The United States is preparing to charge the wife of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the case have told Reuters.
If Washington goes ahead with an indictment of First Lady Cilia Flores, these people said, the charges are expected to stem, at least in part, from a thwarted cocaine transaction that has already landed two of her nephews in a Florida penitentiary.
Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Justice, declined comment on any investigation or pending charges against Flores.
Flores and her office at the National Assembly didn’t respond to questions for this article.
Venezuela’s information minister, Jorge Rodriguez, told Reuters that its questions about the possible US indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.” He declined to elaborate.
In late March, US prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling.
Maduro, now in his eighth year as Venezuela’s president, for years sought to flood the US with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken American society and bolster his position and wealth.
In a televised speech after the indictments, he dismissed the charges against him and his colleagues as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of US President Donald Trump. “You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” he said.
Maduro’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on this report.
The March indictments and the expected charges against Flores come amid a fresh campaign by Washington to increase pressure on Maduro.
The Socialist leader, Flores and other members of the Maduro “inner circle” were sanctioned starting in 2017 by the US Treasury Department.
Flores is a longtime legislator and power broker in the ruling Socialist party.
The United States and its allies last year recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president, deeming Maduro’s 2018 re-election a sham.
But Maduro remains in power, backed by Venezuela’s military as well as Russia, China, Cuba and Iran — a growing source of frustration for Trump, according to some US officials.
In interviews with Reuters, a jailed former bodyguard of Flores, Yazenky Lamas, said Flores was aware of crimes by family members, including the coke-trafficking racket for which her nephews were convicted by a US court.
The Reuters interviews, the first he’s granted since his arrest, mark the first time Lamas has aired his accusations in public.
Lamas, who was extradited to the United States on drug charges in 2017, agreed to a plea deal with US prosecutors, according to a confidential Justice Department document reviewed by Reuters.
He admitted to charges of drug trafficking and became a cooperating witness.
The agreement hasn’t been previously reported.
Flores’ jailed nephews, Efrain Campo and Franqui Flores, were close to the first lady.
She helped raise them, people who know the family told Reuters, and both men sometimes referred to her as “mom.”
Their November 2015 arrest, in a sting in Haiti by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, made international headlines.
The bust stemmed from a plan to sell $20mn worth of cocaine in the United States.
The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted in 2017 and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
The two nephews couldn’t be reached for comment.
Among evidence investigators obtained, according to two people familiar with the case, are text messages between the nephews and Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment. Reuters hasn’t seen the messages.
The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the US indictment against Maduro.
Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was reelected.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Tuesday approved opposition member Luis Parra as parliament speaker after a tense, months-long stand-off with opposition leader Guaido, who also claims the role. The court, made up of loyalists to President Nicolas Maduro, declared Parra’s claim “valid,” it said in a statement. Guaido has dismissed Parra as “an accomplice to dictatorship.”
The National Assembly parliament is the only Venezuelan branch of government in opposition hands.
Parra, who broke with Guaido after being accused of corruption, was sworn in as parliamentary speaker in January in a move slammed by the opposition as a parliamentary coup.
Guaido, who held the position for the previous term, was barred from attending that vote by armed forces in dramatic and chaotic scenes. When he was finally allowed into the chamber, Parra had left.
Guaido also raised his hand and was sworn in for another term as leader of the assembly.
The National Assembly has been effectively sidelined since 2017, when the Supreme Court declared it in contempt.
The court has since annulled its every decision.
The Supreme Court, however, issued a transparent warning to Juan Guaido that any parallel parliament “is prohibited and has no legal effect.”
A conference of international donors in Brussels has raised 2.5bn euros ($2.75bn) to send to victims of the political crisis in Venezuela, conference co-organiser the European Union announced late on Tuesday.
Nearly 600 euros will be paid as non-repayable loans, and subsidies of around 232mn euros were mobilised from the EU budget and the budgets of the member states alone, the EU said.
The money will be used to finance emergency humanitarian aid for the many refugees in Venezuela’s neighbouring countries, among other things.
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