US officials have arrested two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on drug trafficking charges, furthering speculation around the involvement of Venezuela's upper echelons of power in the drug trade.
Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas were arrested by local authorities on November 10 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, reported The Wall Street Journal. They were then turned over to US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and flown to New York. Accused of conspiring to transport 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States, they are scheduled to appear before a federal judge on November 12.
Campo Flores identified himself as Maduro's stepson, having been raised by his aunt and Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores. Flores de Freitas reportedly said he also was a nephew of Cilia Flores. According to the AP, both men were carrying diplomatic passports at the time of their arrest, but do not have diplomatic immunity.
In October, the two contacted a DEA confidential informant in Honduras to ask for help in trafficking drugs through the airport on the island of Roatan, and allegedly sent pilots to speak with an airport official about the scheme. According to a person with knowledge of the matter cited by The Wall Street Journal, "It looked like amateur stuff."
As reported by Spain's ABC, this is not the first time sons of Flores and Maduro have been linked to drug trafficking. Testimony by Leamsy Salazar -- the ex-head of security for former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and current National Assembly President Disodado Cabello -- accused Walter Jacob Gavidia Flores -- a son of Flores -- of using planes owned by Venezuela's national oil company (PdVSA) to transport drugs. This was allegedly done in collaboration with Maduro's son, also called Nicolas.
US officials have identified Venezuela as the main transfer point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States, saying over 200 tons of cocaine transits Venezuela annually. This accounts for roughly a third of Colombia's estimated production, reported the AP.
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As the AP points out, these arrests mark the first time US officials have targeted members of Maduro's "inner circle" accused of drug trafficking.
Nonetheless, there's some implication that the two nephews could hardly be considered key figures in Venezuela's transnational drug trade, given that the Wall Street Journal's source called them amateurish. It is possible Campos Flores and Flores de Freitas were inexperienced criminals caught up in a successful DEA sting operation. But if they were indeed carrying out a relatively "amateur" attempt at drug trafficking, another possible explaination is that the two men felt a false sense of security, and believed they were engaging in business-as-usual and could rely on the protection of top Venezuelan authorities.
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The arrests of Campo Flores and Flores de Freitas are the latest in a series of accusations -- as well as ongoing rumors -- regarding official collusion in drug trafficking. For instance, in 2014, Venezuela's ex-intelligence chief Hugo Armando Carvajal Barrios was detained in Aruba at the behest of US officials. Accused of drug trafficking, Carvajal was nonetheless released days after his arrest, frustrating US attempts for his extradition.
Similarly, National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello has avoided being directly linked to drug trafficking. This is despite a recent book that leveled scathing drug trafficking accusations against him, and indications he is under investigation by US prosecutors. Notably, Fox News Latino reported Maduro's nephews told DEA officials following their arrest that they were acting in connection with Cabello.