It was a tough day in court for the U.S. government in the drug case against two nephews of the first lady of Venezuela.
Federal prosecutors had to sit and watch defense attorney Randall Jackson slowly dismantle the credibility of a star witness, Jose Santos Peña, by playing recordings of him allegedly conducting his own drug deals from prison.
Santos is a key part of the prosecution’s case against Efrain Campo and Francisco Flores, who are charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. It was Santos, a confidential informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who helped orchestrate the deal and first brought up the idea of bringing the alleged drugs to the United States.
It was a gripping turn of events in a high-profile case with international implications. Federal prosecutors essentially abandoned their star witness, telling Santos in front of the jury that he would not receive any special treatment for cooperating with the prosecution. Santos gasped in response.
Campo, 30, and Flores, 31, claim they were lured into the alleged drug deal by corrupt paid informants like Santos who saw a big financial pay off if they could help the DEA land a close family member of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores.
“This was a huge victory for the defense in term of discrediting this witness,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami. “It’s going to sting the government.”
Weinstein said the development is not insurmountable for the prosecution, but puts a “big hole” in its case and raises the bar as to whether prosecutors have enough evidence to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Now that they’ve “given up” on Santos, prosecutors will have to rely more on the audio and video recordings and confession to prove their case, Weinstein said.
It was the third day that Santos, a former high ranking member of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, testified in the federal criminal trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Santos is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty of lying to federal agents and conducting unauthorized drug trafficking while working for the DEA as an informant.
He and his son, who is also a paid informant, have collected more than $1.2 million from the U.S. government for their undercover work. He faces at least 10 years in prison for the charges, but hoped to be released even sooner for cooperating with federal prosecutors on this case.
Jackson, Campo’s attorney, told the jury Santos couldn’t be trusted. To illustrate his point, the defense lawyer played recordings of phone calls Santos made and accused him of trafficking drugs while he was in prison.
The jury could hear Santos on the calls, connected by a third person, speaking with contacts in Sinaloa, Mexico. They discussed “pills” and delivering money to another son.
“Be very careful,” Santos could be heard in one recording. “We don’t want surprises now that we’re in this difficult position.”
Santos smiled uncomfortably during the questioning. He sipped at a water bottle and fidgeted with his beard. At one point, he tried to explain himself to the interpreter when Jackson wouldn’t let him further explain what was on the recordings.
Federal prosecutors recognized the severity of the testimony. Often times, a prosecutor will seek to rehabilitate a witness in front of the eyes of the jury with sympathetic questions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan F. Quigley made no effort to undo the damage.
Instead, he asked Santos four simple questions.
Quigley asked Santos if knew his agreement with prosecutors would be ripped up if he lied again. Santos said, “yes, sir.” Quigley asked Santos if he knew the agreement was now being ripped up. Santos said, “no, sir.”
Quigley asked Santos if he knew he wouldn’t get a special letter from prosecutors for his cooperation if he lied. Santos said, “yes, sir.” Quigley asked if Santos knew that he now wasn’t going to get the special letter that could lower his sentence. Santos said, “no, sir.”
“You should,” Quigley said. “No further questions.”
Santos’s shoulders shook as he let out a loud breath before being led away by a guard.
Prosecutors are expected to finish their case on Wednesday. It’s unclear whether the defense will call any witnesses. The defendants are not expected to testify. U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty has indicated the jury could hear closing arguments by Thursday.