- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) - Jury selection began Wednesday in the drug trial of two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady as a judge agreed to let jurors hear taped recordings of the defendants with U.S. government informants.

The selection of a dozen jurors to decide whether Efrain Campo, 29, and Francisco Flores, 30, conspired to import 800 kilograms of cocaine into the United States likely was to end early Thursday. Opening statements are slated for Monday.

The men, nephews of first lady Cilia Flores, pleaded not guilty after they were arrested in Haiti last November and flown to New York.

Before jury selection began, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty said he would let jurors hear tape recordings of the men talking to U.S. government informants as prosecutors built their case last year.

Defense attorneys wanted them excluded, saying informants instigated the “highly politicized statements.”

The statements suggest the men had hoped to generate millions of dollars through drug deals to help their family oppose enemies, including the United States, before elections last December.

In a transcript entered into the trial’s public record by prosecutors last week, Campo, an attorney, is quoted as telling two confidential informants during an October 2015 meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, “We have a … war with the Americans.”

Prosecutors said Campo and Flores told the informants that they wanted to send multiple loads of cocaine into the U.S. in November and December 2015 to generate at least $20 million.

Defense attorneys noted in court papers that one of the informants raised the topic of the December 2015 parliamentary elections with the nephews, saying, “I’ll send you a really big check for your mother … because right now the campaign is more important. …”

The attorneys added that Campo explained, “But we need the money. Why? Because the Americans are hitting us hard with money. Do you understand? The opposition is getting an infusion of a lot of money and so, it’s also us, that’s why we are at war with them.”

The lawyers described the statements as “nothing more than idle political chatter that is irrelevant to the charged conspiracy.” They said “these statements are likely to lead to juror confusion and to undue prejudice for the defendants.”

The defendants said in declarations in support of a request to suppress their post-arrest statements that they were terrorized after their arrests and feared they were being kidnapped and might be killed.

Crotty recently rejected those claims when he ruled that the statements the men made to law enforcement authorities can be used at trial.

The judge had presided over a hearing when witnesses revealed that a father-son team of informants helped the Drug Enforcement Administration carry out a sting that led to the arrests of the men.

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