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What Arrests? Some Venezuelans in the Dark About Drugs Scandal

  • Reuters

FILE - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters in New York, July 28, 2015.

FILE - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to reporters at United Nations headquarters in New York, July 28, 2015.

The arrest of two of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's relatives to face charges of cocaine smuggling was an international embarrassment for him and his socialist government.

At home, however, plenty of Venezuelans have not even heard about the arrests in Haiti or the subsequent U.S. indictments, with local papers largely ignoring the story and citizens more concerned with finding food and medicines amid severe shortages.

"I had no idea!" said 21-year-old biology student Grecia Mayor, eyes widening as she stood in front of a Caracas supermarket.

"Frankly, it doesn't surprise me," she said, recovering quickly. "There have been rumors for a while now that the government is involved in drug trafficking. They're doing everything badly."

Amid one of the worst economic crises in the OPEC nation's history, many Venezuelans spend hours in lines for scarce items ranging from beef to antibiotics as a dysfunctional state-led model fails to provide basics.

That daily struggle, coupled with raging inflation and one of the world's highest murder rates, is all-consuming for many Venezuelans.

In any case, the arrest of two nephews of Maduro's wife only made the front page of one leading national newspaper, El Nacional.

El Universal, another top newspaper, published a story online but did not mention that the pair - Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas, 30, and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores, 29 - are part of Maduro's family circle.

Other major papers instead led with news of the government cutting egg prices, Maduro's international campaign to raise oil prices, and baseball.

"But I read all the newspapers!" said a 30 year-old in Caracas's leafy Plaza Bolivar, shocked that he did not know of the arrests.

Satirical news site El Chiguire Bipolar ran a story headlined, "News about drug trafficking? Involving whom? Hahaha! No, look at this beach instead."

Opposition sympathizers, often wealthier and more active online, were finding out on Twitter or Facebook, both abuzz with the controversy.

"The news isn't in any of the local newspapers, but we're on the front pages in the rest of the world!" lamented actress Maria Brito, 29, who learned of the scandal on social media.

'Stained Country'

Opposition supporters who regularly accuse the government of corruption, human rights abuses and drug trafficking, were crowing.

"I started to call all my friends to give them the good news," said Zoraida Hernandez, 65, a homemaker in affluent eastern Caracas who says she struggles to find medicines for her son with Parkinson's Disease. "I woke up in a good mood today. We're suffering a lot. Something had to come out."

Other government critics were hopeful it could give the opposition a lift ahead of Dec. 6 elections, when the 167-member National Assembly is up for renewal.

On the other side of the political spectrum, however, government supporters cried foul.

"This is slander," said retired public servant Arkuimedes Arias, 69, after learning of the arrests. "This is what the right wing is saying. They can't get to power by electoral means so they invent things like this."

Maduro frequently says his foes, ranging from domestic business executives to U.S. President Barack Obama, are manufacturing problems to topple him.

"Neither attacks nor imperialist ambushes can harm the people," the president tweeted.

Beyond political allegiances, some fretted that Venezuela, which the United States says is the transit route for more than half of Colombian cocaine, risks becoming a "narco-state."

"This stains our country," said student Dery Marquez, 18, sitting by a parking lot with a friend. "We're going to end up like Mexicans and Colombians, they're not going to want us anywhere."