The arrest, three weeks ahead of key Venezuelan legislative elections, is likely to exacerbate tense relations between the US and Venezuela and cast a hard look at US accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist administration.
The two suspects, Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores, were extradited from Haiti and scheduled to appear in a federal court in New York, a US law enforcement official said.
Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration who was briefed by US authorities about the lengthy undercover operation, said Mr Campos and Mr Flores were arrested in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane. Both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they do not have diplomatic immunity, Mr Vigil said.
He said Mr Campos had claimed to law enforcement that he was the son of Ms Flores and stepson of Mr Maduro.
Another person briefed on the incident said Mr Campos is the son of a deceased sister of Ms Flores and was partly raised by the first lady and Mr Maduro.
Ms Flores, who Maduro calls the “First Combatant,” is one of the most-powerful members of Venezuela’s revolutionary government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public. The two travelled this week to Saudi Arabia and she was expected to be with the president today when he was scheduled to address the UN Human Rights Council at a special meeting in Geneva called at Venezuela’s request.
A former president of the National Assembly who is now running for congress, Ms Flores became romantically involved with Mr Maduro in the 1990s while serving as lawyer for the then jailed Hugo Chavez. Mr Maduro was one of many leftist activists drawn to the charismatic junior army officer following his arrest for a failed 1992 coup attempt. The two wed in 2013 shortly after Mr Maduro was elected.
Venezuela’s Communications Ministry and Foreign Ministry declined to comment about the reported arrests, saying they had no information about the incident. Mr Maduro and Ms Flores did not comment, while the President’s Twitter account highlighted his meetings in Saudi Arabia with Middle East leaders.
US prosecutors have been stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela’s military, police and government officials for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the US and Europe. The US government says more than 200 tonnes a year of cocaine flows through Venezuela. While several Venezuelan officials, including a former defence minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the US, and many more are under investigation, no drug probes had previously touched Mr Maduro’s inner circle.
The arrests come as Mr Maduro’s government is reeling from triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages. Polls say Venezuelans could hand the ruling socialist party its biggest electoral defeat in 16 years in next month’s legislative elections.
Mr Vigil said negotiations between the two arrested men and an undercover agent focused on getting a plane and pilot to fly the drugs to Honduras, a popular smuggling destination for cartels operating in Venezuela.
A source said photographic and video evidence was collected as part of the sting. Venezuela’s consul in New York, Calixto Ortega, called the State Department to lodge a protest, the person said.