U.S. Arrests Two Relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Drug-Trafficking Charges
U.S. agents arrest two on charges they conspired to transport 800 kilograms of cocaine to the U.S., according to two people familiar with the matter
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, left, waved next to his wife Cilia Flores during a meeting with supporters last month in Caracas. Photo: carlos garcia rawlins/Reuters
José de Córdoba
Updated Nov. 11, 2015 7:28 p.m. ET
U.S. agents have arrested two relatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on charges they conspired to transport 800 kilograms of cocaine to the U.S., according to two people familiar with the matter.
The two men, Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas, were first arrested in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Tuesday by local police, turned over to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and flown the same day to New York in a DEA jet, these people said. The two were scheduled to go before a federal judge in New York on Thursday, they said. A spokesman for the federal district court declined to comment.
Mr. Campo Flores, 29 years old, identified himself on the DEA plane as a stepson of the president, according to the people familiar with the matter, having been raised by his aunt, Cilia Flores, who is Mr. Maduro’s wife. A U.S. document said the other man identified himself as a nephew of Ms. Flores.
Ms. Flores, 62 years old, is one of the most powerful figures in Venezuela’s government. The longtime partner of Mr. Maduro, she married him in July 2013 after his election as president.
Before becoming first lady—or “first combatant,” as she is known in Venezuela—Ms. Flores was president of the National Assembly. Ms. Flores has put many of her relatives in important government positions, including another nephew, Carlos Erick Malpica Flores, who is the chief financial officer of state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela and the country’s treasurer.
The arrests of the two men come as prosecutors in New York, Washington and Miami are pursuing numerous investigations into alleged drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities of top Venezuelan military, police and government officials, according to U.S. officials.
U.S. officials have long said Venezuela is the main transit point for cocaine from neighboring Colombia. Caracas routinely denies allegations that it is involved in drug trafficking, characterizing them as efforts to destabilize Venezuela’s leftist government.
But military officers and officials who have fled Venezuela for the U.S. describe a government unable to mend a broken economy and allegedly involved in drug trafficking.
“All of this may be weighing on some of the people in the military and elsewhere in the government who are concerned about the sustainability of the government,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a Washington think tank. “You’ve seen some people already trying to separate themselves…What makes this particularly interesting is the allegation that drug trafficking goes right up to the very top of the government.”
The two men contacted a DEA confidential informant in Honduras in October and asked for help in trafficking 800 kilograms of cocaine through the airport in the country’s Caribbean island of Roatán, according to one of the two people familiar with the case.
The two men also sent pilots to talk to an airport official at Roatán about the drug trafficking scheme, according to a U.S. document. “It looked like amateur stuff,” said a person with knowledge of the matter.
In subsequent meetings in Venezuela, this person said, the two Venezuelans brought a kilogram of cocaine to a confidential informant to show the quality of the promised shipment, which was to be sold in New York. Agents filmed and taped the meetings with the Venezuelans, this person added.
Venezuela’s consul in New York, Calixto Ortega, has been in touch with the DEA over the arrests, the two people familiar with the situation said. Mr. Ortega didn’t return calls or respond to an email requesting comment. It isn’t known whether the two men have lawyers.
Spokesmen at Venezuela’s Ministries of Communications and External Affairs both declined to comment. Calls and emails to the Venezuelan diplomatic mission at the United Nations, Mr. Maduro’s office in Caracas, the Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry weren’t returned. The Venezuelan Embassy in Washington didn’t return phone calls or respond to an email.
The arrests come as Mr. Maduro’s government faces legislative elections in December amid a collapsing economy marked by 200% inflation and widespread scarcity of essential food and medicine.
According to the latest projections by the International Monetary Fund, Venezuela’s economy is expected to contract 10% this year.
U.S. officials say they have been investigating alleged drug trafficking and money laundering by a number of high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including Diosdado Cabello, the president of the country’s National Assembly, who is widely seen as the second most powerful man in the country. Mr. Cabello, considered by most political analysts to be a political rival of Mr. Maduro, denies any involvement in illicit activities.
What U.S. officials have called an explosion in drug trafficking in the oil-rich country over the last decade has led to increased antidrug operations by the DEA and other agencies. That has included operations to recruit military officers and government officials who can provide American investigators with details about the alleged ties high Venezuelan officials have in the cocaine trade, people familiar with those cases have told The Wall Street Journal.
As far back as 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department put three top aides to the late President Hugo Chávez on a blacklist and froze any assets they might have in the U.S. on suspicion of supporting Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerrillas. In 2011, four more Venezuelan officials were added to the list for similar reasons.
In July of last year, U.S. counter-drug officials came close to nabbing a top Venezuelan official—Hugo Carvajal, the former head of military intelligence. Mr. Carvajal was indicted in Miami and New York on drug charges and detained in Aruba at the U.S. government’s behest. But Dutch authorities released him to Venezuela, citing his diplomatic immunity.
Since last year, the U.S. has revoked the visas of at least 56 Venezuelans linked to allegations of drug trafficking and corruption, including bankers and financiers whose identities haven’t been made public.
News of the arrests came as Mr. Maduro prepared to give a speech on Thursday before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. The appearance of the Venezuelan leader has led to sharp criticism from human-rights groups because of what they contend is Venezuelan government’s poor human-rights record.
“Venezuela should not be allowed to use the council as a vehicle for self-promotion,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch.
Neither Mr. Maduro nor Ms. Flores referred on Wednesday to the arrests. Their official Twitter accounts were instead dedicated to highlighting meetings Mr. Maduro had with Saudi leaders. Mr. Maduro also extolled his admiration for Mr. Chávez in one missive, asserting that “Chávez lives and lives, and his thinking is more current than ever.”
—Kejal Vyas in Caracas, Venezuela, and Juan Forero in Bogotá, Colombia, contributed to this article.