US officials have formally announced cocaine trafficking charges against two men who previously served in top positions in Venezuela's national anti-narcotics agency, a major indictment that comes in the midst of a highly contentious political atmosphere in the country.
In a federal indictment unsealed on August 1, prosecutors allege that the former general director of Venezuela's anti-drugs agency, Nestor Luis Reverol Torres, and the former sub-director of that agency, Edylberto Jose Molina Molina, accepted bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them conduct their illicit business.
The indictment accuses Reverol and Molina of using their positions of authority between January 2008 and December 2010 to tip off traffickers about upcoming drug raids, secure the release of persons and property linked to drug trafficking, and otherwise obstruct anti-narcotics investigations and operations.
US prosecutor Robert Capers said in a statement that the charges reflect "ongoing efforts to combat one of the most insidious and dangerous aspects of the international drug trade -- the ability of drug cartels to infiltrate and corrupt the highest echelons of government and law enforcement."
While Molina has not publicly responded to the charges, Reverol has previously dismissed accusations of his involvement in drug trafficking. In January, he told a reporter from RunRun.es, "How am I going to be a narcotrafficker if I have 30 years fighting drug trafficking and searching for capos?"
The indictment of Reverol and Molina was originally filed under seal in January 2015. Media outlets first reported about the charges in December 2015. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York, where the charges were filed, declined to comment in response to InSight Crime's inquiry about why the indictment was recently unsealed.
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Although the US Attorney's Office refused to comment on the matter, the timing of the decision to unseal the indictment may be significant. Venezuela's opposition is pushing forward with its attempt to oust President Nicolás Maduro via a recall referendum, which the government has resisted. The US accusations may put additional pressure on Maduro, who has seen his approval ratings sink as the country's economic crisis deepens.
There is added urgency to the opposition's campaign to replace Maduro, because were he to lose this year, that would result in a new vote to elect his predecessor. If he is removed in 2017, however, Maduro would be replaced by his vice president, and no presidential election would be held until the end of 2018.
The announcement of charges against Reverol and Molina follow similar actions by the US government accusing top Venezuelan officials of involvement in the drug trade. In March 2013, prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York charged former Venezuela National Guard members Vassyly Kotosky Villarroel Ramirez and Rafael Antonio Villasana Fernandez with involvement in an international drug trafficking scheme. Both men have faced similar accusations by the Venezuelan government.
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Additionally, in November 2015, US federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York brought drug trafficking charges against Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, nephews of Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores. Campo and Flores have both pleaded not guilty. However, there are several indications that the so-called "narco nephews" may have been part of a larger scheme potentially involving the Cartel of the Suns, a drug trafficking group composed of members of Venezuela's security forces.