CARACAS, Venezuela – Two nephews of Venezuela's powerful first lady are facing arraignment in New York after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., people familiar with the case said.
The arrest of Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores is 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 Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration.
The case also comes just three weeks before key legislative elections that opinion polls have been suggesting 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.
"The timing is hardly ideal," Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said in an email after the arrests were revealed Wednesday. "The arrests could give Maduro the excuse he was hoping for to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. He will blame the arrests on U.S. imperialism and see them as an attempt to undermine his government."
Speaking on television Wednesday night, influential National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello didn't directly mention the arrests of first lady Cilia Flores' nephews but warned that Washington is trying to destabilize Maduro's government before the elections.
"We have to once again denounce North American imperialism for its attacks on our country and for its lackeys here in Venezuela," said Cabello.
Venezuela's Communications Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to comment about the reported arrests, saying they had no information. Maduro and Flores didn't issue any comment.
Campos and Flores were arrested Tuesday, flown to the United States and scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in a federal court in New York, said a U.S. law enforcement official who insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case.
The men were arrested in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane, said Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration who was briefed by U.S. authorities about the lengthy undercover operation. Both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they don't have diplomatic immunity, he said.
Vigil also said Campos had claimed to law enforcement that he is the son of Flores and stepson of Maduro.
Another person briefed on the incident, who agreed to talk about the case only if not quoted by name, said Campos is the son of a deceased sister of Flores and was partly raised by the first lady and Maduro.
Flores, who Maduro calls the "First Combatant," is one of the most influential members of Venezuela's revolutionary government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public. The two traveled this week to Saudi Arabia for a summit and she was expected to be with the president Thursday for a planned speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council at a special meeting in Geneva called at Venezuela's request.
A former president of the National Assembly who is now running for congress, Flores became romantically involved with Maduro in the 1990s while serving as lawyer for the then-jailed Hugo Chavez, a charismatic army officer who went on to become president and initiate a socialist program for Venezuela. Maduro was one of many leftist activists drawn to Chavez following his arrest for a failed 1992 coup attempt. Flores and Maduro formally wed in 2013 shortly after Maduro was elected president following Chavez's death.
American prosecutors have been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government officials for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. government says more than 200 tons a year of cocaine flows through Venezuela, about a third of Colombia's estimated production.
But while several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S., and many more are under investigation, no drug probes had previously touched Maduro's inner circle.
Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda reported this story in Caracas and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writers Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, Tom Hays in New York, Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas and Jacobo Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.