Nephews of Venezuela's first lady sentenced to 18 years in U.S. drug case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady were sentenced to 18 years in prison on Thursday following their convictions in New York on U.S. drug trafficking charges.

FILE PHOTO: Efrain Antonio Campo Flores (2nd from L) and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas stand with law enforcement officers in this November 12, 2015 photo after their arrest in Port Au Prince, Haiti. U.S. Attorney's Office Manhattan/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty sentenced the two men, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 32, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 31, at a hearing in federal court in Manhattan. The two are cousins, both nephews of Cilia Flores, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s wife.

Lawyers for both defendants had asked for a shorter sentence of 10 years, while prosecutors had sought 30. Crotty said 30 years would be excessive, noting that Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores had no previous criminal history.

“What moves me is that Mr. Campo Flores and Mr. Flores de Freitas were perhaps not the most astute drug dealers who ever existed,” he said. “They were in over their heads.”

Both cousins spoke briefly before being sentenced.

“I know that I have made very serious mistakes in this case,” Campo Flores said, going on to apologize to his wife and children.

“I’ve always been a good person,” Flores de Freitas said. “Even in jail I tried to help those who were in a worse psychological situation than I find myself in.” He asked that the judge allow him to return to Venezuela soon to be near his son.

Lawyers for the two men had no immediate comments after the sentencing.

Flores de Freitas and Campo Flores were arrested in Haiti in November 2015 in a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation. Prosecutors said in a court filing they tried to make $20 million through drug trafficking to help keep their family in power.

Campo Flores and Flores de Freitas were convicted in November 2016 by a jury of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

Lawyers for the two men said in a court filing earlier this year that prosecutors had proven only “bungling discussions of a drug plot that could never actually have been executed.”

Days after the conviction, Maduro blasted the case in a speech as an instance of “U.S. imperialism.” Maduro has frequently cast U.S. accusations of drug trafficking as a pretext for meddling in Venezuela and trying to topple him.

Under Maduro, oil-producing Venezuela has fallen into an economic and political crisis in which more than 120 people have died in four months of protests. The United States announced new sanctions against Maduro’s government in July.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Marguerita Choy