NEW YORK – Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady who were charged with conspiring to send drugs to the United States were convicted on Friday by a jury that found evidence of the crime even though the government's star witness came across to at least one juror as "slime."
The Manhattan federal court jury returned its verdict against Efrain Campo, 30, and his cousin Francisco Flores, 31, after less than a day of deliberations. The nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores were charged with conspiring last year to import more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine into the United States.
Lawyers for Campo and Flores argued no drugs traded hands and the men never intended to deliver any. They blamed a flawed Drug Enforcement Administration-led probe that relied on a longtime informant who was using and dealing cocaine as he helped build the case.
"He was slime," juror Robert Lewis, a 69-year-old architect from Westchester County, said of the informant, Jose Santos-Pena.
A defense lawyer told the jury on Thursday in closing arguments that the first lady's nephews should be acquitted because a U.S. sting operation was so deeply flawed that prosecutors had to take the rare step of notifying Santos-Pena, the star witness, they were ripping up his cooperation deal because of his lies.
"He lied in your face!" attorney David Rody told the jurors. "You saw a rare thing, a government cooperator get ripped up in court."
Rody said the testimony by the informant was crucial to the government's case against Flores and Campo. And he said it explains why the government didn't cut ties with him after learning in April that he had been dealing drugs for the last four years even as he was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to work as an informant for the DEA and others.
U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty said the defendants would not be sentenced before March, though no date was set. Defense attorneys requested time to challenge the conviction.
Rody, representing Flores, declined to comment after the verdict.
Attorney Randall Jackson, representing Campos, said outside court that his client was "obviously disappointed."
"We're going to see what our next steps are," he said.
Prosecutors had urged jurors to look at other evidence in the case including statements the defendants made to federal agents and recordings of meetings.
Lewis said jurors did just that, relying on transcripts of conversations involving the defendants and text messages to convict.
"Nobody was in love with the witnesses," Lewis said. "We clearly had some bad guys."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Quigley said the defendants "thought they were above the law."
"They thought they could operate with impunity in Venezuela because of who they were and who they were related to," Quigley said in a closing argument Thursday. "They thought they could easily make tons of money sending drugs out of the country because, as defendant Flores said, the DEA is not here and the Americans don't come in here. But they were wrong."