Venezuelan first lady's nephews' U.S. drug trial gets underway

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. prosecutor on Monday told jurors that two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady sought to use a presidential airport hangar to carry out a multimillion-dollar drug deal, charges that defense lawyers said would not stand up at trial.

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Those claims came at the start of the trial in Manhattan federal court of Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, nephews of Cilia Flores, the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove said both men were secretly recorded planning to ship 800 kgs of cocaine from Venezuela to Honduras for importation into the United States.

Bove said Flores de Freitas was recorded bragging about how he had “complete control” over a Venezuelan airport, from which drugs would be shipped using a presidential hangar.

“They believed they were so powerful in their country they could ship almost a metric ton of cocaine from one airport to another,” he said.

But lawyers for Flores de Freitas, 31, and Campo Flores, 30, said neither man was sophisticated enough to have carried out such a massive drug transaction.

Instead, their lawyers said, the defendants were set-up by cooperating witnesses or informants seeking either financial reward for helping secure their arrest or to avoid prosecution.

“They were utter novices ripe for exploitation,” said Michael Mann, a lawyer for Flores de Freitas.

Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 following a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation.

The case came amid several U.S. probes linking drug trafficking to individuals tied to the government in Venezuela. The U.S. State Department says the country is a preferred route for moving drugs from South America to other areas.

At trial, Bove said prosecutors plan to call as witnesses two DEA informants who posed as Mexican drug cartel members and met in Caracas with the nephews in Caracas, recording their meetings in the process.

But John Zach, an attorney for Campo Flores, said the recordings instead showed that the informants, who earned $2 million working for the DEA, were “conniving to set-up the defendants.”

He called the sting a “failure” as no drugs were collected, and noted the informants later pleaded guilty to lying to the DEA about who they were secretly running drug deals themselves.

“The lying was so pervasive by these informants it is fatal to their case,” he said.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby