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Two well-connected Venezuelans charged with drug trafficking told a DEA agent after their arrest last year that it was easy for them to smuggle drugs out of the South American country.
The reason was simple: They were relatives of President Nicolas Maduro, nephews of his powerful wife, Cilia Flores, the former president of the National Assembly.
According to court documents in the case released late Friday, one of the men, Efrain Campo Flores, 29, told the DEA agent “that he could’ve gotten the drugs out of the airport very easily because of who he was and because of the access he has at the airport.”
The case has cast an embarrassing light on corruption in the highest circles of power in Venezuela, the latest in a series of investigations by U.S. authorities that have linked people close to the Venezuelan government with drug trafficking.
“The nephews are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Bruce Bagley, an expert on South American drug trafficking at the University of Miami. “Corruption is rampant in power circles in Venezuela. This case suggests a culture that drug trafficking is routine and daily fare for someone with contacts in the presidential palace.”
Campo and his cousin Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, have pleaded not guilty in court in New York. Their lawyers have sought to have their “confessions” to the DEA thrown out, arguing that the statements were not properly obtained after the pair were arrested in Haiti and flown on a DEA plane to New York.
The arrest of Campo and Flores last November stemmed from a DEA sting operation involving six meetings in one month in three different countries.
Venezuelan officials have called their arrest a “kidnapping” and part of what they say are illegal efforts to destabilize the Maduro government, which is facing a political and economic crisis.
According to a U.S. law enforcement source, the two nephews met a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant in Honduras in October and asked for help sending 800 kilograms (1,700 lbs) of cocaine to the United States through an airport on the Honduran island of Roatan.
It was planned to be the first of many flights that in no time would make the nephews millionaires, they confessed, according to the court documents.
“With their connections, they felt they would skate through [the airport],” added Bagley. “They made a mistake because when the DEA heard their names they targeted them.”
It’s not clear from the documents how the nephews got their contacts in the drug-trafficking world. But it’s not hard to guess, said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former head of global operations.
Shadowy elements of the Venezuelan military, known as the Cartel of the Suns, have long been suspected of controlling smuggling operations across the border with Colombia, from everything from gasoline and food to cocaine.
“Venezuela has become a major transshipment point for cocaine from Colombia,” said Vigil. “It’s a base of operations for the cartels and they can’t operate without having protection from Venezuelan security forces,” he added.
One of the main units of Colombia’s FARC guerilla groups, the Eastern Bloc, operates along the border in close cooperation with Venezuelan security forces, Vigil said.
Campo complained to the DEA agent that he felt his family wasn’t giving him a cut of their access to state corruption.
“Campo stated that there is a lot of jealousy in his family and some successful family members do not share their success or help other family members with business,” the agent wrote, according to court documents.
He told the agent that his cousin, Erick Malpica-Flores, a close confidant of the first lady, had rejected a proposed arrangement in which Campo would seek to collect bribes from debtors of the state oil company PDVSA.
“They saw a lot of people getting very wealthy very quick. They rolled the dice,” said Vigil.