Two nephews of Venezuela's powerful first lady were ordered held without bail in New York on Thursday after being arrested in Haiti on charges of conspiring to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
The arrest and indictment of Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores is likely to exacerbate already tense relations between the U.S. and Venezuela and add fuel to U.S. accusations of drug trafficking at the highest levels of President Nicolas Maduro's populist administration.
The case comes just three weeks before key legislative elections that opinion polls have been suggesting could hand Venezuela's ruling party its worst defeat in 16 years as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Campos, 29, and Flores, 30, were arrested Tuesday, flown to the United States and appeared late Thursday afternoon in a federal court in New York. A U.S. magistrate judge ordered them held without bail.
No pleas were entered. The pair was scheduled to next appear in court Wednesday, and attorneys for each said after the hearing that their clients would plead not guilty. The lawyers declined to comment further.
The indictment unsealed Thursday in New York charges the pair with one count of narcotics conspiracy. It alleges the men participated in meetings in Venezuela regarding a plot to smuggle cocaine into the United States via Honduras, but provided few other details. Conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Earlier in Thursday Maduro appeared with his wife, Cilia Flores, in Geneva to address the United Nations Human Rights Council. During his speech, he accused the U.S. of wishing his country ill, but did not directly comment on the arrests.
He did appear to obliquely refer to the case in a Twitter post late Wednesday night, writing, Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the Liberator's people, alluding to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, the icon of his movement.
Michael Vigil, a former head of international operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the men were arrested at a hotel in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, after arriving from Venezuela aboard a private plane.
Vigil, who was briefed by U.S. authorities about the undercover operation, said both men were carrying diplomatic passports even though they don't have diplomatic immunity. Campos told law enforcement that he was the son of Flores and stepson of Maduro.
Flores, who Maduro calls the First Combatant, is one of the most influential members of Venezuela's government and a constant presence alongside her husband whenever he appears in public.
US prosecutors have been steadily stepping up pressure on high-ranking members of Venezuela's military, police and government for their alleged role in making the country an important transit zone for narcotics heading to the U.S. and Europe.
Several Venezuelan officials, including a former defense minister and head of military intelligence, have been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S., and many more are under investigation, but no drug probes had previously touched Maduro's inner circle.