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Venezuela narcotics scandal

Tobias Käufer
November 25, 2016

Nephews of the Venezuelan president have been convicted for drug trafficking in the United States. With sentencing only weeks away, the case is escalating into a bilateral affair of state.

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

Delcy Rodriguez is a decisive politician. Following the conviction of two nephews of Venuelan President Nicolas Maduro and his wife Cilia Flores for drug trafficking in the USA, the Venezuelan foreign mininster said he was concerned about their good name – not of the country, but of the nephews.

After opposition leader Henrique Capriles Bilder held up pictures of the convicted drug smugglers on television and demanded a thorough investigation into the background of the case, the foreign minister threatened legal consequences for the alleged forging of documents.

Venezuela | Oppositionsführer Henrique Capriles
Opposition leader Capriles is facing the wrath of the Venezuelen governmentImage: Reuters/M. Bello

Capriles failed to tell the truth in the pictures and manipulated the photos, argued Rodriguez in the notice of action. The two accused did not have diplomatic passports, as Capriles maintained, she said, adding angrily that Venezuela, despite its financial crisis, will not allow any flights with food and medication into the country, but allows flights with drugs on board to leave Venezuelan airports unchecked.

Scandal harms domestic politics

For this reason the case of Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas (31) and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores (30) (pictured at the start of their arrests) has finally grabbed center stage in Venezuelan domestic politics and brings further contention to an already serious domestic political crisis. Currently, the Vatican is trying to mediate between the quarelling factions.

Dominikanische Republik OAS - Venezuela Außenministerin Delcy Rodriguez
Foreign Minister Rodriguez is not happy with the way things are goingImage: Reuters/R. Rojas

State-run media, despite the scandalous nature of the case, has, to a  large extent, ignored the subject. Venezuelans, who are interested in the spectacular trial had to depend on government-critical media. In January this year, Cilia Flores announced that her nephews had been kidnapped in the USA. But the US judiciary was not at all ruffled. Last week, the two accused were found guilty and convicted. They stand accused of smuggling 800 kilos of cocaine via Honduras into the USA.

They were arrested more than a year ago in Haiti. The sentence will be handed down in the next few weeks, confirmed a court spokesman in response to a query by Deutsche Welle. Also under consideration is whether the Flores nephews cooperate with US state prosecutors and testify against the ringleaders. The narcotics police backed up its case with proof by video, audio and text messages.

The playing field of international politics

Meanwhile, the case is gaining momentum and has become a playing field for international politics. The Venezuelan state-financed, pro-government TV channel, Telesur, openly sides with the Flores nephews. Lawyers for the family maintain that US authorities paid around two million US dollars to informants. "The case is being used to discredit the Venezuelan government," commented Telesur just this Wednesday.

Nicolas Maduro Cilia Flores Venezuela
The scandal is another nail in the coffin of President Maduro and his wife Cilia FloresImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Parra

The problem for the family members connected to the president is that there are tape recordings which implicate one nephew boasting about having complete control of the presidential hangar in the Simón Bolívar airport in Maiquetía on the outskirts of the Venezuelan capital. And that would make the Flores case also an affair of state. Brian Fonseca, politicial scientist at the International University of Florida, believes that testimony by the Flores nephews could be politically explosive: "The question is whether they give information about the connections of the ringleaders to protocol or whether they decide not to endanger their family, whether for reasons of loyalty or whatever."

The controversial case could further harm the already strained relationship between Venezuela and the USA and present a first challenge for the new US administration under President-elect Donald Trump. Maduro has already sent cautious signals in the direction of Washington. He said he hoped that after the end of the Obama-era, relations could be realigned. That may well be decided by the future handling of the Flores case by the US authorities.