Venezuela 1st lady’s nephew takes drug case to Supreme Court

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro, accompanied by first lady Cilia Flores, greets supporters during an event at the Miraflores Presidential Palace to mark Youth Day, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)

MIAMI (AP) — A nephew of Venezuela’s first lady appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court an 18-year sentence for conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.

Francisco Flores and his cousin, Efrain Campo, were found guilty in 2016 in a highly charged case that cast a hard look at U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist administration. In March, prosecutors charged Maduro himself with leading an alleged “narco-terrorist” conspiracy that flooded the U.S. with 250 metric tons of cocaine a year.

In a petition posted Tuesday on the Supreme Court’s docket, attorneys for Flores argued that jury was misled when they were told by a Manhattan federal judge that the men should’ve known the cocaine was bound for the U.S. — a requirement for conviction under U.S. law.

According to the petition, the two men at no moment in wiretapped recordings can be heard even inquiring about the final destination of the Honduras-bound shipment they were negotiating with informants working under the supervision of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. When the informants inserted on 13 recorded instances general references to drug trafficking in the U.S., the men remained silent or reacted with vague and inaudible responses, according to the petition.

“The only evidence cited with respect to Flores’s supposed deliberate avoidance of knowledge was that he and Campo remained effectively silent—i.e. did not seek confirmation or clarification—when the DEA informants dropped their various oblique hints,” according to the petition, which was prepared by New York-based attorneys with the firm Sidley.

Campo and Flores were arrested in Haiti in a DEA sting in 2015 and immediately removed to New York to face trial. They were luredto the Caribbean island with the promise of an $11 million advance from a wheelchair-bound trafficker they met in Honduras named “El Sentado” — the seated one — who unbeknownst to them was a DEA informant.

A meeting in Caracas followed, in which a sample of the narcotic was produced. But no drugs were seized when they were arrested at a restaurant near the airport in Port-au-Prince shortly after arriving in a private jet from Caracas.

Lawyers for Campo and Flores argued at their two-week trial that no drugs traded hands and the men never intended to deliver any. Prosecutors’ star witness, Jose Santos-Pena, was a DEA informant who was later found to have lied to his handlers.

It’s not clear who is paying Flores’ legal fee. Michael Levy, a lawyer at Austin, declined to comment. But in the lower court trial, his legal bill was flipped by Wilmer Ruperti, a Venezuelan shipping magnate close to Maduro’s government.

Flores, who Maduro calls the “First Combatant,” is one of the most-powerful members of Venezuela’s revolutionary government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public. The two have made almost no mention of their loved ones’ conviction in the U.S.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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