Original art by @modográfico

Turns out, all Efraín Campo Flores really wanted was a big cat.

“I’d really love to get a leopard cub, that would be nice; I might be giving you a call sometime to see if you can get one for me?”

As he tapped the mad idea into his WhatsApp chat, the last thing he suspected was that the guy on the other end was a DEA undercover agent or that his drug lord fantasies would be submitted as evidence in the trial against him and his cousin.

That pipedream was one beat in the thumping 1,500 page narcosobrinos trial transcript I spent a few weeks reading. Today, Efraín and his cousin Franqui Francisco Flores (AKA the narcosobrinos) were sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment and to pay a $50,000 fine by a U.S. federal judge, after being found guilty of conspiring to transport cocaine to the United States.

The conviction came after a hearing where unintendedly hilarious letters were presented by the defense, arguing for their release and deportation to Venezuela, since the defendants helped their cousins do their homework, never did anything “bad” (besides dealing drugs) and his family “can’t afford tickets to visit them in NY” (another worthy cause for gofundme).

As most of the conversations examined during the trial were in Spanish, it was necessary for the prosecution to translate the exchanges. Communications were, of course, laden with expletives and regional jargon. As the defense sought to question the accuracy of the official translations, the prosecution interpreters testified and were cross-examined by the defense.

The last thing he suspected was that his drug lord fantasies would be submitted as evidence in the trial against him and his cousin.

One of the funniest bits is the exchange between one of the fancy lawyers and a Venezuelan interpreter, during which they discuss profusely about the different meanings of the word marico in Venezuela. The fancy lawyer argues that, in some cases, it can be a term of endearment among friends (and not a slur), while the interpreter says that, even when used among friends, it’s a slur.

It’s a funny thing about how the defense went about: it wasn’t the prosecution who shone the spotlight on Efraín’s zoological fantasies. It was the defense. It was his lawyer who, faced with a wall of evidence, settled on a “they’re-just-too-stupid-to-be-drug lords” defense, and ended up with a perverse incentive to comb through the evidence, looking for anything that might make his clients look like idiots.

We’ll never know much about the cub thing from the transcript, because the prosecution objected to this line of questioning and the judge sided with them: “We’re not talking about lions and tigers here.”

We’re left to wonder if Campo wanted to look as a Venezuelan Pablo Escobar, or if he really likes baby lions and tigers; we’re left to wonder why the first lady’s nephew is dumb enough to record evidence of his own crime on his own phone.

And, as a lawyer, I am left with grudging admiration for the best counsel Wilmer Ruperti could buy: bits of the transcript make this too-stupid defense sound oddly plausible.

Then again, parts of it don’t. Some of the material found on their phones is downright chilling, violent gangland stuff (texts about cutting people, pictures of dismembered bodies) that doesn’t jive with the ingenue defense. To be sure, the context to these messages isn’t clear and there is no specific evidence of their participation in murders in Venezuela. In asking for a harsh sentence, the DA did, however, show these texts as evidence that they were involved and had knowledge of drug hit jobs, talked about them nonchalantly and may have been planning a few of their own.

We’re left to wonder why the first lady’s nephew is dumb enough to record evidence of his own crime on his own phone.

So, that’s a bit less Benny Hill and a bit more Scarface.

And the too-dumb-to-know-better defense was a far cry from the strategy announced by Cilia Flores after their arrest: “The DEA committed a kidnapping, which the defense will prove.” Instead, their claim was entrapment; that is, the nephews committed the crime, but did so because they were tricked into it by the DEA. Normally, this requires evidence that the accused had no predisposition to commit a crime, but they were wheeled into it by exploitative police officers.

In any case, it fell flat. You might feel a certain sympathy for the inept wannabes who got caught because they are less cunning than, say, Hugo Carvajal, but truth is that they were criminals who operated with impunity in a country where top government officials and their entourages can moonlight as drug dealers facing no consequences.

It’s the full circle of corruption; the transcripts and text messages suggest that they had participated in small-time drug operations, handled illegal drugs, were involved in violent threats to other dealers  and had the connections to charter a private plane. They clearly agreed to sell a large amount of cocaine to be trafficked to the U.S. and got convicted because they confessed to it. The defense exaggerated the trapped-by-stupidity argument, but it’s pretty clear they were selected precisely because of their lack of power and influence within chavismo. Unlike the Kafkaeske show-trials political prisoners in Venezuela have to face, these two men were given all the guarantees established in the U.S. Constitution. At one point, one of the narcosobrinos even thanked the DEA for allowing him a phone call after being arrested, and commented that they wouldn’t have been treated the same way had that happened in Venezuela.

The real drug kingpins of chavismo would have never fallen for this one and, within chavismo, the narco-nephews were expendable. No tears for these pobrecitos.

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