CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Two nephews of Venezuela's powerful first lady confessed to trying to smuggle 800 kilograms (1,763 pounds) of cocaine into the U.S., according to prosecutors in the politically-charged case.
The court filings Friday by prosecutors shed new light on the case that has sounded alarm bells about high-level corruption and drug trafficking by Venezuela's political elite at a time of increasing economic and political turmoil in the South American nation.
Efrain Campo and Francisco Flores were arrested last November in Haiti in a sting operation coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration. They were then flown to New York, where they are in jail awaiting trial for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The documents filed Friday seek to refute a motion by the defendants' attorneys to suppress their post-arrest statements to DEA agents on their way to New York because they allegedly hadn't been informed of their rights and were coerced after being taken into custody by armed men in ski masks in what they at first thought was a kidnapping.
Prosecutors allege Campo and Flores hatched the drug deal in about two months. They said it was first brought to the attention of the DEA by a wheelchair-bound cooperating witness nicknamed "El Sentado," who met Campo and Flores in Honduras and who wound up being killed three weeks after their arrest.
As part of the DEA investigation, confidential sources were sent to Caracas to meet with the two young men. The court documents include photographs allegedly taken from a secret video of those meetings that prosecutors say show Campo examining a brick of cocaine with plastic gloves as Flores looks on. Campo allegedly said the narcotics came from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
During the meetings, Campo allegedly brags about owning several Ferraris and being at "war" with the U.S. and Venezuela's opposition. He also describes high-level connections with the government that will make it easy to move drugs through Caracas' international airport and prevent any cocaine-laden plane from being follow by law enforcement because, he said, "it departs as if .... someone from our family was on the plane," according to a statement by U.S. attorneys for the southern district of New York.
In the court filings, Campo first suggested to agents that the cocaine deal was to fund Cilia Flores' congressional campaign.
"I know I said that but in reality it was for me," a court document quotes Campo as telling a DEA agent.
"Campo stated that friends in the drug business had told him to be careful not to get robbed so he made the statement regarding his Mom's campaign for protection," the DEA agent wrote in his post-arrest report.
In reality, Campo said he was struggling financially, earning just $800 a week from a fleet of taxis he owned in Panama, according to the documents. He also described being rebuffed by his cousin, Erick Malpica-Flores, then finance director of state-run oil giant PDVSA, in a plan to charge commissions to businesses trying to collect on debts owed them by the company.
Campo, 29, said he and his wanted to make $20 million from multiple drug shipments, enough to go live in the U.S. with his wife and child. He said his family would "kill him" if they knew what he was up to, according to the documents.
Campo's lawyer declined to comment.
The U.S has been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government officials for their role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics. 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.
Cilia Flores, who President Nicolas Maduro calls the "First Combatant," is one of the most influential members of Venezuela's socialist government and a constant presence alongside her husband.
The single time she commented on her nephews' case in January she said they had been kidnapped by the DEA, which was kicked out of Venezuela a decade ago, in an attempt to destabilize her husband's rule.