Tuesday and expected to return Wednesday, Gonzalez admitted he’s never heard of a case where drug dealers were willing to advance $20 million in cash without any merchandise to show for it. He also acknowledged using homophobic language and ethnic slurs when talking with his sources.

You lost control of your informants.

Defense attorney Randall Jackson to DEA agent

No money or drugs had exchanged hands before the two nephews were arrested during a sting operation in Haiti. The defense alleges the lack of confiscated drugs should be enough for the jury to have “reasonable doubt,” but Gonzalez said the men were arrested for conspiracy beforehand because they were requesting payment in advance, which the DEA was not going to provide.

Gonzalez said Campo and Flores never indicated they planned to rob the confidential sources and not deliver the drugs. Instead, they talked about how they could use their access to the presidential hangar at Caracas’ airport to get the drugs out of Venezuela.

According to Gonzalez, Campo said during his interrogation after arrest that he was hoping to make enough money on the cocaine deal to his wife and child to live in the United States. That conversation was not recorded, however. Campo earlier had told a confidential informant that he planned to use profits to help his aunt’s congressional campaign, according to recorded conversations.

Gonzalez said Campo also mentioned possibly cooperating with prosecutors and asked whether the DEA would be interested in information about money laundering but did not provide any information.

You lost your objectivity.

Defense attorney David Roday to DEA agent

Gonzalez defended the DEA investigation and said that while some of his words may have come across as inappropriate, he had adopted the language used by the informants to build trust and give them needed confidence before a dangerous mission. He noted that the confidential sources were drug dealers who used vulgar language with regularity. One of the confidential sources included a member of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel out of Mexico. Both have since been convicted of crimes in the United States.

“I spoke his language,” Gonzalez said.

The DEA must depend on informants in countries like Venezuela where it’s difficult to conduct operations. The key is not to rely exclusively on the informants but to find ways to corroborate what they learn by introducing agents and recording devices, which Gonzalez emphasized that they had.

In the past, the Venezuelan government has been more interested in identifying DEA informants than those responsible for criminal conduct, Gonzalez testified.

“There were political sensitivities due to the relationship,” Gonzalez said.

The defense has described Campo and Flores as naive and incapable of pulling off such a complex drug scheme. They were targeted for political reasons because of their connection to Maduro, who is an adversary of the United States, the defense has said.

Defense attorney David Roday got Gonzalez to admit that he was excited when agents confirmed the defendants’ close relationship with the first lady, who had helped raise Campo. Gonzalez agreed they were “big fish.”

Roday accused Gonzalez of getting carried away with the investigation and relying too heavily on the word of informants who lied to him about abusing drugs and hiring prostitutes while working on behalf of the DEA.

“You lost your objectivity,” Roday said.

UPDATE: This story has been revised to make clear that Gonzalez is the source of Campo’s alleged statement that he wanted to bring his family to the United States with the money he made from the cocaine deal. There was no recording of this interview.