NEW YORK/CARACAS (Reuters) - Two of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s relatives have been indicted in the United States for cocaine smuggling, according to court papers on Thursday, following an international sting that Venezuela cast as an “imperialist” attack.
The charge against the nephews of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, follows announcements earlier this year of other U.S. investigations into alleged drugs and money-laundering crimes linked to Venezuelan officials and state institutions.
The suspects, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, were charged in a one-count indictment filed in federal court in Manhattan.
Both men appeared in court late on Thursday and a federal magistrate judge ordered them held without bail. They were arrested in Haiti on Tuesday and brought to New York later that night, Brendan Quigley, a prosecutor, said in court.
Neither man entered a plea, although their lawyers afterwards said they planned to plead not guilty at their next court appearance on Nov. 18.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have long been fraught. However, a U.S. official said in Washington that a senior U.S official had contacted the Venezuelan government on Wednesday to inform it of the arrests and to convey that this was an independent move by U.S. law enforcement rather than a politicized effort to attack Maduro.
Three U.S. officials said the arrests were not an effort to go after Maduro’s government but a case of U.S. law enforcement seeking to prosecute suspected wrongdoing.
The charge against the two men alleged that from October, the pair participated in meetings in Venezuela regarding a shipment of cocaine that was to be sent to the United States via Honduras.
The accusations are an embarrassment for Maduro, the 52-year-old successor to Hugo Chavez, as his ruling party heads towards a tough-looking parliamentary election in December.
Maduro’s Socialist Party faces the possibility of losing the National Assembly for the first time in the “Chavismo” movement’s 16-year rule due to voter anger over the country’s economic crisis. A major oil exporter, Venezuela has been hit hard by falling oil prices.
Maduro and other senior officials have long said accusations of collusion with traffickers by the United States are part of an international campaign to discredit socialism in Venezuela.
Flores, who was in Geneva on Thursday with Maduro as he addressed the United Nations human rights body, declined to speak to reporters seeking comment on her nephews.
In his speech, Maduro did not refer to the arrests. He defended his government’s policies and blasted the United States for what he called “ongoing harassment.”
Venezuelan government officials point to scores of local arrests as evidence of their efforts to clamp down on the drug trade, but U.S. investigators appear to be chasing a plethora of cases that allegedly involve Venezuelan officials.
“Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the people of the liberators,” tweeted Maduro, soon after news that the two Venezuelans had been whisked out of Haiti to New York.
“The fatherland will follow its course,” he added.
The two were arrested at a hotel in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, on Tuesday by anti-narcotics police at the request of U.S. authorities, according to a senior Haitian official, who said they were flown out of the country accompanied by agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The pair had contacted an undercover U.S. agent about selling 800 kg (1,763 lb) of cocaine, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing two sources familiar with the matter.
Mainstream media coverage of the affair in Venezuela was muted. The front pages of two leading newspapers, which have softened their criticism of the government since recent changes of ownerships, made no mention of Flores’s nephews.
Opposition critics, however, took to Twitter to poke fun at the powerful first lady.
One digital mock-up revamped the Coca-Cola logo to read “Coca-Flores,” with the government’s “Made in Socialism” seal added mockingly.
Another put Flores’s face into an advertisement for the Spanish-language soap opera “La Reina del Sur”, which is about a woman who is a drug kingpin. Venezuelan authorities this week ordered cable stations not to air the show because of what they called its immoral content.
Opposition figures demanded to know what was going on.
“We Venezuelans are waiting for the national government to tell us what happened in Haiti with the two detainees on diplomatic passports,” tweeted Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro.
Flores, 62, called the “First Combatant” by the president, is highly influential in her husband’s government. She was on the legal team of late socialist leader Chavez, working to secure his 1994 release from prison after a failed coup attempt.
In 2006, she became the first woman elected to lead the legislature, taking over that role from Maduro, and is registered as a candidate in the Dec. 6 legislative elections.
The U.S. State Department says more than half of the cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia moves through Venezuela toward Europe and the United States.
The U.S. Treasury has nine Venezuelan officials on a “kingpin” list, which bars those suspected of involvement in large-scale drug trafficking from the U.S. financial system.
Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and David Adams in Miami; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Frances Kerry, Christian Plumb and Ken Wills