A federal jury in New York City on Friday found that two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro planned to smuggle hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from the presidential hangar at the Caracas airport to Honduras for shipment to the United States.
The verdict is likely to bolster U.S. allegations that the Venezuelan government has turned a blind eye to drug smuggling and will worsen the already contentious relations between the two nations.
The two nephews, Efrain Campo, 30, and Francisco Flores, 31, now face 10 years to life in prison on drug conspiracy charges. Sentencing is likely to happen in March.
The jury of five men and seven women reached a verdict after nearly seven hours of deliberation. A court clerk told reporters that the jurors planned to return on Monday, but then appeared to reach a last-minute decision at the end of the day.
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When the jurors returned to the courtroom, most looked forward or down. Only one appeared to glance at the defendants before sitting down after what appeared to be a draining deliberation. The jury foreman’s voice was unsteady as he read the guilty verdict. He then took a deep breath and seemed to collapse back into his chair after confirming the decision.
Campo’s attorney, John Zach, left a mark on the back of his client’s blue sweater where he pressed his hand following the reading. Campo and Flores looked straight ahead and didn’t express any emotions. They hugged their lawyers before being led away by guards.
The verdict appeared to accept prosecution claims that the two men had been longtime drug traffickers who knew what they were doing and to reject defense assertions that they were hapless victims of a U.S. sting operation conducted by a confidential informant who made $1.2 million setting up the sting.
The prosecution had acknowledged that the informant, a member of the Sinaloa, Mexico, drug cartel, had undertaken illicit drug deals while working for the Drug Enforcement Administration. But prosecutors argued that did not undercut the rest of their case, which included dozens of text messages and audio and video recordings that appeared to show the cousins planning to smuggle 800 kilograms into the U.S.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the narcotics division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, said the confession and audio tapes appeared to be enough.
“The case didn’t have to be a perfect one,” Weinstein said. “It had to be sufficient to convince these jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that these defendants conspired to smuggle these drugs into the United States.”
The verdict immediately adds to tensions between the United States and Venezuela, which has accused the U.S. government of plotting to topple the government of Maduro.