‘Freedom Fighters’ Led by American Tried Invading Venezuela
Eight dead, 13 captured in assault Maduro likens to ‘playing Rambo’; Trump says plan received no U.S. support
BOGOTÁ, Colombia—Seasick and vomiting aboard fishing boats packed with guns, ammo and two-way radios, the ragtag band of fighters—including two American veterans of the Iraq war—made their way from Colombia to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.
But their plan to arrest Venezuela’s authoritarian government and free political prisoners collapsed before they hit shore. The two-boat invasion force, made up mostly of Venezuelan military defectors, ran into helicopter gunships, snipers and even irate fishermen.
The Venezuelan government said it has captured 13 “terrorists” and killed another eight.
“They were playing Rambo,” crowed President Nicolás Maduro during a TV address as he held up the passports of the two detained Americans. On Twitter, the botched raid was quickly dubbed “The Bay of Kids,” a modern-day version of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs landing in Cuba.
On Tuesday, questions were swirling around the true nature of the amphibious landing as soldiers mopped up what was left of the tiny invading force that, according to President Trump, had received no U.S. support.
Venezuelan soldiers move a suspect from a helicopter on Monday after what local authorities described as a ’mercenary incursion.’
PHOTO: VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT/REUTERS
Speaking to a Spanish-language online TV outlet in Miami over the weekend, Jordan Goudreau, a former Special Forces soldier who now runs a private security company, called Silvercorp USA in Melbourne, Fla., took responsibility for the raid that he said involved about 60 men whom he called “freedom fighters.”
Invoking Alexander the Great’s decisive blow in the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C., he said the attackers aimed to strike fast at the heart of the Maduro regime. He also claimed the backing of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has been recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Mr. Guaidó denied any connection to the bungled mission.
“The USA is not going to solve this problem. They are not going to invade. It’s not their job,” Mr. Goudreau said in the online TV interview, kneeling in an undisclosed location that appeared to be a patch of jungle. “But you have Venezuelans who want to fight and are fighting.”
Calls to Silvercorp USA’s office went straight to voice mail.
Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said the first boat left Colombia on May 1 for a coastal town near Venezuela’s capital. A second boat followed but changed course after eight members of the first group were killed in a 45-minute shootout, Mr. Rodriguez said. Its occupants tried fleeing to the nearby Dutch island of Bonaire but ended up dropping off men in different locations along the Venezuelan coast, where they were being rounded up, Mr. Rodríguez said.
Government opponents asserted that Venezuelan soldiers summarily executed some of the prisoners.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro displaying seized armament and passports on Monday.
PHOTO: MIRAFLORES PALACE/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
Among the 13 captured were two Americans, Luke Alexander Denman, 34 years old, and Airan Berry, 42. Sgt. Berry served as a Special Forces engineer from 1996 to 2013 and had been deployed three times to Iraq. Mr. Denman served as an Army communications sergeant for five years through 2011, including a tour in Iraq, before joining the reserves until 2014, according to the U.S. Army. The State Department declined to say whether it had been in contact with Messrs. Denman and Berry to provide consular support.
State TV broadcast images of the two handcuffed and haggard-looking Americans lying face down with other prisoners near a beach in Aragua state, just west of Caracas. Mocking what he perceived as their indifference to operational security, Mr. Maduro said that hours before they were captured, the two Americans had uploaded to their social-media accounts a photo of themselves sitting in one of the boats used in the landings.
Asked about her son’s ill-fated mission in a brief telephone interview, Mr. Denman’s mother, Kay Denman, said she had no more information than presented by the media.
The raiding party, which according to Mr. Goudreau had been training in Colombia’s desert-like and remote La Guajira department for the past year, appeared to have been infiltrated by the Venezuelan government, said Rocio San Miguel, director of Citizen Control, a nonprofit that tracks Venezuela’s armed forces.
Seized ID cards and equipment of people allegedly linked to an operation.
PHOTO: MIRAFLORES PALACE/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
Venezuela’s military works closely with Cuban counterintelligence teams, who have helped to uncover coup-plotters within the armed forces in recent years. Indeed, Diosdado Cabello, a powerful regime figure, named Mr. Goudreau during a March 28 TV appearance. He showed a picture of the private security contractor on his smartphone, and claimed he was plotting against the government.
Mr. Maduro said the attack had originally been planned for March 10 but was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We knew everything. What they talked about. What they ate and drank. Who financed them,” Mr. Maduro said in a TV appearance Monday night.
In a communiqué on Tuesday, Mr. Guaidó, the opposition leader, said: “Nicolás Maduro: You are responsible. The regime knew about that operation, you infiltrated it and waited to massacre them.”
But he didn’t address claims made by Mr. Goudreau in the online TV interview over the weekend, that Mr. Guaidó had signed a legal contract with Silvercorp USA to finance his group of invaders.
The U.S. government, which has issued crippling economic sanctions against Venezuela and has indicted Mr. Maduro for drug-trafficking, has long encouraged Venezuelan military officers to rise up against the leftist leader. However, U.S. officials denied any involvement in the raid.
“The United States government had nothing to do with what’s happened in Venezuela in the last few days,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Tuesday.
A U.S. official familiar with the matter described the invasion force as poorly organized and equipped “soldiers of fortune” who were out of their depth.
Relatives of the captured men were aghast at how quickly the raid collapsed.
Raul Emilio Baduel, whose brother Josnar Adolfo took part in the raid, said he tried to dissuade him from working with an untrustworthy group led partly by Cliver Alcala, a former Venezuelan general who had been living in Colombia and had told The Wall Street Journal he planned to form a force to fight in Venezuela.
“My brother is a brave person,” said Mr. Baduel whose father, a decorated former army general and opposition activist, has been held in prison for more than a decade. “They saw their cause as noble. But perhaps they were deceived and evidently betrayed.”
About 150 military, national guard, and police deserters had gathered in rudimentary training camps in Colombia to prepare for the raid, said Hernán Aleman, a Venezuelan opposition lawmaker who said he had worked on recruiting and fundraising for the mission since mid-May 2019.
According to Mr. Aleman, who since November has been living in exile in Colombia, the mission was first hatched by Mr. Alcala, who had broken with Mr. Maduro. But Mr. Alcala surrendered to U.S. law enforcement in March after being indicted on drug-trafficking charges and was extradited from Colombia.
Only a small group in the opposition knew about the planning of the raid and its timing. Many in the opposition oppose force to remove Mr. Maduro, preferring negotiations leading to elections.
“I’m of the group that’s convinced that the only way we get out of this government is by force,” Mr. Aleman said.
The Colombian government had no knowledge about the incursion and only learned about the training camps in March when Colombian authorities seized a shipment of weapons and night-vision goggles, which Mr. Alcala later claimed responsibility for, a senior Colombian security official said.
—Nancy Youssef in Washington, D.C., Lisa Schwartz in New York, Juan Forero in Bogotá and Ginette González in Caracas contributed to this article.