By Adriana Núñez Moros
NEW YORK - A court hearing in New York is shedding new light on a drug trafficking case with ties to the family of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including testimony implicating the brother of First Lady Cilia Flores.
Two nephews of Flores - Efrain Campo Flores, 29, and Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30 - were in court this week accused of conspiring to import 1,800 pounds of cocaine into the United States. The nephews were arrested last November in Haiti as part of a sting operation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). They have pled not guilty to the charges.
The case is one of a series of investigations by U.S. authorities linking alleged drug traffickers to high levels of the Venezuelan government. Maduro has accused the Obama administration of trying to falsely use drug cases as part of a systematic effort to undermine his government.
On Friday two unidentified Hispanic informants with Mexican accents and wearing grey prison uniforms, testified about their cooperation in the case and the DEA's interest in the Flores family.
The two men, a father and son who both admitted to using and trafficking drugs, described a series of meetings with Campo Flores and Flores de Frietas to discuss the trafficking operation. The older informant, aged 55, said several of the meetings were secretly recorded and tapes delivered to the DEA. At one meeting in Caracas the nephews produced a brick of cocaine for inspection. Another meeting, which was not recorded, involved prostitutes, he said.
On Thursday DEA Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez told a pre-trial hearing that the First Lady's brother, Bladimir Flores, inspector general of Venezuela's investigative police, played a role in organizing the plan to ship drugs to the United States via Honduras.
Gonzalez said the police official arranged a meeting in Honduras with a drug trafficker known as El Sentado, an informant in the case who was murdered a month after the nephews' arrest. The agent also said the nephews claimed to have special access load drugs onto planes at the country's main international airport in Maiquetia, outside Caracas.
“They indicated they basically had the run of the airport and could dispatch a plane via the presidential ramp,” Gonzalez said.
According to court documents filed by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, the two nephews made detailed statements to the DEA after their arrest in Haiti. The court documents include photographic evidence and 32 recordings made from Oct. 4 to Nov. 10 of meetings between the cousins and DEA informants.
The pre-trial hearing was held Thursday and Friday to discuss the admissibility of evidence related to the arrest of the nephews in Haiti last November and subsequent confessions to the DEA.
Defense lawyers deny the nephews had the ability to conduct such a large scale drug trafficking operation, adding that the case against them is constructed around the unreliable testimony of self-confessed drug traffickers. The lawyers also want the confessions ruled inadmissable, arguing that the two nephews were not properly informed of their rights.
In one statement to the DEA, after his arrest Campo said the two men planned to get cocaine from Colombia's FARC rebels, adding that the deal was worth $5 million, of which he’d expected to get $560,000.
Both men denied the involvement of any Venezuelan government or military officials.
Additional reporting by David Adams, Tamoa Calzadilla and Rachel Glickhouse in Miami