Thursday 22 August 2019

Venezuelan first lady's nephews arrested in Haiti on US drug smuggling charges

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores greet supporters in Caracas (AP)
Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and first lady Cilia Flores greet supporters in Caracas (AP)

Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady are facing arraignment in New York after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the US.

The arrests of Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores are likely to exacerbate already tense relations between the US and Venezuela.

They will also cast a hard look at US accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration.

The case comes just three weeks before key elections that opinion polls have suggested 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.

Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said: "The timing is hardly ideal.

"The arrests could give Maduro the excuse he was hoping for to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. He will blame the arrests on US imperialism and see them as an attempt to undermine his government."

Mr Maduro seemed to refer to the case in a Twitter post late on Wednesday night, in which he condemned attempts at imperialist meddling.

He wrote: "The homeland will continue its course. Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the Liberator's people."

Mr Campos and Mr Flores were arrested on Tuesday, flown to the United States and scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday in a federal court in New York, a US law enforcement official said.

The men were arrested in Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane, said Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they do not have diplomatic immunity, he said.

Mr Vigil also said Mr Campos had claimed to law enforcement that he is the son of First Lady Cilia Flores and stepson of Mr Maduro.

Mr Campos is reported to be the son of a deceased sister of Ms Flores and was partly raised by the first lady and Mr Maduro.

Ms Flores, whom Mr Maduro calls the First Combatant, is one of the most influential members of Venezuela's revolutionary government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public.

The two travelled to Saudi Arabia for a summit this week and she was expected to be with the president for a speech to the UN Human Rights Council at a meeting in Geneva called at Venezuela's request on Thursday.

A former president of the National Assembly who is now running for congress, Ms Flores became romantically involved with Mr Maduro in the 1990s while serving as lawyer for the then-jailed Hugo Chavez.

Mr Maduro was one of many leftist activists drawn to Mr Chavez following his arrest for a failed 1992 coup attempt.

Ms Flores and Mr Maduro formally wed in 2013 shortly after Mr Maduro was elected president following Mr Chavez's death.

American prosecutors have been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government officials for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the US and Europe.

The US government says more than 200 tonnes of cocaine flows through Venezuela a year, about a third of Colombia's estimated production.

Several Venezuelan officials, including a former defence minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the US, and many more are under investigation, but no drug probes had previously touched Mr Maduro's inner circle.

PA Media

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