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US arrests nephews of Venezuelan first lady for drug trafficking

Two nephews of the powerful first lady were arrested in Haiti in attempt to smuggle 1,700 pounds of cocaine. Implicating the embattled Venezuelan government, the arrests could leave a mark on the country's politics

A lengthy undercover operation by the US resulted in the arrest on Tuesday of Franqui Francisco Flores-de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo-Flores, 29, at a hotel in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

The arrests mark a heightened attempt by the US to combat the drug flow from Venezuela that the American government says it involves over 200 tons of cocaine a year trafficked through, in many cases, the upper rungs of the Venezuelan government.

The two men were seized after contacting an undercover US agent about their plans to smuggle over 1,700 pounds (800 kg) of cocaine into the US.

The suspects were then flown with agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration to New York for their arraignment, due on Thursday.

According to sources close to the family, the two men are nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores.

High-ranking Venezuelan officials have been indicted and investigated in the past by the US, but this case has the potential to reach the furthest into President Nicolas Maduro's inner circle.

Both men were carrying diplomatic passports at the time of their apprehension. While Campos claimed to law enforcement that he was the son of Cilia Flores, it is believed that he is the son of the Flores's deceased sister, and was partly raised by the first lady and the president.

The First Combatant

The first woman elected to lead Venezuela's National Assembly, Flores is seen as one of the most powerful members of the country's revolutionary government. Referred to as the "First Combatant" by President Maduro, she constantly appears alongside him in public appearances.

Flores was serving as a lawyer for Hugo Chavez in the 1990s, following his imprisonment after a coup attempt, when she became romantically involved with Maduro.

She is expected to be with the president on Thursday as he addresses the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Flores is also running as a candidate for Congress in legislative elections only three weeks away.

Political Ramifications

With the elections looming, news of the arrest will likely deal another blow to Maduro's embattled socialist government.

His administration has struggled to fend off - using what many accuse as excessive means - a rising opposition emboldened by economic turmoil. High inflation and rampant food shortages have left the Maduro's administration bracing for a loss at the polls.

Some believe the government will try to spin the arrests as an opportunity - a cause perhaps to postpone elections in the face of US meddling.

Maduro has previously responded to US accusations of drug trafficking as a smear campaign.

So far, the government has remained silent in regards to Tuesday's arrests. On Wednesday, Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly - and reportedly also under investigation - generally denounced US attempts to undermine the government.

jtm/jil (AP, Reuters)

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