- Men have been in jail since their arrests in November
- Case might further strain Venezuelan relations with U.S.
Two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro who are being held in a Manhattan jail denied U.S. charges they were involved in a drug-trafficking ring.
Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, pleaded not guilty Thursday in federal court in New York. The men are accused of taking part in meetings in Venezuela in October about a shipment of cocaine bound for the U.S. via Honduras, prosecutors say.
The two nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, were arrested in Haiti in November and turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Another hearing in the matter was scheduled for Feb. 29.
The case might add to long-standing tensions between the U.S. and Maduro’s populist government, which is facing a series of domestic challenges. On Dec. 6, Venezuela’s opposition alliance won a majority in congress for the first time in 16 years amid an unprecedented recession and a collapse in the bolivar.
The defendants, dressed in blue prison garb, used an interpreter to communicate with the judge. Campo Flores asked to drop his lawyers from Squire Patton Boggs and replace them with a publicly financed lawyer, a request the judge granted. Squire Patton Boggs represents many Venezuelan interests in U.S. courts. Flores de Freitas was already being represented by a public defender.
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. State Department, which has cited the country’s “weak judicial system, sporadic international counter-narcotics cooperation, and permissive and corrupt environment.”
Venezuelan-U.S. relations have been strained for years, and the countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010. Tensions flared again earlier this year after Washington imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials accused of human rights violations during a wave of anti-government protests last year.
The case is U.S. v. Camp Flores, 1:15-cr-00765, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan)