How two ex-Green Berets were lured into a disastrous failed coup in Venezuela

  • In May, President Nicolás Maduro announced that Venezuelan security forces thwarted an attempted coup led by two former US Green Berets, releasing video footage that showed a ragtag group of men rounded up in a coastal village.
  • However, the U.S. State Department described the event as "propaganda." In a statement to Business Insider, a US State Department spokesperson said the event was "staged by the illegitimate Maduro regime."
  • The two captured Americans were reportedly hired for the mission by Jordan Goudreau, also a former Green Beret and founder of the contracting company Silvercorp USA.
  • A combination of red flags seen in the footage released by Venezuela and reports that the government knew about the mission weeks before the capture suggests that the mission was infiltrated by Maduro loyalists.

In May, reports surfaced of a supposed failed coup against the Venezuelan government. Headlines called the event "Bay of Piglets," or "Keystone Coup," and footage released by the Venezuelan government seemed to back up the nicknames.

The footage showed a ragtag group of men who appear to be under-prepared; a few of the men were shirtless and had their passports on them. According to President Nicolás Maduro, eight people were killed and dozens more were captured. Among the captured men were two American former Green Berets.

But the footage, as well as circumstances leading up to the event, created a few red flags.
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Business Insider spoke with the brother of captured American Luke Denman, the U.S. State Department, and Juan José Rendón, a former advisor to Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaidó, to understand what aspects of this complex story are rooted in fact, and what aspects may have been constructed by the Venezuelan government.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: In May, this Venezuela State TV footage made headlines around the world. Venezuelan security rounding up a ragtag group of men in a village on the country's northern coast. Some of the captured men were wearing no shoes or shirts at all.

Interrogator: What's your name?

Luke Denman:
Luke Alexander Denman.

Narrator: Two of the men captured were Americans, ex-US Army Green Berets. And Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro said dozens more were captured and eight men killed.

Nicolás Maduro: They have been detained, surrendered, and submitted by the law of Venezuela.

Narrator: Maduro said the men planned to enter Venezuela on its northern coast and make their way to Caracas, where they would attempt to kidnap him. Many reports about the footage characterized it as the aftermath of an attempted but failed coup against the current Venezuelan government. But the US State Department called this footage "propaganda." In a statement to Business Insider, a spokesperson called it "scripted, coordinated, and staged by the illegitimate Maduro regime."

Mark Denman: Something had gone terribly wrong.

Narrator: Business Insider spoke to Luke Denman's brother, Mark, along with the US State Department and other key figures to try and understand what happened in May and what happens next.

Jordan Goudreau: At 1700 hours, a daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia deep into the heart of Caracas.

Narrator: This is the man behind the mission. Jordan Goudreau, also a former US Green Beret and founder of a private-security firm called Silvercorp USA. Goudreau reportedly planned the mission, known as Operation Gideon, that led to the two Americans being captured. But his whereabouts are currently unknown.

Goudreau: We manage risk. Anywhere, anytime, any situation.

Narrator: In this promotional video from Silvercorp's Instagram, Goudreau is presented as an athletic, adventurous, very patriotic soldier for hire. Born in Canada, Goudreau eventually became a US citizen and joined the Army Special Forces. He served for about 15 years, and during that time, he met Luke Denman and Airan Berry.

Denman: He was their, from what I understand, their superior officer, and heavily respected guy that had a lot more time in than they did.

Narrator: After his service, Goudreau founded Silvercorp USA in 2018. In February 2019, Goudreau was reportedly hired to work security at a concert event on the border of Venezuela and Colombia. He posted this video to Silvercorp's Instagram account with the caption: "Venezuela Aid Live. Controlling chaos on the Venezuela border where a dictator looks on with apprehension." The dictator in question seems to be Maduro.

Mike Pompeo: We're here to urge all nations to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people as they try to free themselves from former President Maduro's illegitimate mafia state.

Narrator: Opposition parties in Venezuela have long claimed that Maduro's 2018 presidential election did not meet international democratic standards. Which is where Juan Guaidó's name comes in.

Pompeo: The time is now to support the Venezuelan people, to recognize the new democratic government led by interim president Guaidó, and end this nightmare.

Narrator: Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, claimed the title of interim leader in January 2019. And political bodies including the European Union, the Lima Group, and the US government recognize the 37-year-old opposition leader as the legitimate president of Venezuela. And Guaidó's team was looking for ways to get Maduro out.

Juan Rendón: So, President Guaidó said, "OK, everything's over the table. And under the table, too."

Narrator: Juan José Rendón, otherwise known as JJ Rendón, worked as an advisor to Juan Guaidó.

Rendón: So when they say that, and they say, "OK, explore everything," we explore different scenarios of use of force.

Narrator: Jordan Goudreau was working on one such scenario of his own. A few months after posting this video, Goudreau traveled to Bogotá, where he met Clíver Alcalá, a former Venezuelan Army general.

Juan Cruz: This is a person who was one of the generals close to Chávez when Chávez was president.

Narrator: This is Juan Cruz, a former member of the National Security Council who served as a special assistant to President Trump.

Cruz: When Maduro comes on the scene, there's a falling-out. That wasn't uncommon. He was one of the individuals that was too often associated with saying out loud that he wanted to displace or overthrow Maduro.

Narrator: The Associated Press reported that Alcalá said he had a training camp with a few dozen men in Colombia. And Goudreau said Silvercorp could train them. So he sought the backing of Guaidó's government, which led him to JJ Rendón.

Rendón: With Jordan, he asked to have a moment to pitch his company. He said that he was in contact with the Venezuelans in Colombia. And they were in touch, and they were planning something.

Narrator: Rendón said Goudreau told him the cost of the mission itself would be covered by a secret group of backers and that upon completion, he wanted a payment of $212 million.

Rendón: He said that he has this plan and that he has his people and that he has backers. Interesting.

"Who are they?"

"Oh, I cannot reveal to you."

OK. But if you have big backers with a big army ready to go, we wanna know about it. And we want that to be aligned, or at least under the supervision of our government.

Narrator: That's when Rendón began to grow suspicious.

Rendón: Those were enough red flags to back off. So we sit and say, "Look, my friend, we are not moving with that."

Narrator: Rendón said he and Guaidó's government cut all ties with Goudreau, paying him only $50,000 for any expenses and to wash their hands clean.

Rendón: It was like, let's get out of this.

"Oh, my expenses."

"OK, there you go. How much you spent?"

"$43,500."

"OK. In case you've missed something, I will give you $50,000."

Narrator: But preparations at the camp in Colombia continued with the help of the two former Green Berets. Here's Luke Denman's older brother, Mark.

Denman: Luke's saying this is a US-government-backed operation, back in February the 2nd.

Narrator: We interviewed Mark via Skype on June 15.

Denman: What he told me, he was training Venezuelans in Colombia and had no intention of going to Venezuela at all.

Narrator: But obviously that's not what happened.

Goudreau: At 1700 hours, a daring amphibious raid was launched.

Narrator: The same day Goudreau posted this video announcing the mission had launched, the Venezuelan government released its footage of an operation that had seemingly been thwarted by Maduro's security team.

Officer:: In the group are two Americans, two gringos?

Man
: They are detained.

Officer: Where do they work? What do they do?

Man:
They are intermediaries. They are from the security chiefs of the president of the United States.

Venezuelan officer: From Trump!

Man: Yes.

Narrator: The global media covered the story like something out of a Hollywood movie. Headlines like "Bay of Piglets" and "Keystone Coup" portrayed the captured Americans as wannabe heroes who led a botched operation that one writer described as something out of "a bad Rambo movie." But according to Luke Denman's brother, Mark, what you can see in the footage raised red flags.

Denman: I mean, the guy was arrested in shorts and a T-shirt with his passport and driver's license on him. And I know that people like to have a lot of fun with that, but if you can kinda look at this realistically, all of these guys are guys that have gone on many combat missions with combat loads and combat gear. I don't think that he suddenly thought that going into combat in shorts, T-shirt, no shoes, with his passport on him and no weapon was a good idea. It doesn't really add up.

Guaidó: We will not need foreign mercenaries.

Narrator: In a statement, Guaidó denied any involvement and said the operation was "infiltrated and financed" by the Maduro administration. And a key event that occurred over a month before supports the idea that Operation Gideon was in fact infiltrated.

Guaidó: No one believes your lies.

William Tarek Saab: A criminal investigation has been opened by the Public Ministry against Guaidó, Alcalá, and others involved in this attempted coup.

Narrator: On March 23, more than a month before the capture, Venezuela's government announced that $500,000 worth of weapons were seized en route to a training camp in Riohacha, Colombia. During this press conference, the minister of communication and information also identified the three Americans involved in the camp. This means the Venezuelan government was not only aware of a plot to oust Maduro, but it also knew exactly who was involved. US prosecutors then indicted Clíver Alcalá on drug-trafficking charges, and he turned himself in to US authorities.

Cruz: Things started to collapse a little. When he's removed from the scene, you and I probably would have taken a step back and reevaluated what we had and planned for another, for plan B or plan C. In this case, it appears that Goudreau and others that were still associated with it decided that they were gonna move forward.

Narrator: One reason the operation continued to move forward may have been the $15 million reward offered by the US government for information leading to Maduro's arrest. And so, without Guaidó's support, without Alcalá, and with the Maduro administration well aware of the plan, Goudreau's team continued forward. Only to be captured.

Cruz: There are probably three possibilities, and I would say probably all three come into play. One is bad operational security, known as OPSEC. People probably writing emails and having phone conversations and calling back home. Second is deliberate infiltrations or penetrations, where you, ahead of time, move somebody to appear to be part of the group who in reality was sent there by the bad guys to keep a finger on the pulse. Lastly, there are those that might be victimized in this. You can certainly imagine where there would be one of these guys, and somebody on the other end in Venezuela sends him a picture of his grandmother with a 9-millimeter in her mouth. And these guys say, "Hey, you either tell us what you're up to, or else."

Narrator: It's unclear when and where these men were intercepted by Venezuelan security forces and at what stage of planning they were at.

Cruz: Clearly, the point is that what these guys were doing was known to elements of the regime.

Narrator: One thing that's certain: Goudreau was not with Berry and Denman when they were captured. And meanwhile, Venezuelan State TV released footage of the two Americans...

Interrogator: What were the objectives of the mission?

Narrator: Giving what the government called confessions.

Denman: The only instructions that I received from Jordan was to ensure that we took control of an airport for a safe passage for Maduro.

Mark Denman: What we're calling a confession video, I mean, we're acting like this is somebody that was read their Miranda rights. I don't think those confession videos are their own words. They're kind of being prompted, they're heavily edited. Being held in some unknown environment and reading off a script essentially on what it is they're confessing to.

Luke Denman: My responsibilities to Silvercorp are written in a contract.

Narrator: The so-called confession videos released by Maduro's government also feature a document with Guaidó's name on it.

Berry: Signed by Juan Guaidó, Jordan Goudreau, and Juan Rendón.

Narrator: But Rendón maintains that he only signed an exploratory agreement and questions the validity of Guaidó's signature on the document shown.

Interrogator: Who commands Jordan?

Denman: President Donald Trump.

Mark Denman: From what he understood, this was a US-government-backed operation. His very trusted friend brought him in on it. It was for a cause he believed in.

Narrator: Although Luke Denman may have believed the mission had the support of the US government, the State Department flatly denies it.

Pompeo: There was no US government direct involvement in this operation. If we'd have been involved, it would've gone differently.

Narrator: Trump also disavowed any US involvement in the plot.

Trump: We just heard about it. But whatever it is, we'll let you know. But it has nothing to do with our government.

Narrator: Amid all of this, Mark Denman says it has become almost impossible to hire legal support for his brother since the United States doesn't recognize Maduro's government as legitimate.

Denman: I'm supposed to work through the legal process. However, because of the situation in Venezuela, there is no legal process to work through. So that's the catch-22 of it. That process doesn't exist, and how are they lawfully detained by a government you don't recognize?

Interrogator: Why did you train irregular groups as special forces to invade Venezuela?

Denman: I believed that it was helping their cause.

Mark Denman: Luke is a strong guy. He's mentally strong; he's physically strong. He's been through training for exactly this kind of thing. And we're confident that he can handle what he's going through, and we're doing everything we can to get him back.

Narrator: This interview was recorded on June 15. On August 8, his brother Luke and Airan Berry were sentenced to 20 years in prison. In a statement to Business Insider, the US State Department said: In the meantime, Alcalá remains in US custody and is reportedly cooperating with authorities. A federal investigation is looking into Goudreau on suspicion of arms trafficking, and Goudreau is also wanted in Colombia. He did not respond to Business Insider's requests for comment. [men shouting] And on September 3, Colombian authorities announced the arrest of four Venezuelan nationals on allegations they conspired to plan the operation, with President Iván Duque noting the allegations that Maduro financed it. If that's true, these events in May on the Venezuelan coast could have been orchestrated by Maduro's regime, building a narrative that tightens his grip on Venezuela. And Denman and Berry may have just been pawns in all of it.

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