World

Venezuelan plane caught with drugs departed from government-operated terminal

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 25-26 ** A Cessna Citation Mustang business jet takes off for a test flight while a larger business jet comes in for a landing in the distance, June 15, 2005, in Wichita, Kan. Cessna has more than 200 orders for the entry-level business jet .  (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 25-26 ** A Cessna Citation Mustang business jet takes off for a test flight while a larger business jet comes in for a landing in the distance, June 15, 2005, in Wichita, Kan. Cessna has more than 200 orders for the entry-level business jet . (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)  (AP2005)

Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Avila Mountain, the tallest on the east side of the Andes, lays Venezuela’s first airfield, the Simón Bolívar International Airport.

From one of the government-operated terminals, a Cessna Citation 500 took off on Sunday Nov. 8 carrying more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine, according to the District Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

On board were two close relatives of Venezuela’s presidential family, both of them allegedly carrying Venezuelan diplomatic passports.

Francisco Flores, 29, and Efraín Campos, 30, the nephews of first lady Cilia Flores, were among four passengers and two pilots on the Haiti-bound Citation 500. The plane was co-piloted by Pablo Urbano and Pedro Rodriguez, according to a copy of the flight log obtained by Fox News Latino.

Flores and Campos were arrested in Haiti last week on charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States. They are being held without bail in New York after a federal grand jury handed up an indictment last week. They both pleaded not guilty.

According to the flight log, the other two passengers were Marco Uzcategui and Jesfran Moreno. Those two passengers and the co-pilots are believed to be back in Caracas and have not been charged with a crime, an unnamed source in Caracas told Fox News Latino.

As is customary in this terminal, called SAR for its acronym in Spanish, the aircraft carrying the young, well-connected men was not searched.

“The plane left without a hitch,” said a person with knowledge of airport operations. “As far as I know, it wasn’t even searched,” he added, explaining that outbound, small private jets are not searched at that terminal, which is used exclusively by the government, including the planes in the Venezuelan search and rescue squadron.

Simon Bolivar was also the airport from which an Air France jet departed with 1.6 tons of cocaine in September 2013, the largest drug haul in the history of France. Authorities eventually arrested 27 people in that case, eight of them low-ranking military officers, according to Reuters. The suspects are still awaiting trial.  

Drug trafficking measures have turned increasingly lax in Venezuela in the last decade and a half, according to analysts consulted recently by Fox News Latino

Just months into his presidency, late President Hugo Chavez stopped a program that allowed the DEA to fly surveillance and interdiction planes over Venezuelan airspace. In 2005, cooperation between Venezuela and the DEA came to a complete halt.

Today, the DEA estimates that 200 tons of cocaine travel through Venezuela every year. However, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the country ranks fourth in the world in terms of cocaine seizures. 

The Citation 500 plane that left the government’s terminal that day is registered in Venezuela to Sabenpe, a waste-management company that has received a myriad government contracts in the past, according to the National Registry of Contractors, which is part of the country’s Central Commission of Planning

Sabenpe appears registered, but is listed as “inactive.”

It is not the first time issues involving the first lady's relatives have arisen.

Soon after Cilia Flores was elected President of the National Assembly in 2006, she fired 46 employees from the legislative body and hired 47 relatives, either by blood or marriage, local media reported at the time. A dozen of them carried the last name Flores.

A small scandal ensued, and by 2011 most of the 47 Flores were gone, some of them elsewhere within government. One of them was Efrain Campos, who left the assembly in 2011 -- it is unclear what he is doing now.

Cilia Flores, who married President Nicolas Maduro not long after he was sworn into office in 2013, was the first woman to preside over the National Assembly in Venezuelan history.

She is also remembered for her tendency to bar the press from the premises.  

Two years into her position of first lady, she is a member of the political elite in Venezuela. She has her own television show — “Cilia en Familia,” or “Cilia in the Family.”

Even after the nepotism scandal a few years ago, a lot of her relatives still hold powerful positions, according to local media. Two of them stand out: Her son Walter Gavidia Flores is a penal judge, and her nephew Carlos Erik Malpica Flores is National Treasurer and, simultaneously, finance director of state oil company PDVSA. It is the first time that the same person holds both offices.

The arrests of the nephews come as Maduro's government is reeling from an economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages that have emboldened its opponents. Polls say Venezuelans could hand the ruling socialist party its biggest electoral defeat in 16 years in next month's legislative elections.

While very few in the top tiers of government have alluded to the arrests – typically they blame the U.S. for using “dirty tricks” against Maduro’s regime – most of the mainstream media in Venezuela has ignored news of last week’s arrest.

Only the “El Nacional” newspaper carried the news on the front page. Two of the largest circulation newspapers, “El Universal” and “Ultimas Noticias” ignored the news as did Globovisión, the country’s only all-news television network that is now under government control.

Almost a week after the arrests, members of the opposition are still demanding answers. 

"The government needs to establish an official version of what is happening," said lawmaker Alfonso Marquina. "We are asking for an investigation, specifically to establish if the men arrested were holders of Venezuelan diplomatic passports and it what capacity."

The AP contributed to this report.

Carlos Camacho is a freelance writer based in Caracas. You can follow him @carloselpana.

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