By Angus Berwick and Matt Spetalnick
CARACAS/WASHINGTON, D.C., Thurs. May 28, 2020 (Reuters) – The United States is preparing to charge the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the case told Reuters.
If Washington goes ahead with an indictment of First Lady Cilia Flores, these people said, the charges are expected to stem, at least in part, from a thwarted cocaine transaction that has already landed two of her nephews in a Florida penitentiary.
Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on any investigation or pending charges against Flores. Flores and her office at the National Assembly didn’t respond to questions for this article.
Venezuela’s information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, told Reuters that its questions about the possible U.S. indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.” He declined to elaborate.
In late March, U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling. Maduro, now in his eighth year as Venezuela’s president, for years sought to flood the U.S. with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken American society and bolster his position and wealth.
In a televised speech after the indictments, he dismissed the charges against him and his colleagues as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. “You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” he said. Maduro’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this report.
The March indictments and the expected charges against Flores come amid a fresh campaign by Washington to increase pressure on Maduro. The Socialist leader, Flores and other members of the Maduro “inner circle” were sanctioned starting in 2017 by the U.S. Treasury Department. Flores is a longtime legislator and power broker in the ruling Socialist party.
The United States and its allies last year recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, deeming Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham. But Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran – a growing source of frustration for Trump, according to some U.S. officials.
In interviews with Reuters, a jailed former bodyguard of Flores, Yazenky Lamas, said Flores was aware of crimes by family members, including the coke-trafficking racket for which her nephews were convicted by a U.S. court. The Reuters interviews, the first he’s granted since his arrest, mark the first time Lamas has aired his accusations in public.
Lamas, who was extradited to the United States on drug charges in 2017, agreed to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, according to a confidential Justice Department document reviewed by Reuters. He admitted to charges of drug trafficking and became a cooperating witness. The agreement hasn’t been previously reported.
Flores’ jailed nephews, Efrain Campo and Franqui Flores, were close to the first lady. She helped raise them, people who know the family told Reuters, and both men sometimes referred to her as “mom.” Their November 2015 arrest, in a sting in Haiti by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, made international headlines.
The bust stemmed from a plan to sell $20 million worth of cocaine in the United States. The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted in 2017 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. The two nephews couldn’t be reached for comment.
Among evidence investigators obtained, according to two people familiar with the case, are text messages between the nephews and Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment. Reuters hasn’t seen the messages.
The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the U.S. indictment against Maduro. Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was reelected.
(Editing by Paulo Prada)