MANHATTAN (CN) — A relative of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro toyed on tape with using that leader's airport hangar to ship cocaine out of the country, prosecutors said Monday at the start of a trial brimming with geopolitical intrigue.
It has been nearly a year since federal prosecutors announced the arrest of Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, the nephews of Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.
Venezuela had been weeks away from parliamentary elections in the wake of the young men's indictment last year, straining already-icy relations between the United States and the socialist government in Latin America.
From the beginning of the case, the Maduro administration accused the U.S. prosecutors of political motivations, and those tensions remained a steady undercurrent of nearly two hours of opening arguments today.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove painted a portrait of a simple case of two young men exploiting their family connections to violate U.S. laws.
"They believed that they were so powerful in their country," Bove said, gesturing toward the defendants, "that they believed they could ship 1 metric ton of cocaine" to the United States.
Previewing some of the government's evidence, the prosecutor promised to that the jury would see incriminating footage. "You'll see Campo on video holding a kilo of cocaine," Bove said.
Audio evidence meanwhile will show Flores, 31, boasting of his control over the Venezuelan airport, claiming he could send shipments from the presidential hangar, Bove added.
Defense attorneys for the men told the court that the trial showcases the failures and corruption of the Drug Enforcement Administration, saying the agency is using two young, naive and unintelligent targets to embarrass the Venezuelan government.
John Zach, representing Campo for the firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said all the recordings would show is "just talk," full of the young men's bluster to impress informants offering them $20 million for little work.
"To Efrain and Franqui, this was their ticket to getting millions of dollars," he said.
The government accuses the men of conspiring to ship 800 kilos of cocaine into the United States.
Since DEA agents did not recover any cocaine during the operation, however, the government's case will largely hinge upon the credibility of the agency's informants. Defense attorneys for both men took turns Monday at attacking these witnesses.
One of them, a major Honduran drug trafficker known as El Sentado, was reportedly murdered in his country in December.
Two others came from the DEA's pool of informants, who have pleaded guilty to running using drugs, soliciting prostitutes and perjuring themselves while working for the agency.
"The amount of evidence that the DEA informants will admit to having destroyed will shock you," Zach said.
Cutting his client with similar language, Zach repeatedly referred to the 30-year-old Campo as "too stupid" to realize that he was being played for a sucker.
"To put it bluntly, it comes down to a handful of stupid, stupid decisions by my client and his cousin," Zach said.
Just as prosecutors depicted the young men as Venezuelan royalty, defense attorneys insisted that Campo and Flores lived humble lives in what they described as the crime-ridden and poverty-stricken capital city of Caracas.
Neither of the men lived in the presidential palace, but both had security protection for fear of being kidnapped for a bounty because of their pedigrees, the attorneys said.
They remained vulnerable, in the lawyers' telling, to the geopolitical winds.
"It's not a secret to say that the Venezuelan government and the United States do not get along," Zach said.
Attorney Michael Mann, who represents Flores for the firm Sidley Austin, made the same point more emphatically.
"You'll see that the political connections are at the very heart of this prosecution," Mann told the jury.
The attorney said that the same recordings that the government intends to use against his client show DEA agents scoffing about backgrounds and ineptitude of their marks.
"They were utter novices, ripe for exploitation," Mann said, of Flores and Campo.
After opening arguments, witness testimony began with the Haitian law-enforcement agent who was present at the men's arrest in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 10, 2015.
It will continue this afternoon with testimony from the DEA agent who interrogated Campo and Flores on the plane from that city to the United States.
Defense attorneys tried to suppress the men's purported confessions during that flight before trial, arguing that their statements were coerced, unrecorded and made without Miranda warnings about their constitutional rights.
U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty, who is presiding over the case, overruled the defense attorneys' objections on Oct. 12. The jury will continue to hear details of that airborne interrogation as trial continues.
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