Two nephews of Venezuela's first lady are facing arraignment in New York after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S., according to people familiar with the case. The arrest of Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores is likely to heighten the already tense relations between the two countries amid U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration.
The case also comes just three weeks before key legislative elections that opinion polls have suggested could hand the ruling party its worst defeat in 16 years as Venezuela's struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of basic goods.
"The timing is hardly ideal," Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank, said in an email after the arrests were revealed Wednesday. "The arrests could give Maduro the excuse he was hoping for to declare a state of emergency and postpone the elections. He will blame the arrests on U.S. imperialism and see them as an attempt to undermine his government."
Top government officials did not directly respond to the arrests of first lady Cilia Flores' nephews, but Maduro did seem to obliquely refer to the case in a Twitter post late Wednesday night, in which he condemned attempts at imperialist meddling.
"The homeland will continue its course. Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the Liberator's people," he wrote, alluding to South American liberator Simon Bolivar, who is an icon of Maduro's movement.
Venezuela's Communications Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to comment about the reported arrests, saying they had no information.
The men were arrested in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane, said Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration who was briefed by U.S. authorities about the lengthy undercover operation. Both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they don't have diplomatic immunity, he said.
Vigil also said Campos had claimed to law enforcement that he is the son of Flores and stepson of Maduro.
Another person briefed on the incident, who agreed to talk about the case only if not quoted by name, said Campos is the son of a deceased sister of Flores and was partly raised by the first lady and Maduro.
Flores, who Maduro calls the "First Combatant," is one of the most influential members of Venezuela's revolutionary government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public. The two traveled this week to Saudi Arabia for a summit and she was expected to be with the president Thursday for a planned speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council at a special meeting in Geneva called at Venezuela's request.
American prosecutors have been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government officials for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. government says more than 200 tons a year of cocaine flows through Venezuela, about a third of Colombia's estimated production.
But while several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S., and many more are under investigation, no drug probes had previously touched Maduro's inner circle.