Venezuela first lady's nephews U.S. drug case gets new defendant

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[June 30, 2016]  NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors have charged a new defendant accused of participating in a scheme with two nephews of Venezuela's first lady to transport a multi-hundred kilogram load of cocaine to the United States.

An indictment filed on Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan accused Roberto De Jesus Soto Garcia of participating in meetings in Honduras and agreeing to facilitate the cocaine's arrival at a Honduran airport on its way to the United States.

The indictment said he agreed to participate in the drug venture with, among others, Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, who are both nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores.

The indictment charges Soto Garcia with conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States. It was unclear if he had an attorney or was in custody, and contact information could not be immediately located.

The nephews' case, announced after their arrest in November in Haiti, has been an embarrassment for Maduro, who has been facing a political and economic crisis in Venezuela. Flores in January called her nephews' arrest a "kidnapping."

The case is also one of a series of enforcement actions and investigations by U.S. authorities that have linked individuals connected to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.

A U.S. law enforcement source has said the nephews met a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant in Honduras in October and sought help sending 800 kilograms of cocaine to the United States via an airport on the Honduran island of Roatan.

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The indictment against Soto Garcia said that in meetings recorded by law enforcement, he agreed to provide information about the airport's schedule, assist in the cocaine-laden aircraft's arrival, and remove drugs from the plane.

The indictment said he also agreed to take steps to evade detection by Honduran customs and law enforcement. The indictment references two meetings that took place in November in Honduras, including one with Flores de Freitas.

A lawyer for Campo Flores declined comment, while a lawyer for Flores de Freitas did not respond to a request for comment. Both nephews have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

A spokesman for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is handling the case, had no immediate comment.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Michael Perry)

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