Four years ago, a bit player in the Venezuelan leadership was arrested in Colombia and extradited to the US to face drug charges. He proved to be an important catch.
The man, Yazenky Lamas, worked as a bodyguard for the person widely considered the power behind Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s throne: first lady Cilia Flores.
Now, with help from Lamas’ testimony, the US is preparing to charge Flores in the coming months with crimes that could include drug trafficking and corruption, four people familiar with the investigation of Flores told reporters.
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.
US Department of Justice spokeswoman Nicole Navas declined to comment on any possible charges against Flores.
Flores and her office at the Venezuelan National Assembly, where she is a deputy, did not respond to questions.
Venezuelan Minister of Popular Power for Communication and Information Jorge Rodriguez said in a text message that questions about the possible US indictment of Flores were “nauseating, slanderous and offensive.”
He did not elaborate.
In a series of interviews, the first Lamas has given since his arrest, the former bodyguard said that Flores was aware of the coke-trafficking racket for which her two nephews were convicted by a US 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, where he is detained, Lamas said that 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 said.
In late March, US prosecutors indicted Maduro and more than 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 US with cocaine, prosecutors alleged, seeking to weaken US society and bolster his position and wealth.
Maduro’s office did not 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 US 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 US officials have said, is a source of frustration for Trump.
Starting in 2017, the US Department of the Treasury sanctioned Maduro along with his wife and other members of the his “inner circle.” The swipe at Flores enraged Maduro.
“If you want to attack me, attack me, but don’t mess with Cilia, don’t mess with the family,” he said in a televised speech at the time.
Leveraging the economic fallout from the COVID-19 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 is 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 US prosecutors charged Maduro, the US justice department said that it had seized more than US$1 billion in assets belonging to dozens of defendants connected to the case.
The charges did not detail those assets or specify who holds them.
Flores is a longtime strategist and kingmaker in the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela. She first gained prominence as a lawmaker and confidante of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor. She does not 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, reporters 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.
‘PULLING THE STRINGS’
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, then-Bolivarian National Intelligence Service director Manuel Cristopher Figuera said.
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 US. He fled Venezuela when the effort failed.
“Flores has always been behind the curtain, pulling the strings,” Figuera said.
Flores has sought personal concessions in the past few years in negotiations with the US.
According to five people familiar with the discussions, Flores instructed intermediaries to ask US envoys for liberty for her jailed nephews.
In exchange, these intermediaries said that Venezuela would release six imprisoned executives of Citgo Petroleum Corp, the US 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 failed.
However, Washington knows Flores’ clout. “She is probably the most influential figure other than Maduro,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior national security adviser on Latin America to former US president Barack Obama and Trump.
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.
People familiar with lobbying of the lawmakers have said that ruling party operatives paid bribes to rivals who switched sides.
Reuters could not 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, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents had one request, he said — they wanted to know about Flores.
Lamas, now 40, spent more than a decade guarding Flores — first when she was a lawmaker and was president of the National Assembly, later when she became first lady.
After his extradition in 2017, Lamas agreed to a plea deal with US prosecutors, a confidential US justice department document reviewed by Reuters said.
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 that Lamas conspired to ship cocaine from Venezuela on US-registered aircraft.
Neither the Colombian court order nor the US justice department document mention Flores, Maduro or others in the family.
Due to the terms of the plea agreement, Lamas said that he is still awaiting sentencing and continues to testify in related investigations.
He declined to discuss specifics about the case against him.
The information he is providing investigators, including details on Flores’ alleged role in the drug-trafficking plan by her nephews, is deemed credible by US authorities, people familiar with the probes said.
Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, said that the DEA gives “high significance” to Lamas’ testimony.
‘CILIA KNEW EVERYTHING’
Lamas 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 photograph 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 with Flores’ sons — Walter, Yoswal and Yosser — who she had with her former husband, a police detective.
“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 that 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 US dollars and transport the cash from their homes in Caracas to other locations for storage.
Reuters could not independently verify that claim.
Flores’ sons have not been indicted on any charges in the US. They are on the US 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 might have in the US or within its jurisdiction.
The family’s reach by this point was manifest at Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), the national oil company and the government’s cash cow.
In 2014, PDVSA appointed a new finance director: Carlos Malpica, Flores’ third nephew, who previously managed the support staff at the National Assembly.
Malpica could not be reached for comment.
People close to Flores said that Malpica had become the first lady’s most trusted relative, especially when it came to financial matters.
Documents compiled by US 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 is the “maximum authority there, since he’s a Flores.”
“He will not do it for free,” Campo added.
PDVSA officials did not 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 US Treasury 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 said, 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 US$20 million worth of cocaine in the US. The men, who pleaded not guilty, were convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
At the time, Cilia 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 are text messages between the nephews and Cilia Flores in which the trio allegedly discuss the cocaine shipment, two people familiar with the case said.
The messages, which have not been seen by Reuters, are among documentation compiled by prosecutors from the US investigation of the nephews.
The people familiar with the messages said that they make it clear that Cilia Flores helped coordinate logistics of the cocaine shipment with them.
The proceeds from the coke deal were meant to finance a Cilia Flores campaign for the National Assembly in 2015, according to the US indictment against Maduro.
The people familiar with the text messages said that the nephews told Cilia Flores in the texts that the cocaine money would be used for her campaign.
Cilia Flores had briefly left the assembly when she became attorney general, and in 2015 she was re-elected.
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 said that his “mom” was planning to run again for the assembly.
People familiar with the probe believe “mom,” given the context of the discussion, meant Cilia Flores.
Due to 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 effect 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 could not verify whether Cilia Flores knew of the alleged shipments.
At times, Lamas said, Cilia 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 said, but not voice disapproval.
“Cilia knew everything,” Lamas added.
A GRAND BARGAIN
In Caracas, where political intrigue abounds, Cilia Flores has covered Maduro’s flanks. Early last year, National Assembly President Juan Guaido declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud, and said that he was the rightful president of Venezuela.
He urged the military to oust Maduro.
Cilia Flores quickly sought out signs of disloyalty within government ranks.
Figuera said that she ordered all documentation his agents collected about any additional dissent, including transcripts of phone taps of opposition politicians, sent directly to her.
By April of last year, as most Western democracies backed Guaido, 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 US sanctions or other compromises by Washington.
Among the officials who discussed the idea was Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice President Maikel Moreno, Figuera and two other people familiar with the talks said.
Flores met Moreno while studying criminal law at university. He became a lifelong friend and she eventually helped him become the chief justice.
Moreno, a Maduro ally and a controversial figure in his own right, was one of those indicted by Washington in March.
As the group prepared to discuss the possibility with US envoys, Moreno told Figuera that they should press for further concessions, including the release of Cilia Flores’ two nephews.
The suggestion of seeking the nephews’ freedom as part of a grand bargain with Washington followed attempts months earlier by Cilia Flores’ intermediaries to secure their release.
People familiar with those earlier discussions said that Cilia 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 said 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 that such an offer “would be yet more evidence of the arbitrary nature” of the arrests.
A senior Trump administration official said that the swap offer was a “non-starter.”
“This isn’t like a spy exchange with Russia,” another American familiar with the discussions said. “The nephews are convicted criminals.”
Reuters could not determine whether Cilia Flores was aware of Moreno’s attempts to broker a departure for Maduro.
Moreno ultimately backed out of the talks, Figuera and the two other people said.
The effort fizzled and Figuera defected. He now lives in Miami.
Moreno remains chief justice of Venezuela.
On Dec. 7 last year, Cilia Flores spearheaded the effort to swing opposition legislators toward a Maduro ally as assembly head.
She 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, Cilia 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 US$150,000 to vote for Maduro’s candidate, the people said.
Reuters could not determine if Cilia 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, Guaido and Parra both claim to be running the assembly.
Parra’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
From his cell in Washington, Lamas reads about politics back home. He is studying English and working as a prison cook.
He showed reporters 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, but they weren’t loyal to me,” Lamas said.
Chinese strongman Xi Jinping (習近平) hasn’t had a very good spring, either economically or politically. Not that long ago, he seemed to be riding high. The PRC economy had been on a long winning streak of more than six percent annual growth, catapulting the world’s most populous nation into the second-largest power, behind only the United States. Hundreds of millions had been brought out of poverty. Beijing’s military too had emerged as the most powerful in Asia, lagging only behind the US, the long-time leader on the global stage. One can attribute much of the recent downturn to the international economic
Asked whether he declined to impose sanctions against China, US President Donald Trump said: “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal... [W]hen you’re in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions on — we’ve done a lot.” It was not a proud moment for Trump or the US. Yet, just three days later, John Bolton’s replacement as director of the National Security Council, Robert O’Brien, delivered a powerful indictment of the Chinese communist government and criticized prior administrations’ “passivity” in the face of Beijing’s contraventions of international law
In an opinion piece, Chang Jui-chuan (張睿銓) suggested that Taiwan focus its efforts not on making citizens “bilingual,” but on building a robust translation industry, as Japan has done (“The social cost of English education,” June 29, page 6). Although Chang makes some good points — Taiwan could certainly improve its translation capabilities — the nation needs a different sort of pivot: from bilingualism to multilingualism. There are reasons why Japan might not be the most suitable role model for the nation’s language policy. Bluntly put, Japan’s status in the world is unquestioned. The same cannot be said of Taiwan. Many confuse