The sentence handed down in a US court to nephews of Venezuela’s first lady is anything but lenient, and it seems to be a diplomatic message to President Nicolás Maduro in response to his “anti-democratic” governance.

After deliberating for a year, US federal judge Paul Crotty announced his decision to sentence Maduro’s nephews Efrain Antonio Campo Flores and Francisco Flores de Freitas to 18 years behind bars for conspiracy to traffic cocaine. The prosecution had originally requested 30 years.

The decision was influenced by the absence of evidence that the nephews had actually distributed any drugs in the United States, the judge explained.

“In this case there were no drug seized, and surely they made some stupid decisions … Justice must be strong, but merciful, otherwise it would be cruelty … The separation from their families should in itself be particularly painful,” the judge said according to Runrun.

The so-called “narco nephews,” arrested in November 2015 in Haiti by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), were apprehended as they attempted to seal a deal to smuggle 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.

In November 2016, they were found guilty by a US jury of conspiracy to introduce cocaine into US territory. The two planned to buy the drugs from Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), according to prosecutors.

Documents and witness testimonies also tied the nephews to Honduran drug traffickers and other crimes in Venezuela, including two homicides linked to Venezuelan prison bosses, or “pranes,” as well as powerful gangs known as megabandas.

Evidence presented during the case also suggested complicity in drug trafficking by high-ranking Venezuelan officials, in particular the so-called Cartel of the Suns — a network of corrupt military allegedly led by former president of congress Diosdado Cabello — as well as criminal ties maintained by Vice President Tareck El Aissami.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the narco nephews’ sentence may appear lenient, given their ties to organized crime and their use of their family’s political influence to facilitate cocaine trafficking to the United States, the verdict is actually in line with recent US convictions of powerful Latin American drug bosses.

The Honduran Valle Valle brothers, for instance, charged with having introduced 10 metric tons of cocaine into the United States each month, were sentenced to 23 years behind bars. Fabio Lobo, the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, was sentenced to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to introduce vast amounts of drugs into US territory. And Marlon Francesco Monroy Meoño, also known as “the Ghost” (El Fantasma), was sentenced to nearly 22 years in a US prison.

Two Colombians were also sentenced, although the verdict seemed light in comparison to their crimes. Luis Enrique Calle Serna, a leader of the Rastrojos drug trafficking group and once one of the most powerful criminal figures in Colombia, received a nine-year sentence from a New York court. And Salvatore Mancuso, a leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), one of the world’s largest drug trafficking groups, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, as his plea deal with US authorities allowed charges of human rights violations to be dropped.

All these verdicts had in common a defendant surrendering or pleading guilty and cooperating with US authorities. This did not occur in the case of the narco nephews, which likely influenced the 18-year sentence.

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The final verdict may also serve as a response by the Trump administration to Maduro’s “anti-democratic” actions. Some in the United States reported that the US administration attempted to use this verdict as leverage to force Maduro out of power and force him to ease up on certain measures, like the incarceration of political opponents.

Judge Crotty’s verdict, postponed on at least three occasions, was made public on December 14, just four days after Maduro’s political party won a landslide victory in municipal elections in Venezuela, taking 308 out of 335 disputed mayor’s offices. This is the party’s third electoral victory this year, following the triumph of the National Constituent Assembly and the governors’ elections. All were obtained under suspicion of fraud and amid protests against food and medicine shortages, as well as rampant inflation.

In August, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Maduro and a dozen high ranking Venezuelan officials for human rights violations and undermining democracy, following the establishment of the National Constituent Assembly. The Venezuelan head of state was even called a “dictator.” Yet these sanctions did not appear to impact Maduro, who over the past five months has fortified his power and radicalized his stance.

Similarly, the 18-year sentence handed down to the narco nephews appears to have had little impact on Venezuela’s head of state. Days before the verdict, Maduro threatened to block the opposition from participating in 2018’s presidential elections if they did not publicly request the US government to lift its sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

Venezuelan media outlets aligned with the ruling party have not reported the nephews’ sentencing.