CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Two nephews of Venezuela’s powerful first lady have been indicted in New York after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
The arrest of Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores is likely to exacerbate already tense relations between the U.S. and Venezuela and add fuel to U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist administration.
The case 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.
Campos and Flores were arrested Tuesday, flown to the United States and were expected to appear Thursday in a federal court in New York, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case.
An indictment filed in New York charges the pair with one count of narcotics conspiracy. It alleges that the men participated in meetings in Venezuela regarding a plot to smuggle cocaine into the United States via Honduras, but provided few other details.
Maduro appeared with wife Cilia Flores in Geneva Thursday to address the United Nations Human Rights Council. During his speech, he accused the U.S. of wishing his country ill, but did not directly comment on the arrests.
He did appear to obliquely refer to the case in a Twitter post late Wednesday night, writing, “Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the Liberator’s people,” alluding to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, the icon of his movement.
Officials at Venezuela’s Communications Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to comment about the reported arrests, saying they had no information.
Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the men were arrested in a hotel in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane.
Vigil, who was briefed by U.S. authorities about the undercover operation, said both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they don’t have diplomatic immunity, and Campos told law enforcement that he was 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 government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public.
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.
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 for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the U.S. and Europe.
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, but no drug probes had previously touched Maduro’s inner circle.
AP writers Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, Tom Hays in New York, Fabiola Sanchez and Hannah Dreier in Caracas and Jacobo Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.
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