By Jeffrey Kopp
(CNN) — Two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, have been convicted in US federal court for conspiring to smuggle more than 800 kilograms (1,763 pounds) of cocaine into the United States.
Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 31, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 30, were convicted Friday at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York in Lower Manhattan. Judge Paul Crotty presided over the trial, which began November 7.
The two men were apprehended in Haiti and transported to New York a year ago in a collaborative operation between the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Haitian equivalent, BLTS.
In January, Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, said her nephews had been “kidnapped” by the DEA for political reasons.
Venezuelan officials have not yet commented on the verdict.
The jury heard testimony from 14 witnesses including DEA agents, informants for the agency, a member of Haitian drug law enforcement, data analysts and translators.
The prosecution utilized the witness testimony, plus an array of evidence, to convince the jury that the defendants were guilty. The evidence included photos, videos and messages from the defendants’ smartphones, as well as audio and video recordings obtained by DEA informants using hidden recording devices.
The pair’s defense
The defense attempted to cast doubt on both the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses throughout the trial.
No cocaine or cash was seized when the pair was arrested November 10, 2015. Instead, the prosecution relied heavily on communications over a multitude of media.
DEA Special Agent Sandalio Gomez, who conducted the defendants’ post-arrest interview on an agency Learjet from Haiti to New York, used only hand-written notes to write down their statements, translating from Spanish to English as he wrote.
Additionally, two of the witnesses came to court wearing prison uniforms, as they have been convicted for their own drug crimes. One was an ex-DEA informant who conducted drug deals behind the agency’s back, and the other was a Honduran air traffic controller who facilitated drug shipments at the Roatán airport in Honduras.
Some of the more compelling evidence included a video recording of a meeting in Honduras that included two DEA informants and Flores de Freitas, in which they could be heard planning the logistics of a flight from the presidential hangar of the Caracas airport to Roatán in a private jet full of cocaine, which prosecutors alleged would have amounted to more than 800 kilograms of the illegal drug.
The flight never occurred, but the men were charged with conspiring to import five or more kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
After more than five hours of deliberation a court clerk told members of the media that the jury had not reached a verdict and they would resume deliberation on Monday morning. The jury was expected to appear briefly to say publicly to the court that this was the case, however, when the judge asked them if they had reached a verdict, a delegate from the jury said yes.
The tentative sentencing date is March 7, 2017.
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