How plot to overthrow Venezuela’s Maduro ran aground

Their leader was a gung-ho US special forces veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their training camps were on a windswept peninsula in northern Colombia. Their plan? Invade Venezuela by sea, overthrow the government and fly President Nicolás Maduro to the US to face justice.

In the past week, that plan fell apart spectacularly after Venezuelan security forces intercepted two boats within 48 hours. Eight “terrorist mercenaries” were killed and two former US soldiers and around 20 local co-conspirators are now in custody in Venezuela.

The plot was “half-cocked”, said Ephraim Mattos, a former US Navy Seal who told the Financial Times he first learned of the plan in September when he was instructing Venezuelan defectors in combat first-aid at a Colombian training camp. The plot’s former Green Beret leader was “inept”, he said.

The former US soldiers have been paraded on state television, professing their guilt. One of them said US president Donald Trump backed the plan. Jordan Goudreau, the decorated former US special forces operator who admitted to organising it, said he had a contract with opposition leader Juan Guaidó. The White House and Mr Guaidó deny any involvement, but a top aide to Mr Guaidó told the FT he signed a preliminary contract on behalf of the opposition and transferred $50,000 to Mr Goudreau for expenses.

The debacle is likely to complicate further the US objective of unseating Mr Maduro, tarnish Mr Guaidó personally and deepen divisions within the Venezuelan opposition, which is already at loggerheads over how to return their country to democracy.

Mr Maduro has lambasted the “armed incursion, planned by mercenary groups … on the orders of Donald Trump”. The Trump administration strenuously denies any role. “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently,” said Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state.

The plot has also served as a reminder of the intelligence-gathering capabilities of Mr Maduro’s backers, Cuba and Russia, analysts said. Ever since it began to unfold, the Venezuelans have been one step ahead of their adversaries, not only on home turf but across the border in Colombia.

Mr Mattos said the failure came down to arrogance, money and “100 per cent infiltration”. “Everything was so botched; infiltrated by double agents. No one would have believed there’s any way they’re actually going to pull the trigger on it.”

Security forces guard the shore and a boat they claim was used by a group of armed men © Matias Delacroix/AP

While the political ramifications of the plot are still unclear, more details have emerged about the planning, logistics and funding.

At a news conference this week, Mr Maduro waved US passports and ID cards around and broadcast what he said was an on-camera confession of guilt from Luke Denman, a former US special forces operator from Texas.

The 34-year-old, who appeared calm and lucid — though it was not clear where or under what circumstances the video was recorded — said the plotters planned to seize an airport in Caracas, “bringing in planes [including] one to put Maduro on and take him back to the US”.

Mr Denman confirmed he was working for Mr Goudreau, founder of Silvercorp, a private security group based in Florida. Asked, “who commands Jordan?” Mr Denman replied: “President Donald Trump”. The White House immediately denied this.

The plot was already taking shape in September when Mr Mattos said he trained a group of men in Colombia, using wooden sticks as pretend rifles. He described them as a rag-tag but committed group of Venezuelan defectors, mostly former police officers, who drank water from a river and lacked food.

“They never complained. They wanted to go back and get their country,” he said, sharing pictures with the FT of his time training the men. “They were highly motivated and I truly started to feel for these guys.”

The men talked to him about a US government-backed plot to overthrow the Maduro regime, he recalled. But no one seemed to have considered basic logistics like refuelling and Mr Mattos began to doubt the US government was involved. He later sent Instagram messages to Mr Goudreau hoping he could convince him to abandon the project — but said the pair never spoke.

That group fractured over accusations some were spies for the Maduro regime, but two “really good guys” were arrested during this week’s botched invasion. Mr Mattos showed the FT a picture of a man at the training camp which the FT matched to the same man after his arrest.

On January 16, according to Mr Denman’s confession, he and his fellow former US soldier Airan Berry travelled to La Guajira, a barren peninsula in Colombia that juts in to the Caribbean where the country meets Venezuela. The Americans started work, with “three small groups” — some 50-60 combatants.

Mr Denman said he was an old army friend of Mr Goudreau and expected to get $50,000 to $100,000 for his work. In a separate video confession, Mr Berry said the project “was only supposed to be for two weeks”.

Mr Goudreau has made public part of what he says is a contract for his services with Mr Guaidó, agreed last October, for $213m. Mr Guaidó’s press team described it as “a false document” that he never signed and said his team has no links with Mr Goudreau or Silvercorp. Mr Goudreau did not respond to the FT’s requests for comment. Nor did Silvercorp.

The top aide to Mr Guaidó, Juan José Rendón, told the FT there was a preliminary contract that he had signed but Mr Guaidó had not. He said a 42-page annex to the contract raised the idea of capturing members of the regime and bringing them to justice. But he said Mr Goudreau failed to fulfil even basic requirements of the agreement and within “six to seven days tops” the Guaidó team had abandoned the plan. “The contract was void. It was born dead,” Mr Rendón said. In an interview with Bloomberg, Mr Goudreau said he was never paid anything further and feels betrayed.

This week’s Caribbean drama has a precursor — a related incident in March, when a former Venezuelan general, Clíver Alcalá, said he had planned “a military operation against the Maduro dictatorship”. That plot fell apart when Colombian police found 26 US-made semi-automatic rifles, helmets, night-vision goggles and flak jackets in the back of a van being driven towards Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the latest would-be liberators of Venezuela are in custody. Mr Mattos blames Mr Goudreau for their plight and says he should give himself up to the Maduro regime in exchange for the two US former soldiers. “A bunch of dudes are going to die,” Mr Mattos said. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking watching this.”