NEW YORK: US agents have arrested two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady for allegedly conspiring to smuggle 800 kilos (1,800 pounds) of cocaine into America, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.
The arrests are likely to further exacerbate already tense relations between the United States and Venezuela, who have not kept ambassadors in their respective capitals since 2010.
Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas were arrested in Haiti on Tuesday by local police, handed over to US agents and flown the same day to New York, the newspaper said, citing two unnamed people “familiar with the matter.”
The two men are due to appear before a US federal judge in New York on Thursday, the Journal added.
Neither the US attorney’s office nor the federal court in Manhattan were immediately reachable for comment.
Campo Flores, 29, identified himself on the plane as a stepson of President Nicolas Maduro who had been brought up by his aunt, First Lady Cilia Flores, the newspaper said.
The Journal said the other man identified himself as a nephew of Cilia Flores, a former president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and defense lawyer for Venezuela’s late leader, Hugo Chavez.
The two men allegedly contacted a US Drug Enforcement Administration informant in Honduras in October and asked for help in trafficking 800 kilos of cocaine, the Journal reported.
In Venezuela, they later brought a kilo of the cocaine — allegedly to be sold in New York — to a confidential informant to show off its quality, the paper said.
The meetings were filmed and taped by US agents, the Journal quoted a source familiar with the case as saying.
The Journal first reported in May that US prosecutors were investigating several senior Venezuelan officials for alleged involvement in large-scale cocaine trafficking.
Venezuelan authorities have previously dismissed allegations of involvement in the drug trade as smears designed to undermine the leftist government in Caracas.
The Journal said prosecutors in New York, Washington and Miami were investigating alleged drug-trafficking and money-laundering by top Venezuelan military, police and government officials.
Those under investigation reportedly include Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Assembly, who is widely seen as the second most powerful man in the country.
In response, Maduro said “anyone who messes with Diosdado messes with me.”
Testy US-Venezuelan relations took a further nosedive in March when the White House adopted sanctions against some officials in Venezuela’s leftist government.
Last month, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Rafael Ramirez, also slammed a US probe into alleged corruption under his watch at state oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA).
The Journal said US authorities had launched a series of investigations into whether Venezuela’s leaders used PDVSA to loot billions of dollars through kickbacks and other schemes.