United States

Venezuelan president's nephews sentenced in New York to 18 years in jail for drug trafficking

The two nephews of Venezuela's first lady were sentenced Thursday in a New York court on cocaine charges. Defense lawyers argued for leniency saying they were "novices" who were lured into the drug trade as part of an effort to embarrass the Venezuelan government. Prosecutors say they exchanged gruesome text messages about drug-related murders.

A federal judge in New York sentenced two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to 18 years in jail on Thursday for their part in a conspiracy to smuggle almost one ton of cocaine into the United States.

Defense lawyers said Efrain Campo, 30, and his cousin Francisco Flores, 31, were entrapped by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for political reasons and were "novices" in the drug conspiracy.

However, text messages gleaned from cellphones showed that the nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro boasted of being experienced in making drug deals and discussed the gruesome settling of scores between traffickers, including photos of a severed head.

The two men were convicted last year in New York federal court. Defense lawyers asked for leniency but prosecutors argued they were violent criminals who took advantage of their political connections to engage in drug trafficking.

“The defendants embarked on this path for the stated purpose of helping their family maintain political control in Venezuela, through a regime controlled by relatives currently engaged in ‘a fundamental assault on the freedoms of the Venezuelan people,’ and to enrich themselves while their countrymen starved in the streets,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York.

" The defendants were leaders in a conspiracy to move a massive amount of cocaine to the United States; they cultivated connections to at least one major cocaine supplier as well as a designated foreign terrorist organization in furtherance of what they described as “war” with this country; they relied on armed security terms during the offense; and they sought to use some of the proceeds of their crime to steal an election and prop up a corrupt regime," they added.

Defense lawyers submitted letters from friends and relatives of the two men saying they were law abiding men devoted to their wives and children.

Prosecutors disagree. "The text messages obtained from the cousins’ cellphones show that they were involved in “violent debt-collection efforts related to a prior failed drug deal,” prosecutors wrote. "The only logical reading of these messages is that the defendants are not the “loving and generous” victims they now purport to be."

In one message, Campo and Flores discuss a meeting they had with dealers who owed them money. An associate warned the dealers a hitman had been hired to kill them. Far from being shocked, Campo found the exchange entertaining. “Did you see their faces when he said that to them? […] hehehe […] so funny. hahahaha,” he wrote.

In another text Campo warned they might have to take tougher action against a trafficker and "cut him up.” Other text messages obtained by the DEA included the photo of a severed human head and a dismembered torso.

During the trial prosecutors said the two men plotted to use a Venezuelan airport's presidential hangar to send 800 kgs of cocaine to Honduras for shipment into the United States.

Recordings of meetings with two DEA informants showed the nephews wanted the cash to counteract money they believed the United States was supplying to the opposition before Venezuela's December 2015 National Assembly elections.

Defense lawyers said neither man was sophisticated enough to have carried out such a massive drug transaction, nor did either intend for any drugs to be shipped into the United States.

David Rody, a lawyer for Flores de Freitas, told jurors that much of the evidence came from a paid DEA informant posing as a Mexican cartel member who later pleaded guilty to lying to the government to engage in drug trafficking himself.

The informant, Jose Santos-Pena, subsequently testified at trial under the terms of a cooperation agreement with the U.S. government that would have helped him avoid a lengthy prison sentence if he testified truthfully. Defense lawyers presented evidence they said showed he was lying on the stand and orchestrating drug deals from prison. After he testified prosecutors took the unusual step of announcing that Santos-Pena's cooperation deal would be ripped up.

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