• Maduro nephews' second court appearance is set for Nov. 18
  • Arrests may fan tensions ahead of Venezuela's Dec. 6 elections

Two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who were arrested and brought to the U.S. for alleged involvement in drug trafficking appeared in federal court in New York Thursday.

Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, are charged with participating in meetings in Venezuela in October regarding a shipment of cocaine that was to be sent to the U.S. via Honduras, according to an indictment in Manhattan federal court. In a five-minute hearing Thursday, the government sought detention and the defense consented. The next hearing was set for Nov. 18.

The two nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, were arrested in Haiti on Tuesday and turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday.

The arrests could add to tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela and hurt Maduro’s popularity as the government faces legislative elections on Dec. 6, according to Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.

Officials at Venezuela’s Information Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg News.

The two defendants, dressed in short-sleeve shirts, were represented by attorneys from Squire Patton Boggs: Flores by John J. Reilly, and Flores de Freitas by Rebekah J. Poston, who is a former prosecutor based in Miami. In the courtroom crowd were many reporters from Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.


‘Accusations’

Maduro, who spoke Thursday at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, did not directly address the incident.

“It’s not the first time that Venezuela faces reckless accusations, taken from the agendas of global harassment, from the imperial media against the fatherland of Simon Bolivar, and it won’t be the first time that we defeat the lies with the powerful force of truth that our country has,” Maduro said after Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern over judicial independence in the South American country.

Venezuela is one of the preferred trafficking routes for illegal drugs from South America to the Caribbean region and the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of State, which cited the country’s “weak judicial system, sporadic international counter-narcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.”

Strained Relations

“It’s clearly a PR nightmare for the government,” Farnsworth said Wednesday in phone interview, referring to the arrests. “That’s something the government will try to discredit, but if the evidence is solid, and it becomes public, it’s going to be something that’s difficult to get around.”

Venezuela-U.S. relations have been strained for several years, and the countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010. Tensions flared again earlier this year after Washington imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights violations during a wave of anti-government protests last year.

Officials from Venezuela and the U.S. held talks in Haiti in June in an effort to thaw the icy relations. After a brief respite, Maduro has once again stepped up anti-U.S. rhetoric and said last month that he would sue the U.S. government over the implementation of the sanctions in March.

Maduro, like his predecessor Hugo Chavez before him, has accused the US of plotting to undermine his socialist government, however, it may be difficult for the president to rally support in this case, said Dmitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.

“That message is going to be hard to sell even to the bases of Chavismo,” he said.

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