President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the United States had nothing to do with an alleged incursion into Venezuela that landed two U.S. citizens led by a Florida-based security firm behind bars in the crisis-stricken South American nation.
Trump said he had just learned of the detention of the pair, accused by Venezuela of being mercenaries sent by the United States and Colombia to kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
“Whatever it is, we’ll let you know,” Trump told reporters in Washington before departing from the White House to Arizona. “But it has nothing to do with our government.”
But Maduro pinned the beach raid on the Trump Administration, showing a pair of U.S. passports and reading the names and birth dates of the two detained Americans.
“The United States government is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid,” Maduro said, praising members of a fishing village for cornering one group in the sweep netting the “professional American mercenaries.”
He showed images of the fishing boats the alleged attackers rode in on and equipment like walkie-talkies and night-vision glasses collected in what Maduro called an “intense” couple of days.
Before dawn on Sunday, officials say the first attack started on a beach near Venezuela’s port city of La Guaira, when security forces made the first two arrests and killed eight others attempting to make a landing by speedboats.
Authorities in Venezuela identified the two men as Luke Denman and Airan Berry, both former U.S. special forces soldiers associated with the private firm Silvercorp USA, headquartered in Melbourne.
A third U.S. ex-Green Beret and Silvercorp founder, Jordan Goudreau, claimed responsibility for leading “Operation Gideon,” which was launched with an attempted beach landing before dawn on Sunday that left eight suspected attackers dead.
Goudreau said the operation, was designed to capture — and not kill Maduro. He said he carried it out on a “shoestring budget” after signing an agreement with U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Goudreau says Guaidó never fulfilled the agreement, but the former Green Beret pushed ahead with an underfunded operation with just 60 fighters, including the two U.S. veterans.Guaidó denies having any relationship with Goudreau.
Venezuela is gripped by a deepening social and economic crisis under Maduro’s rule that has led nearly 5 million residents to flee crumbling social services, such as unreliable water, electricity and broken hospitals.
The U.S. is among nearly 60 nations that back Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, saying Maduro clings to power despite a sham election in 2018 that banned the most popular opposition candidates from running.
But Maduro still controls all levers of power despite a U.S.-led campaign to oust him. It recently indicted Maduro as a drug trafficker and offered a $15 million reward for his arrest.
Venezuela and the U.S. broke diplomatic ties a year ago, so there is no U.S. embassy operating in Venezuela’s capital of Caracas.
“It shocks me how insane they were,” said Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “They walked right into a coiled rattlesnake without even having minimally studied the capacity of the Venezuelan armed forces. There’s no way the U.S. government would’ve supported an operation like this.”
Goudreau’s account of the confusing raid has at times seemed contradictory — for example, he says he was plotting a rebellion for months while claiming not to have received a single penny. Meanwhile, a self-aggrandizing Maduro has thrived broadcasting videos on state TV of what he says was a flawless defense of the nation’s sovereignty.
Kay Denman, the mother of one of the Americans, said the last time she heard from her son was a few weeks when he texted her from an undisclosed location to ask how she was coping with the coronavirus pandemic. She said she never heard her son discuss Venezuela and only learned of his possible capture there after his friends called when they saw the reports on social media.
“The first time I heard Jordan Goudreau’s name was today,” she said when reached at her home in Austin, Texas.
He said he last communicated with Denman and Berry when they were adrift in a boat “hugging” the Caribbean coast of Venezuela. They were still in their boat following an initial confrontation with the Venezuelan Navy early Sunday, he said.
“They were running dangerously low on fuel,” Goudreau said. “If they had gone onto landfall, they would have gone to a safe house.”
Goudreau said the two were waiting for a boat on the Caribbean island of Aruba with emergency fuel to help extract them.
Venezuelan state TV showed showed images on state TV of several unidentified men handcuffed and lying prone in a street. One video clip showed authorities handling a shirtless man in handcuffs.
He was identified as a National Guardsman Capt. Antonio Sequea, who participated in a barracks revolt against Maduro a year ago. Goudreau said Sequea was a commander working with him in recent days on the ground in Venezuela.
Maduro ally and Attorney General Tarek William Saab said that in total they’ve arrested 114 people suspected in the attempted attack and they are on the hunt of 92 others.
Goudreau, a three-time Bronze Star U.S. combat veteran, claims to have helped organize the deadly seaborne raid from Colombia. Goudreau said the operation had received no aid from Guaidó or the U.S. or Colombian governments.
Opposition politicians and U.S. authorities issued statements suggesting Maduro’s allies had fabricated the assault to draw attention away from the country’s problems.
Goudreau said by telephone earlier Monday that 52 other fighters had infiltrated Venezuelan territory and were in the first stage of a mission to recruit members of the security forces to join their cause.
An AP investigation published Friday found that Goudreau had been working with a retired Venezuelan army general — who now faces U.S. narcotics charges — to train dozens of deserters from Venezuela’s security forces at secret camps inside neighboring Colombia. The goal was to mount a cross-border raid that would end in Maduro’s arrest.
Reprinted with permission from The Associated Press.