By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady were found guilty on Friday on U.S. charges that they tried to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal to obtain a large amount of cash to help their family stay in power.
Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, were convicted by a federal jury in Manhattan of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.
The case has been an embarrassment for Maduro amid economic and political crises in the South American nation. The case was one of several in which U.S. prosecutors have linked individuals tied to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.
They face up to life in prison when they are sentenced. Their lawyers indicated in court they planned to file post-trial motions challenging the convictions, though did not specify on what grounds.
“Our client’s obviously disappointed, but we want to see what the next steps are,” said Randall Jackson, a lawyer for Campo Flores.
Flores de Freitas, 31, and Campo Flores, 30, were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 and flown to the United States following a sting operation orchestrated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Prosecutors said the two men plotted to use a Venezuelan airport’s presidential hangar to send 800 kgs of cocaine to Honduras for shipment into the United States.
Prosecutors said recordings of meetings with two DEA informants showed the nephews wanted the cash to counteract money they believed the United States was supplying to the opposition before Venezuela’s December 2015 National Assembly elections.
Maduro’s Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority after the election.
Defense lawyers said neither man was sophisticated enough to have carried out such a massive drug transaction, nor did either intend for any drugs to be shipped into the United States.
The government of Venezuela has not commented on the trial and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the verdict. Last January, the Venezuelan first lady said her nephews were kidnapped by U.S. authorities.
David Rody, a lawyer for Flores de Freitas, told jurors on Thursday that much of the evidence came from a paid DEA informant posing as a Mexican cartel member who later pleaded guilty to lying to the government to engage in drug trafficking himself.
The informant, Jose Santos-Pena, subsequently testified at trial under the terms of a cooperation agreement with the U.S. government that would have helped him avoid a lengthy prison sentence if he testified truthfully.
But after defense lawyers presented evidence they said showed he was lying on the stand and orchestrating drug deals from prison prosecutors took the unusual step of announcing that Santos-Pena’s cooperation deal would be ripped up.
“Why did we have this spectacle of this man lying to you in court?” Rody said in his closing argument. “And I think the reason is actually quite simple. It’s because they needed him.”
Robert Lewis, an architect who sat on the jury, said “nobody was in love with the witnesses.” Jurors instead focused on the transcripts of recorded conversations as well as text messages presented as evidence.
The jury of five men and seven women delivered its verdict after six hours of deliberations. Toward the end of their deliberations, jurors had “fought a little bit” over the outcome, Lewis said.
“By the time we were finished, our heads were spinning,” he said.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Grant McCool)