Nicolás Maduro's Relatives Arrested in Plot to Smuggle 800 Kilos of Coke to U.S.

Update 11:30 a.m.: Charges have now been unsealed in court against Maduro's nephews; they're accused of plotting to move cocaine through Honduras and on to the U.S.

As the price of oil has spiraled to record lows this year, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has struggled to hang onto power. Shortages of everything from toilet paper to McDonald's French fries have rocked Caracas as the official currency has tanked along with the country's most abundant natural resource.

But evidence is mounting that those closest to Maduro have found another valuable commodity to fill their bank accounts: cocaine. The latest comes this morning via breaking news that two close relatives of the president were nabbed in Haiti earlier this week by American drug agents as part of a plot to smuggle 800 kilos of yeyo into the United States.

The agents arrested two men — Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas — who are nephews of Maduro's wife, Celia Flores, Tuesday in Port-au-Prince, according to multiple reports

The U.S. Attorney's Office of Southern New York has yet to release any official information about the arrests, and no charges have been filed in federal court. A press spokesperson did not respond to a message from New Times

But drug agents tell the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal this morning that the two men were part of a plot to smuggle a massive load of coke to the State. By some street value estimates, 800 kilos would be worth upward of $24 million.

It's not clear exactly how close the nephews are to Maduro, but his wife — whom he calls his "first combatant" rather than "first lady" — is a powerful figure in the government. She travels regularly with Maduro; indeed, the two are on an official trip to Saudi Arabia this week.

U.S. officials will view the arrests as more evidence that high-level Venezuelan officials are complicit in the huge quantities of cocaine that move from Colombian producers through Venezuelan transit points before heading to the United States. 

Earlier this year, a former bodyguard of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez defected to America and began cooperating with federal drug agents. Though no official charges have come from the case, experts say the bodyguard has pointed a finger at Diosdado Cabello — the second most powerful man in Caracas after Maduro — as a major drug kingpin.

Maduro and Cabello have repeatedly dismissed those reports as American attempts to destabilize the Venezuelan government. 

But the two new arrests come at a delicate time for the president, who is under intensifying international pressure over crackdowns like the jail term for opposition leader Leopoldo López (especially after the prosecutor in that case defected to Miami and testified that the whole case was a political sham). Just this morning, 157 countries asked Maduro to allow observers into the country for elections scheduled for December 6

Dissident groups in the States say the arrests of Maduro's nephews are more evidence that the president is running a criminal state. (Several Miami-based groups didn't immediately respond to messages for comment.) 

“Maduro, his family, and his henchmen make Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel look disorganized and small-time,” Thor Halvorssen, a relative of López who runs the Human Rights Foundation, told Fox News. “Venezuela uses its army, its foreign ministry, and its banking sector as accessories to a profitable drug business.”
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink