May 27, 2020 / 4:11 PM / a month ago

Special Report - U.S. takes aim at the power behind Venezuela's Maduro: his first lady

CARACAS/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four years ago, a bit player in the Venezuelan leadership was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the United States to face drug charges. He proved to be an important catch.

FILE PHOTO: Cilia Flores (L), wife of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, and Juliette Holness, wife of Jamaica's Prime Minister Andrew Holness, meet in Kingston, Jamaica May 22, 2016. REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy/File Photo

The man, Yazenky Lamas, worked as a bodyguard for the person widely considered the power behind President Nicolas Maduro’s throne: first lady Cilia Flores.

Now, with help from Lamas’ testimony, the United States is preparing to charge Flores in coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the investigation of the first lady told Reuters.

If Washington goes ahead with an indictment, these people said, the charges are likely to stem, at least in part, from a thwarted cocaine transaction that has already landed two of Flores’ nephews in a Florida penitentiary.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on any possible charges against Flores. Flores and her office at the National Assembly didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela’s information minister, told Reuters in a text message that its questions about the possible U.S. indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.” He didn’t elaborate.

In a series of interviews with Reuters, the first Lamas has given since his arrest, the former bodyguard said Flores was aware of the coke-trafficking racket for which her two nephews were convicted by a U.S. court. Flores also used her privileged position, he said, to reward family members with prominent and well-paid positions in government, a claim of nepotism backed by others interviewed for this article.

Speaking behind reinforced glass at the prison in Washington, D.C., where he is detained, Lamas told Reuters he is speaking out against Flores because he feels abandoned by the Maduro administration, still ensconced in power even though many of its central figures, including the president, have also been accused of crimes. “I feel betrayed by them,” he told Reuters.

In late March, U.S. prosecutors indicted Maduro and over a dozen current and former Venezuelan officials on charges of narco-terrorism and drug smuggling. Maduro, now in his eighth year as Venezuela’s president, for years sought to flood the U.S. with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken American society and bolster his position and wealth.

Maduro’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment. In a televised speech after the indictments, he dismissed the charges against him and his colleagues as a politically motivated fabrication by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. “You are a miserable person, Donald Trump,” he said.

The March indictments and the possible charges against Flores come amid a fresh campaign by Washington to increase pressure on Maduro. His enduring grip on power, some U.S. officials say, is a source of frustration for Trump.

Starting in 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the Socialist leader along with his wife and other members of the Maduro “inner circle.” The swipe at Flores enraged Maduro. “If you want to attack me, attack me,” he said in a televised speech at the time. “But don’t mess with Cilia, don’t mess with the family.”

Leveraging the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis in Venezuela, the White House now hopes it can topple a leader who has weathered years of tightening economic sanctions, civil unrest and international isolation.

Washington has accused Maduro and his circle of looting Venezuela of billions of dollars. But it’s unclear how much personal wealth he and Flores possess. Neither the president nor the first lady disclose income statements, tax returns or other documents pertaining to their personal finances.

After U.S. prosecutors charged Maduro, the Justice Department said it had seized more than $1 billion in assets belonging to dozens of defendants connected to the case. The charges didn’t detail those assets or specify who holds them.

Flores is a longtime strategist and kingmaker in the ruling Socialist party. She first gained prominence as a lawmaker and confidante of the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor. She doesn’t hold an official role in Maduro’s cabinet.

Still, the probe against her underscores the vast influence she wields, particularly in helping Maduro outmaneuver rivals inside and outside Venezuela.

In addition to Lamas, Reuters interviewed more than 20 people close to and familiar with Flores. They portray her as a shrewd and stealthy politician who now brandishes much of the power of her husband’s office, demanding important briefings even before the president and personally negotiating with foreign emissaries, rival lawmakers and others.

When the opposition-led National Assembly tried to oust Maduro last year, Flores ordered security officials to deliver intelligence on the matter directly to her, according to Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the head of the country’s intelligence agency then.

Figuera was one of a handful of senior Venezuelan officials who at the time considered trying to negotiate an exit from power by Maduro with the United States. Figuera fled Venezuela when the effort failed.

“Flores has always been behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” Figuera told Reuters.

Flores has sought personal concessions in recent years in negotiations with the United States.

According to five people familiar with the discussions, Flores instructed intermediaries to ask U.S. envoys for liberty for her jailed nephews. In exchange, these intermediaries said Venezuela would release six imprisoned executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp, the U.S. refining unit of Venezuela’s state-run oil company.

The executives, arrested by Venezuela in 2017 and charged with embezzlement, are widely considered by human rights activists and many in the business community to be political prisoners.

That overture, reported here for the first time, failed.

But Washington knows Flores’ clout. “She is probably the most influential figure other than Maduro,” Fernando Cutz, a senior White House adviser on Latin America during Trump’s first year in office, told Reuters.

Earlier this year, according to people with knowledge of her efforts, Flores personally pressed crucial opposition lawmakers to support a Maduro ally to head the National Assembly, until then considered the last independent government institution in the country.

As Reuters reported in March, people familiar with lobbying of the lawmakers say ruling party operatives paid bribes to rivals who switched sides. Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores played any role in such payments.

Little is known about the first lady outside Venezuela, particularly the extent of her role in Maduro’s government and her dealings that help it survive.

In their first interrogation of Lamas after his arrest in Colombia, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had one request, he recalled: “Tell us about Cilia Flores,” they said.

Michael D. Miller, a DEA spokesman, referred questions regarding the case to the Justice Department.

Lamas, now 40, spent over a decade guarding Flores – first when she was a lawmaker and headed the National Assembly, later when she became first lady. After his extradition in 2017, Lamas agreed to a plea deal with U.S. prosecutors, according to a confidential Justice Department document reviewed by Reuters.

The agreement hasn’t been previously reported.

In the plea deal, Lamas admitted to charges of drug trafficking and agreed to cooperate as a witness in investigations related to his case. The Colombian court order that approved his extradition, also reviewed by Reuters, said Lamas conspired to ship cocaine from Venezuela on U.S.-registered aircraft.

Neither the Colombian court order nor the Justice Department document mention Flores, Maduro or others in the family.

Because of the terms of the plea agreement – he said he is still awaiting sentencing and continues to testify in related investigations – Lamas declined to discuss specifics about the case against him. His lawyer in Washington, Carmen Hernandez, also declined to comment.

The information he is providing investigators, including details on Flores’ alleged role in the drug-trafficking plan by her nephews, is deemed credible by U.S. authorities, according to people familiar with the probes. Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, told Reuters the DEA gives “high significance” to Lamas’ testimony.

“REVOLUTIONARY CALLING”

Flores was born October 15, 1956, in Tinaquillo, a small city in northwestern Venezuela. The youngest of six siblings, she lived in a mud-brick shack with a dirt floor, locals recall. Her father was a salesman, traveling to nearby towns to hawk sundry goods. While still a child, she and her family moved to Caracas, Venezuela’s capital.

A good pupil, Flores enrolled in a private university and studied criminal law. There, she met Maikel Moreno, a lifelong friend and a lawyer she would eventually help become Venezuela’s chief justice. Moreno, a Maduro ally and a controversial figure in his own right, was one of those indicted by Washington last March.

Moreno didn’t respond to requests for comment; in a tweet, he denounced Washington for trying to “hijack Venezuelan justice.”

As a student, Flores showed little interest in politics, according to people who knew her. She worked part-time at a police station, transcribing statements from witnesses, and married a longtime boyfriend, a police detective, with whom she had three boys. Upon earning her law degree, she worked for most of the next decade as a defense attorney for a private firm.

In 1989, a fuel hike sparked riots that shook Caracas and awakened in Flores what she later described to state television as a “revolutionary calling.” Hundreds of protesters, angry with corruption and widening inequality in the oil-producing country, died in clashes with security forces.

The event, known as the Caracazo – roughly, the big Caracas awakening – also inspired Chavez. As inflation, food shortages and other hardships worsened, Chavez, an Army lieutenant colonel, in 1992 staged a failed coup. He was arrested and jailed at a military barracks.

Flores discovered a hero. She took to spraypainting Chavez’s name around Caracas. “I saw him in that moment as I would in the 20 years I spent near him,” she later told state television. “Authentic.”

She sent Chavez a letter offering to aid his defense. He accepted. Soon she was counseling Chavez and helping him answer letters from thousands of supporters.

On one early visit, she met a Caracas union leader who was also advising Chavez: Maduro. In a televised speech years later, Maduro said he was drawn to her “fiery character.” He began to wink at her, he said.

As it happened, both were divorcing their spouses. They began dating and eventually became a couple. “We shared the same dreams,” Flores later told state television.

In 1994, Chavez received a presidential pardon. Flores and other advisors suggested he reinvent himself as a civilian and rally support with promises to empower the poor. By 1997, Flores was part of the campaign committee that would secure Chavez’s election the next year as president. Maduro was elected as a legislator.

Not much of a gladhander herself, Flores nonetheless won a seat in the National Assembly in 2000. “She’s not a leader to hold a political rally,” said Juan Barreto, a former Caracas mayor and media director for Chavez. “But don’t think she doesn’t have a voice behind closed doors.”

In the legislature, Flores earned a combative reputation.

When fellow Chavistas elected her leader of the National Assembly in 2007, she publicly referred to opposition lawmakers as “sinners,” suggesting the government had the moral high ground over its rivals. She switched off their microphones when she felt they grew longwinded.

She also began using her position to help family members.

Flores replaced about 50 support staff employed by the National Assembly with relatives and associates, the legislature’s union said. Four siblings, two cousins and her ex-husband were among the hires, according to a list created by the union at the time of the shakeup and recently reviewed by Reuters.

She named her brother, a policeman, head of assembly security. A nephew – a cousin of her two nephews now jailed in the United States – was appointed as the legislature’s administrative director.

Reuters was unable to reach Flores’ siblings, her ex-husband, or other relatives mentioned in this story, including her children and her nephews.

It’s unclear whether Flores was responsible for all the job changes the union complained about. But she has defiantly defended the appointments. “I feel proud that they are my family,” she told reporters at the time. “I will defend them as workers in the assembly.”

When union leaders complained about nepotism, Flores summoned them to her office, recalls Jose Rivero, who attended some of those meetings and is now the union boss. “Leave this issue alone,” he says she told them. The union complied.

In 2012, Chavez named Flores attorney general. She held the post until March 2013, when Chavez died. Voters elected Maduro, by then vice president, to succeed him. Maduro and Flores, not officially married, tied the knot that July.

As first lady, Flores initially made her presence known in small ways. She ordered new furniture, curtains and a repainting of the Miraflores Palace, former aides said. Soon, she began playing a far more substantial role.

In 2014, oil prices plunged, pulling Venezuela into depression. As discontent grew, Flores began to see threats within the government. In October, Maduro fired Miguel Rodriguez, his interior minister, and replaced him with a Flores ally.

Three people familiar with the decision said that Flores believed Rodriguez, a charismatic general popular with troops, was eclipsing Maduro. People close to Rodriguez said he had indeed aspired to higher office.

After his ouster, Rodriguez formed a rival political party and publicly denounced Maduro. Intelligence agents later arrested Rodriguez on conspiracy charges, which he denied. He remains imprisoned. Juan Luis Sosa, an attorney for Rodriguez, declined to comment.

“Cilia likes or hates you,” one former Maduro aide says. “She’s not a dealmaker, she’s a hardliner.”

“CILIA KNEW EVERYTHING”

Lamas, the bodyguard, began working for Flores in her days as a legislator. From a post in the National Guard, he had been assigned to Chavez’s security detail and later transferred to guard Flores, he said. A photo on Lamas’ Twitter feed shows him, in a revolutionary red baseball cap, with Flores at a Socialist party event in 2010.

With the job came proximity to the Flores family.

The first lady entrusted him with driving her aging mother for medical checkups, Lamas said. He became close to Flores’ sons – Walter, Yoswal and Yosser. “I considered them my brothers,” he said, recalling trips to shoot rifles and to opulent family properties on the Caribbean coast.

The brothers – known as “Los Chamos,” or “the boys” – have attracted media attention in Venezuela for their flashy lifestyles.

Lamas said he saw them use government jets to travel abroad for fun. He also said he saw them several times late at night load military jeeps with boxes of U.S. dollars and transport the cash from their homes in Caracas to other locations for storage.

Reuters couldn’t independently verify that claim.

Flores’ sons haven’t been indicted on any charges in the United States. They are on the U.S. Treasury’s list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption. The sanctions are meant to punish central figures in Maduro’s government and block any assets they may have in the United States or within its jurisdiction.

The family’s reach by this point was manifest at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, the national oil company and the government’s cash cow. In 2014, PDVSA appointed a new finance director: Carlos Malpica, the third nephew of Flores, who previously managed the support staff at the National Assembly.

Malpica couldn’t be reached for comment.

People close to Flores said Malpica had become the first lady’s most trusted relative, especially when it came to financial matters. Documents compiled by U.S. investigators for their case against the other two Flores nephews provide insight into Malpica’s influence.

In August 2015, according to text messages gathered by the investigators and transcribed in documents used at the trial, Efrain Campo, one of the two nephews, received a text from an acquaintance. The message asked for Campo’s help in recouping money allegedly owed by PDVSA to the acquaintance. The origins of the debt are unclear.

Campo told the acquaintance to call Malpica. At PDVSA, Campo wrote, Malpica was the “maximum authority there, since he’s a Flores.” “He will not do it for free,” Campo added.

PDVSA officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Malpica left his PDVSA post in 2016, giving no explanation for his departure, and has since kept a low profile. The U.S. Treasury Department would later include him on its list of Venezuelans sanctioned for alleged corruption.

The jailed nephews, Campo and Franqui Flores, were close to the first lady. She helped raise both of them, two people who know the family told Reuters, and both men sometimes referred to her as “mom.”

Their November 2015 arrest, in a DEA sting in Haiti, made international headlines. In Venezuela, it earned the pair the nickname of the “narcosobrinos,” or “narconephews.”

The bust stemmed from a plan to sell $20 million worth of cocaine in the United States. The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. At the time, Flores told reporters that her nephews had been victims of a DEA “kidnapping.” She has since said little publicly about the case.

Among evidence investigators obtained, according to two people familiar with the case, are text messages between the nephews and Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment.

The messages, which haven’t been seen by Reuters, are among documentation compiled by prosecutors from the U.S. investigation of the nephews. The people familiar with the messages said they make clear that Flores helped coordinate logistics of the cocaine shipment with them.

The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the U.S. indictment against Maduro. The people familiar with the text messages said the nephews told Flores in the texts that the cocaine money would be for her campaign.

Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was reelected.

A recording made by a DEA informant captured the two nephews discussing the planned deal, according to a transcript submitted as evidence in their trial.

In the recording, Campo says his “mom” is planning to run again for the assembly. People familiar with the probe believe “mom,” given the context of the discussion, meant Flores.

Because of the burgeoning economic crisis and growing discontent at the time, Campo told the informant, “there is a risk we could lose, so she’s getting in there again.”

“We need the money,” Campo added, in a remark investigators interpreted as an allusion to the impact of economic sanctions on Socialist coffers. “The Americans are hitting us hard, and the opposition is getting a lot of help.”

Before the two nephews were arrested, Lamas said he saw the two men on several occasions send cocaine shipments on planes from the presidential hangar outside Caracas. Reuters couldn’t verify whether Flores knew of the alleged shipments.

At times, Lamas said, Flores would hear relatives discuss illicit activities, including her nephews talking about the drug transaction for which they were convicted. She would shake her head, he added, but not voice disapproval.

“Cilia knew everything,” Lamas says.

A GRAND BARGAIN

In Caracas, where political intrigue abounds, Flores has covered Maduro’s flanks. Early last year, Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud and said he was the rightful president of Venezuela. He urged the military to oust Maduro.

Flores quickly sought out signs of disloyalty within government ranks. Figuera, the former intelligence chief, told Reuters she ordered all documentation his agents collected about any additional dissent, including transcripts of phone taps of opposition politicians, sent directly to her. He complied.

In March 2019, a nationwide electricity blackout darkened Venezuela. As senior officials convened to discuss the problem, one minister showed Twitter posts by Luis Carlos Diaz, a prominent journalist, blaming the government.

Flores said Diaz “should be jailed,” Figuera told Reuters. Maduro afterwards ordered him to arrest the journalist, Figuera added.

As Diaz bicycled home on March 11, Figuera’s agents arrested him, raided his home and seized computers and phones. After an uproar, Figuera said, Maduro called him the following day to order Diaz’s release. Diaz, who was let out, remains free and is working as a journalist. He declined to comment.

By April of last year, as most Western democracies backed Guaidó, Figuera and a handful of other senior officials began considering a negotiated exit for Maduro. They weighed the possibility of arranging safe passage for Maduro to Cuba or another allied country, Figuera said, in exchange for the easing of U.S. sanctions or other compromises by Washington.

Among the officials who discussed the idea was Moreno, the chief justice and longtime Flores friend, according to Figuera and two other people familiar with the talks. As the group prepared to discuss the possibility with U.S. envoys, Moreno told Figuera they should press for further concessions, including the release of Flores’ two nephews.

The suggestion of seeking the nephews’ freedom as part of a grand bargain with Washington followed attempts months earlier by Flores intermediaries to secure their release.

According to the people familiar with those earlier discussions, Flores had intermediaries tell Washington early last year that Caracas, in exchange for the nephews, would free the six Citgo executives. Venezuela had charged the executives, who remain in prison awaiting trial, with embezzlement related to renegotiation of Citgo’s debt with various lenders.

Attorneys for the executives told Reuters the charges are baseless and that they were unaware of any effort to include their clients in any prisoner swap. Jesus Loreto, a Caracas lawyer representing Tomeu Vadell, one of the six, said such an offer “would be yet more evidence of the arbitrary nature” of the arrests.

A senior Trump administration official told Reuters the swap offer was a “non-starter.”

“This isn’t like a spy exchange with Russia,” said another American familiar with the discussions. “The nephews are convicted criminals.”

Reuters couldn’t determine whether Flores was aware of Moreno’s attempts to broker a departure for Maduro. Moreno ultimately backed out of the talks, according to Figuera and the two other people. The effort fizzled and Figuera defected. He now lives in Miami. Moreno remains chief justice of Venezuela.

Late last year, Flores spearheaded the effort to swing opposition legislators toward a Maduro ally as assembly head. On December 7, Flores and several Maduro aides met with a group of opposition lawmakers at the Fuerte Tiuna military base in Caracas, people with knowledge of the meeting said. There, Flores urged the lawmakers to back the Maduro candidate.

Several lawmakers, including at least one who attended that meeting, later accepted payments of up to $150,000 to vote for Maduro’s candidate, these people said. Reuters couldn’t determine if Flores or Maduro were aware of the payments or whether they were discussed at the military base.

In January, Luis Parra, the government candidate, won the election for assembly chief. Now, Guaidó and Parra both claim to be running the assembly. Parra’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Slideshow (3 Images)

From his cell in Washington, Lamas reads about politics back home. He is studying English and working as a prison cook. He showed Reuters a certificate from the prison commending his “outstanding contribution to the culinary department.”

Lamas now seethes against the family he once worked to protect. He is particularly aggrieved by a raid on his house in the days after his arrest, and a long interrogation of his wife, with whom he has two small children. A neighbor confirmed seeing the raid take place.

“I was loyal to them,” Lamas says. “But they weren’t loyal to me.”

Editing by Paulo Prada

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