The Cable

U.S. Drug Investigation Reaches Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro’s Inner Circle

A U.S. drug investigation has reached Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro's inner circle.


Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been chilly for years. The two countries haven’t had formal ambassadors in their respective capitals since 2010, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused Washington of orchestrating coup attempts. The American Drug Enforcement Administration’s arrest this week of two nephews of the Venezuelan first lady, Cilia Flores, will make that relationship even colder.

On Thursday, Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores, the two relatives in question, are set to be arraigned in a federal court in New York. On Tuesday, they were arrested on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States and were extradited from Haiti after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane, Michael Vigil, the former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, told the Associated Press.

The pair were carrying diplomatic passports, though neither is actually a diplomat entitled to immunity. Their arrest is only likely to fuel to ongoing investigations by U.S. prosecutors into drug trafficking within Maduro’s administration, as well as within Venezuelan law enforcement.

In May 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that the DEA was investigating Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as well as a number of other high-ranking officials in Maduro’s government. According to the Journal, the Justice Department believes Cabello and others have turned the socialist nation into a de facto narco state, where cocaine trafficking and money laundering are commonplace.

In October, judges in the southern district of Florida unsealed indictments accusing Jesús Alfredo Itriago, a former anti-narcotics official with Venezuela’s investigative police, and Pedro Luís Martín, a former head of financial intelligence for Venezuela’s secret police, with drug trafficking. Martín was indicted in April 2015, and is believed to be in either Venezuela, Panama, or Spain. Itriago was indicted in December 2013 and is thought to be living in Venezuela.

This week’s arrests, however, mark the first time U.S. investigations have reached Maduro’s inner circle. Flores is considered one of the most powerful voices inside Venezuela’s government. She’s also the former president of the National Assembly, and she is now running for congress.

So far, there’s been no official reaction from Maduro. But Kevin Casas-Zamora, director of the rule of law program at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, warns Maduro could use the arrests as a pretext to declare a state of emergency and postpone elections, which are scheduled to take place on Dec. 6. Polls show Maduro’s Socialist party would likely suffer its biggest defeat in 16 years.

“It will be a real mess because you would be leaving the opposition with no institutional alternative to challenge the government,” Casas-Zamora told Foreign Policy Thursday. “It will raise the odds of violence in the streets.”

The Justice Department did not return a request for comment on the arrests, nor did Venezuela’s consular office in Washington.

Photo credit: Juan Barreto/Getty Images

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