National Security

Why drug case against Venezuela’s ‘first nephews’ looks weaker

Efrain Campo Flores, 29, and Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, were arrested during a sting in Haiti on Nov. 10, 2015. They have been charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
Efrain Campo Flores, 29, and Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, were arrested during a sting in Haiti on Nov. 10, 2015. They have been charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

The once “slam-dunk” drug case against the nephews of the Venezuelan first family is looking more fragile after a two-day hearing and subsequent court filings that reveal prosecutors’ key confidential sources are tainted with credibility problems.

When Efrain Campo, 29, and Francisco Flores, 30, were charged last year with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States, the federal government touted what it said was a strong case: undercover recordings of a massive drug deal, alleged confessions from the two defendants and informants who later said the cousins had done the deal to make money for the congressional campaign of their aunt, first lady Cilia Flores.

But now the U.S. Attorney’s Office is facing questions about their case: whether the so-called voluntary confessions were in fact coerced, how the informants got in touch with the defendants and the propriety of accepting the word of informants, who acknowledge improper conduct while receiving money from the United States, including snorting cocaine and hiring prostitutes. There are questions also about how much the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration knew about what its informants were doing.

“If I were them, I would be nervous,” David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, said of the prosecutors. “The way things are going, the case is not getting better. It’s getting weaker.”

On Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to file competing briefs on whether U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty of the Southern District of New York should suppress the defendants’ alleged confessions and audio and video recordings of the informants’ meetings with the defendants, including images of the defendants allegedly handling a brick of cocaine.

The trial is expected to begin Nov. 7.

The government’s seemingly very strong cases is now not as strong anymore.

David Weinstein, former federal prosecutor

The case against the nephews of Cilia Flores, a powerful Venezuelan lawmaker and wife of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, is being closely watched across the hemisphere as the two sides trade accusations of political corruption. It’s largely seen in the United States as further proof of corrupt ties between the Venezuelan government and illicit drug trafficking. But the Venezuelan government considers it another example of a vicious U.S. campaign to discredit the Maduro government and drive him from power.

Going back to President George W. Bush, the United States has long charged that the Venezuelan government fails to adhere to international narcotics agreements, but President Barack Obama has gotten tougher, issuing a presidential determination this year that the Venezuelan government and security forces are “engaged in or facilitated drug trafficking.”

Eight current or former Venezuelan officials have been sanctioned for narcotics trafficking activities since 2008. 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 the interior minister.

But the New York prosecutors have yet to make a direct connection between Campo’s and Flores’ alleged crimes and their powerful aunt or Maduro. The strength of the evidence they do have also has seemed to wane as more details emerge.

The prosecution argues the defendants voluntarily confessed after their arrest. The defendants say agents told them they might never see their kids again if they didn’t cooperate.

The DEA says an informant was contacted by a Venezuelan official with the same name as Cilia Flores’ brother. The defendants say they were “lured” by the informants who contacted them about a lucrative narcotics deal and that the informants said they would supply the planes, the cocaine and the buyer.

“They were picked out and targeted for a narcotics ‘sting’ operation, possibly for reasons of raw international politics,” defense attorney Randall Jackson said in a court motion seeking the identity of the informants.

Last week, prosecutors had to disclose new details about their informants that they themselves learned after the hearing. The informants, a father and son combo known as CS-1 and CS-2, respectively, also brought an unauthorized man into Venezuelan meetings to talk about and test the quality of the cocaine. CS-2 paid for the man’s trip using money received from the DEA on a past deal. CS-2 also promised the man $50,000 to $100,000 if the alleged cocaine deal was successful.

“CS-2 extended the invitation without the authorization of the DEA, and, at least in part, with the expectation that the appearance of an additional person traveling with CS-1 and CS-2 would enhance the defendants’ perception of CS-1 and CS-2 as legitimate, capable drug traffickers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil J. Bove III, wrote in a Sept. 15 filing.

Lawyers for Campo and Flores argue their clients were entrapped and have attacked the motive and credibility of the father and son informants, who have since been convicted of conducting unauthorized drug trafficking at the same time they were working for the DEA.

The two have made $1.2 million from the U.S. government for their undercover work, even as they continued to conduct unsanctioned major drug deals.

“Isn’t it a fact that your dad said this is a big fish and likely would reward you with a lot of money if it worked out,” John Zach, one of Campo’s defense lawyers, asked the son during a suppression hearing this month.

The son answered that he hadn’t thought about the money, but his father acknowledged deceiving the government for years.

“I did lie,” the father testified.

It’s impossible to control the actions of another human being. We can’t make informants do anything.

Stephen Peterson, former DEA agent

Relying on confidential informants can be problematic, said former DEA agent Steven Peterson, who retired after 30 years with the agency in 2010. Agents can only hope informants will behave, but it’s dirty business and most informants take on the dangerous job only because they were themselves arrested.

“Your investigation is only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “And informants are without question the greatest liability in almost any case.”

But the DEA must often rely on informants, especially in countries where local law enforcement is unwilling to cooperate.

Defense lawyers, at least good ones, know to attack the informants because they lack credibility and are not trained how to properly gather evidence, Peterson said. The key is not to rely exclusively on the informants and instead find ways to corroborate what they learn in other ways by introducing agents and recording devices.

The father and son informants recorded several meetings with the defendants where they allegedly discussed the drug deal. They have yet to be played in court.

While the defense has been successful at challenging the confidential informants’ credibility, former federal prosecutor Weinstein doubts that Crotty will suppress the confessions or dismiss the case before it goes to trial. The judge likely will allow the jury to weigh the informants’ credibility, that is, if the prosecution decides to put them on the stand at this point, Weinstein said.

But he said prosecutors were likely now weighing whether they needed to offer the defendants a better plea deal than they might have been considering a few weeks ago.

“At this point in time, the tide is turning for the defendant,” Weinstein said.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez