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Venezuelan president's relatives face federal drug charges in New York

The US accuses the two men of attempting a multimillion-dollar drug sale in order to finance the family's grip on power. Defense lawyers are expected to attack the credibility of the government's key witnesses.

Venezuela Efrain Antonio Campo Flores und Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas (Reuters/Attorney's Office Manhattan)

The two suspects after they were arrested in Haiti in 2015

Jury selection began in New York on Wednesday in the drug trial of two nephews of Venezuela's first lady.

The two men, appearing in Manhattan federal court, are accused of attempting a multimillion-dollar drug deal aimed at helping President Nicolas Maduro hold on to power.

Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 31, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 30, are the nephews of Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.

US District Judge Paul Crotty spent much of the day questioning potential jurors about their backgrounds and interests, as well their knowledge of Venezuelan politics.

The jury pool began with 95 candidates and was whittled down through several rounds of questioning. Among those under consideration are a nurse, an architect and a call center employee.

Jury selection will continue on Thursday, with the ultimate aim of choosing 12 jurors and four back-ups.

The two men were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 in a case that has been an embarrassment for Maduro amid an ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela.

Venezuela Regierung nimmt Dialog mit Opposition auf (Getty Images/AFP/R. Schemidt)

President Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores

Several US probes have linked drug trafficking to individuals tied to the government in Venezuela, which the US State Department says is a preferred route for moving drugs from South America onward to other areas.

Prosecutors say the nephews were trying to monetize their political connections and to use a Venezuelan airport to send hundreds of kilograms of cocaine to Honduras for subsequent shipment to the US.

Cash to counter opposition

Prosecutors say the men wanted cash to counteract money they believed the US was supplying to the political opposition ahead of Venezuela's National Assembly elections in December 2015.

Maduro's Socialist Party lost its parliamentary majority in the election.

Key witnesses for the prosecution will be two US Drug Enforcement Administration informants who posed as Mexican drug cartel members who met with the nephews in Caracas, and recorded their meetings.

Defense lawyers are expected to challenge the credibility of the DEA informants, both of whom have admitted to lying to the DEA to secretly traffic drugs themselves.

Judge Paul Crotty said he'll allow jurors to hear tape recordings of the suspects talking to US government informants as prosecutors built their case.

Defense attorneys sought to block the tapes from being used as evidence, saying the informants instigated "highly politicized statements."

Prosecutors countered, arguing that the recordings showed the drug dealing was politically motivated, and that the men hoped to generate millions of dollars to help their family battle political enemies ahead of the elections.

Crotty rejected the defense's motion, calling the recordings "probative of the defendants' motive to carry out the scheme."

bik/kl (Reuters, AP)