Recent court hearings have called into question the credibility of the primary evidence in a US drug trafficking investigation involving the nephews of Venezuela's first lady, injecting an element of uncertainty into what was previously thought to be a rock-solid case.
Efrain Campo and Francisco Flores were arrested in November 2015 in Haiti during a sting operation coordinated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and were charged with conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. The nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores allegedly confessed to the crime while on a plane en route from Haiti to New York.
But new developments in the case have raised doubts about how the DEA handled the operation, reported the Miami Herald. Prosecutors say the defendants were not coerced into making a confession, but the defendants allege that the DEA agents told them they might never see their children if they didn't cooperate, according to the Herald.
The defense has also suggested the suspects were lured into the conspiracy because of their familial ties to the first lady and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“They were picked out and targeted for a narcotics ‘sting’ operation, possibly for reasons of raw international politics,” said defense attorney Randall Jackson.
But perhaps the most damaging blow to prosecutors are the new revelations that cast doubt on the credibility of the confidential informants involved in the case. Last week, the the Miami Herald reported that court documents show one of the confidential informants paid for an unauthorized man to enter Venezuela to meet with Campo and Flores, using money the informants had received from the DEA as part of a previous deal. The confidential informant, identified in court documents as CS-2, promised to pay the man between $50,000 and $100,000 if the drug deal was completed.
The confidential informants, who are a father and son, have since been convicted of conducting unauthorized drug deals while cooperating with the DEA. The US government has paid them a total of $1.2 million for their services, according to the Miami Herald.
“If I were [the prosecutors], I would be nervous," David Weinstein, the former head of the narcotics division at the US Attorney’s Office in Miami, told the newspaper. “The way things are going, the case is not getting better. It’s getting weaker.”
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The defense's argument that the sting operation was politically motivated is a familiar one in Venezuela, where officials frequently dismiss allegations of drug corruption and accuse the US government of attempting to destabilize the Chavista regime. In August, for example, President Maduro promoted the country's former anti-drug czar to interior minister a day after the US had indicted him on drug charges.
"The DEA and all the United States drug-trafficking mafias want to make him pay, because the drug-trafficking mafia runs the Untied States," Maduro said at the time.
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Nonetheless, the case does appear to have been weakened with the release of new information about the confidential informants. Their potential unreliability in court is a serious liability in a high-stakes case that both the Venezuelan and US governments are watching closely.