Efraín Antonio Campos Flores and his cousin Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, who were convicted on drug trafficking charges in November 2016, sat nervously in a New York federal court on Thursday as U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty read out the sentence: 18 years in prison for each of them.
Nicknamed the “narco nephews” by Venezuela’s opposition, their aunt happens to be Cilia Flores, the first lady of Venezuela. She is a fierce and ambitious politician in her own right, and of course she is married to President Nicolás Maduro, seen by the Trump administration as a very bad hombre indeed.
Back in 2015, Señora Flores was running for re-election to Venezuela’s National Assembly. The country was cash-strapped, its economy in vertiginous decline, the assets of major figures frozen, and dozens of senior Venezuelan officials had been indicted on drug trafficking charges. Eventually that list included the vice president.
What to do? As court documents show, the Flores nephews, both in their thirties, wanted to make their aunt’s campaign happen, but it would need money, and they would need the cover of presidential privileges. Or so they told the court.
The two young men had been on the radar of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration since October 2015, after making contact with two DEA informants to ship and sell hundreds of kilos of cocaine on private aircraft flying out of Maduro’s presidential terminal in Caracas via Honduras to the United States.
According to a statement released Thursday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the two nephews told investigators “they intended to use part of the proceeds of their drug trafficking to fund her [Cilia Flores] December 2015 campaign for a position in the Venezuelan National Assembly.”
The statement contained excerpts from secretly recorded conversations between Campos Flores and an informant and his son in Honduras. The informants themselves later turned out to be a problem for the DEA because they continued to use and sell cocaine while on its payroll. The two informants have been indicted and face extensive jail time in the U.S. Still, the evidence they provided was deemed valuable and credible. The statement released Thursday contained excerpts of their secretly taped conversations with the narco nephews.
On Oct. 23, 2015, during a recorded meeting regarding potential drug shipments, Campos Flores told the informant his “mom” (actually his aunt) needed $20 million for the election, and she needed it by December of 2015.
At the time, the Venezuelan opposition looked like it would ride a surge of discontent with Maduro to take the majority in the National Assembly, which indeed it did. But it was thwarted by the Maduro controlled courts and, finally, a Maduro scheme that bypassed the normal legislature altogether by creating a constituent assembly with sweeping powers. All of which cost money.
“We want to take possession again… of the National Assembly and… several places with power,” Campos Flores had told the DEA informant.
Campos Flores also said an “agreement” involving Diosdado Cabello—one of the country’s most powerful and most notorious politicians—allowed the defendants’ family to “control the oil completely in Venezuela.”
At a third recorded meeting in Caracas, on Oct. 27, 2015, Campos Flores and Flores de Freitas presented the informant with a kilogram of cocaine, referring to it as a “little animal,” so that they could test the quality of the drugs.
The statement said that on Nov. 6, 2015, Flores de Freitas and a bodyguard traveled to Honduras via private jet in order to meet with the two informants to further discuss the cocaine shipment. During the recorded meeting the father indicated that numerous officials at the airport on the island of Roatán, including military and police personnel, would participate in receiving the defendants’ drug load.
Flores de Freitas and the informant proceeded to make precise plans for the shipment during the meeting, and Flores de Freitas agreed to send the first load of cocaine, 1,700 pounds, on Nov. 15, 2015.
The narco nephews boarded a private jet in Caracas. After a brief refueling stop in the Dominican Republic, they continued on to Haiti’s Port au Prince airport where they were promptly arrested by Haitian police and DEA agents and flown forthwith to the U.S. But no drugs were found on their jet.
Venezuela’s petrodollars have fueled the impoverished economies of its neighbors for years in order to buy solidarity in its “anti-U.S. imperialism” war. But the money only goes so far. The Dominican Republic tipped off the Haitians.
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty pointed to the cousins’ ineptitude during Thursday’s sentencing hearing, according to the Associated Press.
“What moves me is that Mr. Campos Flores and Mr. Flores de Freitas were perhaps not the most astute drug dealers who ever existed,” Crotty said. “They were in over their heads.”
Lawyers for the narco nephews insisted the two were framed, but that was not enough to convince the jury and both men were found guilty of conspiring in a multimillion-dollar scheme to ship drugs to the U.S.
They should have left the big narcotics deals to others in the Maduro regime. After all, there’s no shortage of them, and they have a lot of experience.