U.S. District Judge Paul A. Crotty said Efrain Campo and his cousin Francisco Flores "were not the most astute drug dealers who existed. They were in over their heads."
Yet, he added, they schemed in 2015 to capitalize on their political connections to make the flight of a drug-laden private plane from Venezuela to Honduras seem legitimate. Besides the prison time, the judge also imposed $50,000 fines.
Campo, 31, and Flores, 33, are nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores. A jury convicted them in November 2016 of conspiring to import more than 1,700 pounds (770 kilograms) of cocaine into the U.S. and other charges that carried a potential life sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emil Bove requested a 30-year sentence, saying the men were trying to raise millions of dollars in drug proceeds to help fund a political campaign to keep their family in power in a country where its leaders have a reputation for "locking up" those who oppose them.
Defense lawyers requested no more than a 10-year term, saying the men were novices in the drug trade and they never transported drugs.
Each man apologized before the sentence was announced.
"I am very remorseful and ashamed for all the harm and suffering this has caused," Campo said.
"I'm so sorry for the terrible mistake I committed," Flores said. "We're all human, and sometimes we sin."
The judge noted the men seemed "more concerned about the impact on their family than violations of the law of the United States."
Outside the courthouse, Norma Flores, no relation to the defendant, stood with others who were born in Venezuela but moved to the United States. She said the sentence was too lenient.
"The sentence is a slap in the face of all Venezuelans," she said.
She said she went to the courthouse on behalf of all Venezuelans who have lost their lives in protests or are dying because they cannot afford food or medicine.
Lawyers for the men said their clients are misunderstood.
Attorney John Zach said Campo was "shockingly naive."
"He is a gentle soul. He is a good person," Zach said. "He is a danger to no one. He's been thoroughly humiliated by this episode."
Attorney David Rody said Flores was living with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment when he was arrested in late 2015.
"This is not the life of a drug kingpin," Rody said. "He is not a hardened criminal."
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