U.S. links Venezuelan official related to Maduro to drug probe
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By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent testified on Thursday that a probe of two nephews of Venezuela's first lady began after a drug trafficker cooperating with authorities told him of a meeting arranged by her brother, a top police official.
The agent testified in Manhattan federal court about the origins of the probe of Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores as he detailed how two key informants deceived investigators to conduct drug deals.
The testimony came during proceedings in which lawyers for the nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, sought the suppression of evidence against them and statements they gave after their November 2015 arrests.
Both men are fighting charges that they worked with others to try to send 800 kg of cocaine from Venezuela to Honduras so it could be imported into the United States.
In court, DEA Special Agent Sandalio Gonzalez testified that the probe began after a cooperating witness in Honduras, a drug trafficker called El Sentado, told him in October 2015 a Venezuelan official named Bladimir Flores was going to send his nephew to meet with him.
"He (cooperating witness) indicated that these individuals wanted to fly drug-laden planes to Honduras with flight plans," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez did not elaborate on the role of Bladimir Flores. He is the brother of Cilia Flores and serves as inspector general of Venezuela's investigative police, known as CIPCP.
Bladimir Flores could not be reached for comment.
The nephews' case, an embarrassment for Maduro as Venezuela experiences political and economic struggles, was brought last year amid a series of U.S. probes that have linked individuals connected to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.
In court, Gonzalez characterized the nephews as significant drug traffickers.
"They indicated they had the run of the main airport in Caracas and then could easily dispatch drug-laden planes on the presidential ramp," he said.
But under questioning by the nephews' lawyers, Gonzalez acknowledged a series of problems involving the DEA's reliance on El Sentado and two informants who at its direction posed as Mexican drug traffickers.
The informants lied throughout the probe about their own drug dealing and one used Venezuelan prostitutes the defendants paid for, he said. Both have since been charged and are incarcerated, he said.
Gonzalez also said El Sentado failed to record his first meeting with the nephews in October 2015, despite instructions to do so. Prosecutors said El Sentado was murdered in Honduras last December.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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