(Adds background on case)
By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK, Dec 17 (Reuters) - Two nephews of Venezuela’s powerful first lady pleaded not guilty on Thursday to U.S. charges that they conspired to import cocaine into the United States.
Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29, entered their pleas in federal court in Manhattan, five weeks after they were arrested in Haiti.
Their case was the latest in a series of enforcement actions brought by U.S. authorities linking individuals connected to the Venezuelan government to drug trafficking.
Sources have said both are nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, whom the president refers to as the “First Combatant” and is highly influential under the government of her husband.
She worked on the legal team of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, working to secure his 1994 release from prison after a failed coup attempt.
According to a U.S. law enforcement source, the two nephews met a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant in Honduras in October and asked for help sending 800 kilograms (1,764 lb) of cocaine to the United States through an airport on the Honduran island of Roatan.
According to the indictment, the pair also participated that month in meetings in Venezuela regarding a shipment of cocaine that was to be sent to the United States via Honduras.
The charges came just weeks before an election in which Maduro’s opposition took a more than two-thirds supermajority of the nation’s legislature.
U.S. prosecutors are also planning to unveil drug trafficking charges against Nestor Reverol, the head of Venezuela’s National Guard, and Edylberto Molina, currently a military attache posted in Germany, people familiar with the matter have said.
Reverol, the former head of Venezuela’s anti-narcotics agency, would be one of the highest-ranking Venezuelan officials to face U.S. drug charges.
The U.S. State Department has said that more than half of the cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia is trafficked through Venezuela toward markets in Europe and the United States.
Maduro maintains that charges of involvement by officials in his Socialist party in drug trafficking are part of an international right-wing campaign to discredit socialism in Venezuela.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Tom Brown