800 Kilos of Coke

Why the Venezuelan First Lady’s Nephews Got Nailed for Drug Running

Once again the DEA nails figures connected to the disastrous regime of Nicolás Maduro, but will that make any difference to the Venezuelan people?

Handout/Reuters

PORT-AU-PRINCE—When a small private Cessna Citation plane landed after dark at Haiti’s Toussaint l’Ouverture airport on Nov. 10, 2015, it wasn’t the traditional airport band that greeted its two passengers, but local and U.S narcotics agents.

Efraín Antonio Campo Flores, 31, and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freita, 30, nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, were immediately arrested and flown to the United States.

“The tip came from the Dom Rep,” an intelligence source directly familiar with the case in Haiti told The Daily Beast. The private Citation aircraft had stopped in the Dominican Republic before heading on to Haiti, according to the source, who said the two nephews were supposed to be “on semi-official business.”

It was not clear why the aircraft made the stop in the Dominican Republic and then went on to neighboring Haiti, but the source confirmed it was not to refuel, and Dominican officials definitely did not want the arrest to take place there. “The DR authorities were thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, they’re the Petrocaribe friends! Let them go over there [to Haiti].’”

Ah, Petrocaribe: one of the Caracas regime’s most important tools for building regional influence. The organization was set up more than a decade ago by then-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to lighten the burden of imported oil costs for his Central American and Caribbean neighbors, and draw them more closely into his orbit. Over time, several countries in the region became addicted to Chavista largesse.

So there was an inclination by the dependent Caribbean governments to deal gingerly with anyone who had, or might have, Petrocaribe connections. And the nephews of the wife of current President Nicolás Maduro? Those were not people you wanted to pick a fight with.

Asked why the private Citation aircraft and its passengers weren’t apprehended in the Dominican Republic in the first place, the source told The Daily Beast, “It was a let your neighbor take the fall,” then he paused, “or get the credit.”

In any case there was no way the Flores boys were going to walk out of Toussaint l’Ouverture Airport as free men.

The indictment states that “five kilograms and more of mixtures and substances containing a detectable amount of cocaine” were found onboard the Citation aircraft at the time of the Flores arrest in Haiti. But that was just a taste of what they were plotting to bring into the States.

The two Flores cousins had been under investigation for a month, according to the indictment unsealed by the Southern District Court of New York, and they were charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds) of cocaine into the U.S. via Honduras.

Much of the evidence grew out of conversations the two nephews of the first lady had in Caracas and Honduras with DEA informants posing as drug traffickers. And the DEA agents making the arrests here in Haiti probably thought they had an open-and-shut case. But when the case went to trial in the United States it took a new twist.

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According to court records cited in detail by the Associate Press, the two informants were a father and son team who continued to sell narcotics on the side while peddling information to the DEA for six- and even seven-figure sums. Jose Santos-Pena, the 55-year-old father, had been on the DEA books for years, receiving upward of $1 million from the U.S. government. His son, Jose Santos-Hernandez, got hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Then, just as the Flores case was ready to go to trial, the two pleaded guilty to dealing drugs while on the DEA payroll. Testimony from the father revealed more infractions, like using cocaine throughout the investigation, and allowing his son’s friends to sit in on some of the DEA phone calls about Venezuelan targets.

The vaudevillian display in the U.S. court by the DEA’s own key witnesses seemed to defy reason. At the end of the day, the jury returned a guilty verdict, but this was no open-and-shut case, and it is not surprising that the defenders of the Flores cousins are still trying to prove it was politically motivated.

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The conviction on Friday came on the heels of a string of U.S. investigations of high-ranking Venezuelan officials allegedly involved in narcotrafficking since former President Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999, joining the ranks of other left-wing governments that swept into office in Latin America in the late 1990s.

In 2005, Chavez expelled the Drug Enforcement Agency’s representatives, and according to several sources the DEA’s genuine concerns about trafficking mingled with a spirit of vendetta against the Chavistas.

In August 2015, two former leading officials of Venezuela’s anti-narcotics agency were indicted in absentia by U.S. federal courts for facilitating drug traffickers’ shipments from Colombia. General Nestor Luis Revrol Torres was a particular target of that investigation, but days after his indictment was unsealed, he was promoted to the cabinet level position of interior minister, running the country’s law enforcement. The list runs long. In September 2015, the U.S. unsealed indictments against Pedro Luis Martin Olivares, the former chief of finance for the intelligence service, and also the former anti-drug tsar, Jesus Alfredo Itriago.

But with the arrests of the Flores nephews, the DEA has gotten up close and personal.

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Even if the Caracas government were inclined to cooperate with Washington, which clearly it is not, the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Venezuela. On the other hand those alleged criminals who can be lured or tricked into a stop on Haitian territory appear to have virtually no protection.

One example: Fabio Lobo Lobo, the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, was arrested in May 2015 in Haiti during a joint operation between Haiti’s BPLS, the anti-narcotic Haitian police division, and the DEA.

Despite the risks, there might be several incentives for wanted drug traffickers to visit Haiti. It has been a favored transshipment point going back as far as 1985, when barely visible landing strips speckled the island, many of which were run by high-ranking Haitian military officers. Today, according to the source The Daily Beast spoke to, transhipment in Haiti is at an all-time high.

Meanwhile U.S.-Venezuelan relations have steadily deteriorated since Chavez came to power, and diplomacy has given way to uncompromising vitriol on both sides. But as often as Washington denounces what is going on in Caracas, it has shown no appetite to intervene directly.

Maduro, who succeeded to the presidency in 2013 after Chavez died of cancer, has faced angry, widespread opposition to nearly two decades of socialist policies that have been badly managed and brought the country’s economy to the brink. In 2002, Venezuela’s opposition took to staging “million-people marches,” but to little avail.

Today, Maduro faces the same opposition, clamoring with pots and pans through Caracas’s central avenues. The movement is making a lot of noise, but so far, has been unable to unseat its president.

If the DEA believed the Flores case might contribute to Maduro’s downfall in the face of an outraged public, they probably should have given that another think. If we have learned anything in today’s politics and diplomacy, it’s that people will believe what they want to believe. Some might even convince themselves that Maduro is a good leader, or that his wife’s nephews were just daydreaming about drug trafficking.

The jury didn’t see things that way at all.