Venezuelan President’s Nephews Found Guilty in Cocaine Caseby
They planned to use presidential hangar in Caracas, U.S. said
Shipping magnate Wilmer Ruperti financed their defense in NY
Two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro were found guilty of conspiring to traffic 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., in a politically fraught case that links the country’s ruling family to the corruption plaguing its economy.
Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 30, and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 31, could face 10 years to life in prison after a jury delivered a guilty verdict in Manhattan court Friday. The men are nephews of Cilia Flores, Maduro’s wife, and Venezuela contends they were kidnapped, showing that the Drug Enforcement Administration has operated illegally in Venezuela, in contravention of a 2005 decree.
In a trial that spanned almost two weeks, their lawyers painted them as naïve young men who fell prey to DEA informants under the lure of big money. They struggled to get ahead in Caracas society and didn’t have lavish lifestyles, though, like all members of Maduro’s extended family, they had their own bodyguards, they said.
U.S. prosecutors told a different story of impudent elite who tried to use their political connections to get massive amounts of cocaine out of the country through the presidential airplane hanger -- and planned to use the trafficking operation to support a crumbling regime.
“They promised a lot of money to guys who live in a country so damaged...whatever $20 million, $30 million means in the U.S., it means infinitely more in Venezuela,” said Randall Jackson, a lawyer for the nephews, referring to the sums DEA agents offered his clients.
The prosecution of the nephews, arrested a year ago in Haiti, is one of several intersecting U.S. probes into Venezuela and Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, its state-owned oil company. U.S. officials are said to be pursuing charges against several Venezuelan elite for bribery related to PDVSA, seeking to seize assets that could eventually be returned to Venezuela after a democratic election.
Leftist and unpopular Maduro has no plans to leave office, as his country suffers shortages, soaring inflation and a crushing recession. Transparency International ranks Venezuela 158th out of 168 in corruption.
The nephews boasted they controlled the Caracas airport and sent pilots on multiple test flights to Honduras to try and secure a route, U.S. lawyer Emil Bove said.
“They wanted to do as many loads as possible leading up to the Dec. 11 elections,” Bove told the jury in closing arguments, referring to Venezuela’s 2015 parliamentary elections in which Flores was running for was running for a seat.
He argued that because a real drug dealer operating in Honduras was the first to make contact with the nephews and bring him in touch with U.S. informants, it couldn’t be considered entrapment.
“He was the bridge,” Bove said, showing a picture of him standing in a dark Honduran nightscape in between the two nephews and the U.S.’s wheelchair-bound informant.
The government botched a sting operation because it failed to provide any actual cocaine as evidence, Jackson, the lawyer for the nephews, told the jury. Informants failed to record key interactions and had dealt drugs on the side themselves, destroying their credibility, he said.
The U.S. presented a photo of one of the nephews holding a kilo of cocaine in his hands and presented snippets of chats in which they boast they can get cocaine “by the shovel-full.”
U.S. law enforcement officials have had mixed success in past attempts to link Venezuelan officials to cocaine trafficking. In August, they unsealed a case against Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, the former director of the country’s own anti-drug office. Maduro quickly thereafter named Reverol justice minister, saying the U.S. case was baseless.
In December, the U.S. charged Roberto Rincon, a Venezuelan resident of Houston, with taking part in a bribery scheme involving PDVSA, adding in court documents that he is connected to Hugo Carvajal, wanted in the U.S. for drug trafficking. Rincon pleaded guilty to two counts, including conspiracy to violate corruption laws.
Federal prosecutors are also said to be preparing to charge several other individuals and confiscate their property over the alleged looting of PDVSA.
The nephews’ defense team with Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP was funded by Wilmer Ruperti, a Venezuelan shipping magnate who made his fortune under former president Hugo Chavez and contracts ships to PDVSA.
The case is USA v. Campo Flores, 15-cr-00765, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).