Caracas – The arrest of two nephews of the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in an undercover DEA operation Wednesday may be just the tip of the iceberg of a vast, well-entrenched network of family members and close friends of the first family who actually hold the country’s reins.
Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores were indicted in New York after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
Campos, the first lady Cilia Flores carnal nephew, worked for the Venezuelan delegation to the Latin-American Parliament until 2011. At 29, he is believed to be a trusted member of the ruling party, PSUV, which came into power when he was just in middle school.
Cilia Flores, a career politician herself, has employed dozens of her relatives in the many public offices she has held since Hugo Chavez’s socialist revolution took office in 1999.
She worked as private lawyer then. Today, members of her family, her husband’s family and even her ex-husband’s family are part of a wide network of power brokers at all levels of government.
Earlier this year, Venezuelan website contrapunto.com posted a story naming at least 15 Maduro’s or Flores’ family members (including sons, brothers and cousins) who held high-ranking positions in at least 10 different institutions.
“She also took a big part in last December’s appointment of 12 new judges for Venezuela’s Supreme Court to gain influence in that institution,” a political leader close to the government told Fox News Latino, asking to remain anonymous.
Three of the supreme justices picked are close to Flores. Maikel Moreno is a close friend and very likely the Supreme Court chief in the near future; Elsa Gómez is the mother of her daughter-in-law; and Edgar Gavidia Rodriguez is her former brother-in-law.
Flores married President Maduro in 2013, after living together for 10 years. In her first nuptials to Walter Gavidia she had four children – the eldest was an influential judge until recently and now is the head of Propatria 2000 Foundation, which works closely with the Ministry of the Presidency.
Maduro had just one son during his first marriage, 25-year-old Nicolas Maduro Guerra, who was appointed head of a newly created agency in charge of the inspection of public works soon after his father became president.
Also in 2013, Flores’ first husband, a well-connected PSUV member in his own right, was appointed head of a social program that depends financially from the Presidency’s ministry.
When she was President of the National Assembly, between 2005 and 2010, Flores became the talk of the town for the many family members – more than 40 - she reportedly employed in that institution.
“In 2010, I heard of more than 40 family members that were employed in different offices of the National Assembly,” said Maria Eugenia Morales, journalist that covers Congress news for Venezuela’s newspaper El Nacional.
She also hired close friends. Manuel Galindo, currently Venezuela’s general comptroller (Contralor General de la República), used to be an assemblyman until 2012. That’s when he was transferred to the General Attorney’s office (Procuraduría General de la República), not long after Flores was designated Attorney General (Procuradora General).
Carolina Cestari is another example. When Flores led the National Assembly, she was named chief of the Parliament’s radio station. And in 2013, once Maduro became president, she was named vice minister of the brand new Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness.
“She employed so much people that Fernando Soto Rojas (Flores’ successor at the National Assembly) about the many relatives of high ranking officials employed by the Assembly. The results of those investigations were never published,” Morales told FNL.
Flores’s relatives have also worked closely with Nicolas Maduro himself, even before he became president. Carlos Malpica Flores, her first cousin, was part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Maduro headed that office from 2006 to 2012. Today he is vice-president of the financial area of PDVSA, the public oil company, and is national treasurer as well.
This week’s arrests are likely to exacerbate already tense relations between the U.S. and Venezuela and cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Maduro's socialist administration.
The case also comes just three weeks before key legislative elections that opinion polls have suggested could hand the ruling party its worst defeat in 16 years as Venezuela's struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Includes reporting by The Associated Press.
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.