Drugs trial exposes high-echelon corruption in Venezuela


Cilia Flores (left) and Nicolás Maduro (right) during a public meeting in Caracas.
Cilia Flores (left, in red) and Nicolás Maduro (right) during a public meeting in Caracas.

When a US federal judge sentences two Venezuelan drug smugglers, perhaps later this month, it will mark the final chapter of a story worthy of the Netflix series “Narcos.”

It’s got everything: Notorious revolutionaries, corrupt generals, informants and even Uzi machine guns. And a plot to move at least 800 kilograms of cocaine through the private hangar of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, with the expected profits to fund the First Lady’s run for Parliament.

The course of the New York trial was avidly followed from afar.

“It’s unusual,” said Elizabeth Williams, a courtroom artist who illustrated the trial. In 37 years on the job, she said, she’s never seen anything like the online reaction the case sparked in South America. “This is a big case down there.”

Cousins Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efraín Antonio Campo Flores were convicted last November in a Manhattan courtroom of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Their sentencing, originally set for March 7, has not yet been rescheduled.

Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams depicts (from left) Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas in headphones, defense attorney Elizabeth A. Espinosa, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores in headphones, defense attorneys John T. Zach and Randall W. Jackson and Assistant US Attorney Emil J. Bove, standing. (Associated Press)
Courtroom artist Elizabeth Williams depicts (from left) Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas in headphones, defense attorney Elizabeth A. Espinosa, Efrain Antonio Campo Flores in headphones, defense attorneys John T. Zach and Randall W. Jackson and Assistant US Attorney Emil J. Bove, standing. (Associated Press)

The story that emerged during their nine-day trial was jaw-dropping.

Flores and Campo are the nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of President Maduro and a politician in her own right. According to trial testimony, they were planning to move cocaine for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) through Venezuela via the president’s private hangar at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas.

They expected the deal to bring them as much as $11 million, some of which was to be used to help fund Cilia Flores’ re-election campaign.

The story of how her nephews came to be arrested, tried and convicted illuminates dark corners of “official” involvement in the illegal drug trade in Venezuela — raising serious questions about the nexus of crime, law enforcement and government in that country.

Prosecutors say that in the months leading up to their arrest, Campo and Flores met repeatedly with traffickers from Colombia, Honduras and Mexico to plan the drug-smuggling operation.

“You will hear Flores brag that he had complete control of the airport in Venezuela,” Assistant US Attorney Emil Bove told jurors in his opening statement. “And he assured the people at the meeting that the drugs would be sent from the presidential hangar at the airport.”

Unfortunately for the nephews, some of their “partners” were informants for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The Colombian cocaine was to be transported through Caracas to an island off Honduras en route to its final destination in the US. On Nov. 10, 2015, the cousins flew to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to collect their pay for the deal in advance.

Instead, they were arrested by the Haitian police and turned over to US authorities.

Defense lawyers said it was a setup, a DEA sting operation that entrapped their clients, who they called too stupid to have come up with such an elaborate plan.

“These guys, in terms of what actually happened, are idiots, okay?” said defense lawyer Randall Jackson. “They didn’t understand what they were getting into.”

Neither defendant was rich, the lawyers said, noting Campo runs a small taxi business, while Flores lives in a two-room apartment.

High-ranking Venezuelan officials have denounced the verdict, calling it a fraudulent attempt to smear Maduro’s family and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela. When her nephews were arrested, the First Lady accused the DEA of “violating our (Venezuelan) sovereignty and committing crimes within our borders.”

President Maduro pivoted to blame the US. “Do you think it’s a coincidence for imperialists to come up with this case with the sole objective of attacking the First Lady, the first fighter, the president’s wife?” he said. “Enough of attacks against revolutionary women, including my wife, Cilia Flores.”

One of the fiercest denunciations came from Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally and former president of the National Assembly, who said, “Those boys are kidnapped … in the United States.”

But the US says the denunciations are disingenuous. Media reports accused Cabello of heading the shadowy organization known as the Cartel of the Suns, a drug trafficking network involving mostly high-ranking military officers, a charge Cabello vehemently denies. On wiretaps played in court, rumors of Cabello’s connection with the cartel are discussed.

A deal a long time in the making

Efraín Campo (left) handles a package that is claimed to be a kilo of cocaine while Franqui Flores makes a grimace (right). This picture was part of the exhibits during the trial.
Efraín Campo (in blue) handles a package said to be a kilo of cocaine while Franqui Flores, in red, grimaces. This composite photo was submitted as evidence during the trial.

The trail that the two well-connected Venezuelans traveled to a federal courtroom in New York City stretches back to the fall of 2015, although some of the groundwork was laid a full decade earlier.

In 2005, Venezuela abruptly suspended cooperation with the DEA, when then-President Hugo Chavez accused the American anti-drug agency of aiding drug traffickers and spying.

Mildred Camero, who had been serving as Chavez’s drug czar, was forced from office. Camero, the co-author of the book, “Chavismo, narcotráfico y militarismo” said that Chavez’s move had the effect of opening up the illicit drug trade to more players.

Concurrent changes in the country’s laws gave the Armed Forces authority to fight drug trafficking, an activity that was previously limited to the National Guard, she said. This allowed more military officers to get involved in drug trafficking via the Cartel of the Suns, an organized crime network allegedly controlled by the highest-ranking officers in the military. The group is named after the distinctive sunburst-shaped military insignia worn by generals. “In fact, not only generals are involved, but there are majors, lieutenants, almost everyone in the Armed Forces,” said Camero.

How the scheme was supposed to work

Prosecutors say in the run-up to the drug deal, set for Nov. 15, 2015, the conspirators met six times: three times in Caracas, twice in Honduras and once in Haiti. All of the meetings were surreptitiously recorded.

According to the plan, FARC would deliver the cocaine to Caracas, where it would be loaded onto a plane in the privacy of the president’s hangar before being flown to Honduras. At that point the Mexican partners would take over to move the drugs from Honduras to the US.

In one of the wiretaps, Campo is heard talking with Sinaloa cartel drug trafficker José Santos Peña, identified in court documents as Confidential Source 1 (CS1). In a choppy, interrupted and sometimes inaudible conversation, the two discuss financing Cilia Flores’ campaign; the “war” with the United States; the Venezuelan opposition and the FARC.

[In the transcript, Campo refers to Cilia Flores as his “mother”. She…