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U.S. denies involvement in alleged Venezuela invasion attempt as details remain murky

UPDATED: Tue., May 5, 2020

Security forces guard the shore area and a boat in which authorities claim a group of armed men landed in the port city of La Guaira, Venezuela, Sunday, May 3, 2020. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said on state television that security forces overcame before dawn Sunday an armed maritime incursion with speedboats from neighboring Colombia in which several attackers were killed and others detained. (Matias Delacroix / AP)
Security forces guard the shore area and a boat in which authorities claim a group of armed men landed in the port city of La Guaira, Venezuela, Sunday, May 3, 2020. Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said on state television that security forces overcame before dawn Sunday an armed maritime incursion with speedboats from neighboring Colombia in which several attackers were killed and others detained. (Matias Delacroix / AP)
By Karen Deyoung, Anthony Faiola and Alex Horton Washington Post

An apparent attempt to invade Venezuela involving several Americans remained shrouded in confusion Tuesday as the two countries traded accusations but offered little new information about the mysterious mission.

Venezuela’s foreign minister said two Americans, both former U.S. Special Operations soldiers, were “confessing without any reservations” after being arrested by security forces during the aborted invasion. He did not describe what the men had told authorities about the operation, which President Nicolas Maduro described as an assassination plot.

President Donald Trump denied any U.S. involvement in the incident, saying “it has nothing to do with our government.”

The State Department said that it could not comment on the reported arrests, citing privacy considerations, but added that “there is a major disinformation campaign underway by the Maduro regime, making it difficult to separate facts from propaganda.”

The two men were captured, along with six others, on Monday when the small boat they were traveling in attempted to land along Venezuela’s coastline, only to be met by Venezuelan military and police forces. On Sunday, eight others, apparently Venezuelans, were killed and two were captured in a separate landing attempt, according to Venezuelan reports.

The incident added to more than a year of growing tensions as the Trump administration, accusing Maduro of human rights abuses, corruption and narcotics trafficking, has tried to force him from office with economic sanctions and criminal indictments.

A U.S. Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Emmanuel Ortiz, said that service records confirm that the two captured Americans, Airan Berry and Luke Denman, are Special Forces veterans, as is Jordan Goudreau, the head of a Florida security services company who first announced the operation in a video Sunday morning.

Goudreau, in an interview with The Washington Post, said Berry and Denman were “supervisors” of a force he said numbered about 60 Venezuelans. Most, if not all of them, were believed to be military and police defectors living in camps in Colombia, near the Venezuelan border.

Juan Guaids, the Venezuelan legislator and opposition leader recognized as “interim president” by the United States and more than 50 other countries, lashed out Tuesday at Maduro for staging what he called a “massacre.”

“They knew about this and were waiting to massacre them,” Guaids said in a virtual session of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. “Nicolas Maduro, you are responsible. The regime knew about that operation, you infiltrated it and waited to massacre them.”

The CIA declined to comment.

The State Department statement, which described the unfolding situation as a “melodrama,” said officials would be “looking closely into the role of the Maduro regime … and especially of the very large Cuban intelligence apparatus in Venezuela.”

“The record of falsehoods and manipulation by Maduro and his accomplices, as well as their highly questionable representation of the details, argues that nothing should be taken at face value when we see the distorting of facts,” the statement said.

“What is clear is that the former regime is using the event to justify an increased level of repression,” the statement said. Noting “the timing of these events,” the statement said that 46 prisoners were killed, and 74 injured, in a “massacre” by government forces at Los Llanos prison in Venezuela over the weekend.

Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, told The Post that the U.S. government had yet to make contact with the Venezuelan government after Maduro’s Monday-evening announcement of the arrest of the two Americans.

“They have already had many hours to develop their ‘it wasn’t me’ strategy,” Arreaza said in a text-message exchange. He said the two were being questioned by Venezuelan authorities and were “confessing without any reservations.”

Jorge Rodrmguez, Maduro’s communications chief, alleged at a news conference in Caracas that Goudreau and Trump are connected.

“How is it that the Secret Service of the United States hired Silvercorp to handle Trump’s security and that Silvercorp publishes that on its website?” he asked.

The alleged connection appeared to refer to a relationship between Goudreau – who operates a Florida company, Silvercorp, that says it offers paid strategic security services – and former Trump security chief Keith Schiller.

According to a person close to Schiller, the two met early last year after a meeting in Washington organized by Global Governance, a group of business executives exploring potential opportunities in a post-Maduro Venezuela. At the meeting, Schiller was asked whether he knew someone who could provide security services in Venezuela.

He responded he did not but later received a telephone inquiry from a contact of Goudreau’s, inquiring about security work. Schiller, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the private contacts, said that he knew of possible work in Venezuela.

Schiller and Goudreau eventually made contact and went together to a meeting of Venezuelan opposition figures in Miami. After hearing what they were interested in and becoming increasingly leery about Goudreau, the person said, Schiller had no further involvement.

In his Sunday video, Goudreau and former Venezuelan National Guard officer Javier Nieto Quintero said that what they called “Operation Gideon” was designed to capture senior members of Maduro’s government. They called on Venezuelan military forces inside the country to rise up and join the invaders.

Goudreau later told The Post he had known Berry and Denman for years. Goudreau and Denman deployed together in Iraq in 2010, said a former Special Forces soldier who served with all three of them. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Berry was a capable leader but dealt with personal family issues, two men who served with him said. Denman is an “artistic hipster” type, a former soldier said, with a lighter, carefree personality that was respected and rare in the community.

The three men deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times combined, said Ortiz, the Army spokesman.

Goudreau, he said, left the service in February 2016 as a sergeant first class after serving first as an indirect fire infantryman and then a medical sergeant. Berry was a Special Forces engineer sergeant who served in the Army from 1996 until October 2013. Denman served on active duty as a Special Forces communications sergeant from October 2006 to December 2011 and in the Army Reserve through September 2014.

David Maxwell, a retired Army officer with 22 years of experience in Special Forces, said the Venezuela operation appeared to be poorly planned and executed.

Operators would typically favor sterile uniforms and forgo anything connected to their identity, Maxwell said. But Maduro waved Berry and Denman’s expired military IDs, Veterans Affairs cards and passports in a televised address Monday following their capture.

“I don’t know what their thinking was. It’s embarrassing for the regiment and the U.S.,” said Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington. “Did they think it was going to be a ‘get out of jail free’ card?”

A core competency of Special Operations is working with indigenous forces to incite rebellion or overthrow a regime, Maxwell said, tasks that require a measured approach and long-standing ties.

“It doesn’t seem like this contractor did any of that,” he said of Goudreau.

A family member of Berry in Texas declined to comment Tuesday. Efforts to speak to Denman’s and Berry’s immediate families were unsuccessful.

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