CALI, Colombia—A small mercenary force led by former U.S. military personnel attempted to invade and conquer Venezuela over the weekend.
Headlines about the op have embarrassed Donald Trump’s U.S. administration even more than earlier failed efforts to oust the putrid dictatorship of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and Trump is saying he had no hand in this thing, which might just be true.
But there’s no question the conspirators thought he’d be pleased, and pay cash, if they succeeded.
Just a few weeks ago, on March 26, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promised very big rewards for “information leading to the arrest and/or conviction” of the top people in a Venezuelan regime that the United States no longer recognizes: $15 million for Maduro himself, and $10 million each for four of his top officials, all charged by Washington with drug trafficking.
So, yeah, $55 million in rewards, that’s a bit of an incentive for would-be Rambos.
In the old days, the CIA tried to back coups with secret funding, and then denied what it was doing if it got caught. The Trump administration appears to have tried something like that last year, and failed. So now, flailing, it’s offering tens of millions of dollars—in public—but also hints and nudges to suggest there are big plots and plans afoot.
Thus Pompeo on Wednesday alluded to President Trump’s remark that there was no U.S. government direct involvement in this operation, then added, “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently.” Of course. “As for who bankrolled it, we’re not prepared to share any more information about what we know took place. We’ll unpack that at an appropriate time. We’ll share that information that makes good sense.”
Which is to say: We will continue to bullshit you until somebody gets the job done, we hope.
But these guys? These guys just weren’t up to it.
They were a seaborne assault group of about 60 men, with another 50 or so fifth-columnists already behind enemy lines, all hell bent on regime change. They were going up against the Venezuelan army’s 130,000 active duty soldiers and another 220,000 paramilitary loyalists.
It does sound almost like a late-period Stallone action vehicle, no? Some Hollywood fantasy of war-porn where the bad guys can’t shoot straight. But unfortunately for these poor coup-plotting, bounty-hunting bastards, it was all too real. And the bad guys’ aim was fatally good.
The attackers launched what they called “Operation Gideon” from neighboring Colombia after dividing their meager forces into two amphibious landing parties.
The first group was intercepted by Venezuela’s navy off that country’s Caribbean coast on Sunday. Those would-be liberators did manage to land a few fighters about 20 miles north of Caracas. But Maduro’s ground forces quickly subdued them and recaptured the beachhead.
The second prong was rolled up on Monday, allegedly after a community of irate local fishermen surrounded it.
When the dust settled, Maduro, a former bus driver who succeeded the late populist demagogue Hugo Chávez and has held on to power with the support of the Cuban intelligence services, went on state TV to brag that eight “professional American mercenaries” had been killed and 23 captured. These included two ex-Green Berets and a retired DEA agent. Maduro made a great show of holding up the captured men’s blue U.S. passports for the cameras. He also thanked the fishermen.
“The United States government is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid,” Maduro said, and went on to blame Colombia’s far-right President Iván Duque as well.
Like Washington, Bogotá has denied any involvement in the attempted coup, but leaders in both capitals have called repeatedly for Maduro’s ouster—and there was that reward thing.
Meanwhile, Operation Gideon’s top two masterminds courageously remained stateside throughout the botched invasion.
“I’ve tried to engage everybody I know at every level,” Jordan Goudreau, 43, an ex-Green Beret who had recruited and organized the expedition, told the Associated Press. “Nobody’s returning my calls. It’s a nightmare.”
Not, apparently, a nightmare to wake from anytime soon. The merc commanders in the U.S. informed the Miami Herald they were merely suspending activity temporarily, due to “leaks” and “infiltrators” in their force, which is largely made up of disgruntled Venezuelan exiles.
Javier Nieto, a former captain in Venezuela’s National Guard and Goudreau’s co-commander, offered a sitrep so understated that it might be comical, were his comrades in arms not dead or rotting in a Venezuelan prison: “The operations will be halted given that a number of errors were made,” Nieto said.
COUPS AND QS
Operation Gideon has been given ample coverage throughout the hemisphere and beyond. But most of it has tended to focus on who did what and when. Little has been written so far about the why and the how.
As in why would trained military personnel believe that an invasion force of a few dozen fighters could topple the nation’s armed forces and “capture Maduro,” as they stated their goal? How in God’s name could they be so misguided?
Of course, character is fate, as the old saying goes. So it might come as no surprise to learn that one of the captured ex-Green Berets, Airan Berry, appears to be a devotee of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits a “deep state” plot targeting President Trump.
Both Berry and the other captured American, Luke Denman, had worked as private contractors under Goudreau’s Florida-based company, Silvercorp USA. Originally founded to provide “protection” against school shooters by embedding “counter-terror agents in schools disguised as teachers,” Silvercorp eventually was tapped by President Trump’s handlers to provide security for his rallies.
Based on extensive photographic evidence compiled by Bellingcat, we know Goudreau himself was an earpiece-wearing security guy near the president during an October 2018 rally in Charlotte, N.C. And it’s likely Silvercorp was tapped to safeguard Trump’s assemblies in Houston and Pennsylvania that same year as well.
So what would impel red-blooded, MAGA-minded men like Goudreau, Denman, and Berry to risk their lives emancipating an entire nation full of “bad hombres” south of the border?
One suggestion experts have floated is that the amateur putsch was merely disguised, for the sake of good PR, to look like ragtag freedom fighters seeking liberty for an oppressed people—when in fact it was really motivated, as we’ve suggested, by good old-fashioned greed.
“Given his focus on capturing Maduro, it seems quite possible that Goudreau was motivated in part by the $15 million bounty on Maduro, as well as the bounties on other senior Venezuelan government officials,” Alex Main, director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), told The Daily Beast.
Goudreau also claims to have a contract for $212 million signed by Venezuelan opposition leader, Trump ally, and self-declared “interim President” Juan Guaidó. The contracted funds—cited by Maduro in his address to the nation—ostensibly are earmarked for taking him down and installing Guaidó in the presidential palace.
According to Steve Ellner, an editor at the journal Latin American Perspectives, “Guaidó was at first on board with the plan but then grew wary of it, realizing it was doomed to failure.”
Ellner noted that, “After having undertaken several abortive and embarrassing attempts to overthrow Maduro with the support of Washington in 2019, [Guaidó] is now more cautious, having learned from those frustrating experiences."
According to CEPR’s Main, Goudreau and Nieto may have seen a successful incursion as a way to force Guaidó to honor his signed agreement.
“It’s possible that Goudreau considered that he and his co-conspirators could still get monetary compensation [from Guiadó] for the operation if they succeeded in capturing Maduro and other senior officials,” Main said.
Other observers blame simple gringo hubris. Not that hubris and greed are mutually exclusive.
The first half of the 19th century was full of North American adventurers who thought the manifest destiny of the United States should include the riches of the Caribbean and Central America. Freebooters or “filibusteros,” often working with local “freedom fighters” but supported by North America’s slave-owning interests, repeatedly tried to overthrow regimes.
One of the most famous interlopers, William Walker—subsequently lionized in the South as the “gray-eyed man of destiny”—actually did manage to take over Nicaragua for a while, but even his short-lived success was rare. More typical was an abortive effort to seize Cuba in 1851, when 40 North American adventurers were captured and summarily shot.
Interventions, invasions, occupations, and covert operations continued almost to the end of the 20th century. Again and again, right up through the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the CIA-run Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, U.S. politicians, adventurers, and spooks harbored the fatal illusion that tiny groups could spark mass uprisings. All of which is familiar history in South America, and largely forgotten in the North.
“One of the greatest failures of U.S. policy is to view Latin America through imperial eyes, failing to see the reality on the ground,” says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Venezuelan studies at Pomona College in California. “In Venezuela, as elsewhere, they rely on a handful of individuals that parrot U.S. policy.”
Some of that parroting might have misled Gideon’s modern-day William Walkers, those Rambos without a cause. Although Trump paints Maduro as a hated figure, and many middle and upper class Venezuelans oppose him, he remains popular with the impoverished lower classes, for whom he provides generous subsidies for food and fuel. Most military commanders have stayed loyal as well, despite concerted efforts by U.S. Republicans, Venezuelan opposition figures, and whatever clandestine operatives Washington has at work to sway them.
Venezuela remains one of the most troubled and unstable countries in the world, plagued by rampant corruption, skyrocketing inflation, and violent crime. Crippling sanctions imposed by Washington have only added to the chaos. Collapsing oil prices have made things even worse for a country that previously found solace in the fact it has the world’s biggest proven petroleum reserves. And, due to the already weakened health care system, medical experts say the country could soon see a coronavirus explosion of extraordinary proportions.
Yet the Yanqui-led liberation push still had no takers.
“The more radical elements of the Venezuelan opposition have since 2014 promoted the narrative that Maduro is teetering and only needs a push to fall,” said Tinker Salas. “As tragic as it may be, this is not the first time the U.S. is guilty of believing its own fabricated rhetoric.”
“IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE”
Operation Gideon comes on the heels of another, even bigger invasion force that retired Green Beret Goudreau tried to organize, but that fell apart.
Earlier this month, the AP reported that Goudreau—who allegedly first met opposition leader Guaidó through one of Trump’s bodyguards—had been running a series of paramilitary training camps in Colombia. The camps housed some 300 former Venezuelan soldiers who had deserted and fled across the border in protest against Maduro’s rule.
Those trainees had also been intended to take part in a coup attempt, until Goudreau’s partner, exiled Venezuelan General Cliver Alcalá, was arrested on drug charges and extradited to the U.S. in March of this year. Shortly thereafter, Colombian officials nabbed a shipment of weapons and military gear worth about $150,000, after which the camps disbanded.
Yet for some reason, less than a week after news of the defunct training camps broke, Goudreau chose to launch Operation Gideon.
On Monday, Trump declared the failed attack “has nothing to do with our government.” And Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “The United States government had nothing to do with what happened in Venezuela.”
So far, no direct evidence has surfaced that links either Bogotá or Washington to the training camps or Operation Gideon. But that doesn’t mean they’re not complicit in this fiasco.
“It is impossible to imagine that the U.S. government did not have prior knowledge of the operation. U.S. intelligence closely follows developments along the Colombian-Venezuelan border where these individuals purportedly trained,” Tinker Salas said.
For Salas, the use of irregular forces allows the U.S. to maintain “plausible deniability while hoping to reap any benefits that might have been derived from the operation.”
Alex Main at CEPR agreed. “It is highly unlikely that the Colombian government, which maintains very close military ties to the U.S. government, wouldn’t have been informed of [these] activities,” he said. He also pointed out that the Trump administration has a long track record of openly threatening regime change and military intervention against Maduro.
“The U.S. government was probably directly aware of the ongoing plans to mount another armed attack from Colombia.” If either Trump or President Duque were concerned about that, Main said, “they could have intervened a long time ago.”
Ellner added that tactically savvy Green Berets would have been unlikely to undertake such a risky mission if they hadn’t believed at least tacit international support was behind them.
“Obviously Goudreau was confident that once the military incursion showed signs of viability, the rebels could count on the solid backing of Washington and Bogotá,” he said.
Whether it be for financial gain or political leverage, the obsession with violently displacing Maduro—no matter how controversial he might be—has led to “many missed opportunities to support national dialogue between divergent political forces,” Tinker Salas said.
“In the end, only a process of negotiation between Venezuelans themselves can set the stage to resolve the nation’s problems.”
But such sentiments are not likely to carry much weight with the Trumpistas.
Christopher Dickey and Will Sommer also contributed reporting to this story.