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From a Miami condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/7/2020 Anthony Faiola, Karen DeYoung, Ana Vanessa Herrero
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Inside a glittering Miami high-rise, representatives of the Venezuelan opposition sat in a room adorned with samurai swords and listened to a pitch. They had been appointed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to explore all options in their U.S.-backed quest to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On that afternoon on the shores of Biscayne Bay last September, a former U.S. Army Green Beret presented them with an answer.

Operation Resolution.

Jordan Goudreau, a 43-year-old Special Forces veteran who ran a strategic-security firm on the Florida Space Coast, laid out a plan that could double as a screenplay for an episode of “Jack Ryan.” Goudreau claimed to have 800 men ready to penetrate Venezuela and “extract” Maduro and his henchmen, according to J.J. Rendón, the Venezuelan political strategist tapped by Guaidó to help lead the secretive committee.

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Guaidó “was saying all options were on the table, and under the table,” Rendón told The Washington Post. “We were fulfilling that purpose.”

a group of people on a rock: Venezuelan authorities patrol the scene of what officials called a mercenary attack Sunday in Macuto, La Guaira. © Rayner Pena/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Venezuelan authorities patrol the scene of what officials called a mercenary attack Sunday in Macuto, La Guaira.

By October, the plan had advanced to the point of a signed agreement, contingent on funding and other conditions. Rendón calls it a trial balloon, a test of what Goudreau could do that was never officially greenlighted. But the language of the agreement left no ambiguity on the objective: “An operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro . . . remove the current Regime and install the recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.”

[Read the general services agreement between the Venezuelan opposition and Silvercorp]

a close up of text on a white background

But soon after the signing, Rendón said, Goudreau began acting erratically. He failed to produce evidence of the financial backing he claimed to have lined up to fund the operation, Rendón said, and demanded immediate payment of a $1.5 million retainer. There was no evidence of 800 men. Rendón transferred him $50,000 for “expenses” to buy more time, but the relationship between the two men quickly went south.

“Washington is fully aware of your direct participation in the project and I don’t want them to lose faith,” Goudreau warned in an Oct. 10 text message to Rendón.

There was an explosive argument in Rendón’s Miami condominium in early November, Rendón said. He and other opposition officials considered the operation dead.

[General services agreement attachments: ‘An operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro’]

Until Sunday morning.

First, Venezuelan officials said they had thwarted a predawn “invasion” aimed at killing Maduro. Then Goudreau appeared in a video with a former Venezuelan military officer in battle fatigues. The men proclaimed the start of an operation to “liberate” Venezuela, and Goudreau said participants had entered the country. But by then the mission — apparently infiltrated by Maduro’s agents — had already sustained a devastating blow, with eight men killed and two captured. On Monday, 11 others were detained, two of them Goudreau’s fellow former Green Berets.

Nicolas Maduro et al. sitting at a desk in front of a laptop: Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro meets with military commanders at the Miraflores presidential palace Monday in Caracas. © Miraflores Palace/Via Reuters Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro meets with military commanders at the Miraflores presidential palace Monday in Caracas.

This report, based on interviews with more than 20 people familiar with the events, provides previously undisclosed details on the opposition’s discussions of what participants secretly dubbed “Plan C”: an armed incursion to locate and capture Maduro.

President Trump and other U.S. officials have denied knowledge of the ill-fated operation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that “there was no United States government direct involvement.”

Goudreau says he unsuccessfully sought U.S. backing through an aide in the office of Vice President Pence. He declined to name the aide. A spokeswoman for Pence said Wednesday that there was “zero contact” between anyone in the vice president’s office and Goudreau.

“There was no coordination, nothing to do with this,” spokeswoman Katie Miller said.

Rendón said his committee kept details of its work to a small group and never shared them with U.S. officials, because the plan was only being “studied.”

Goudreau insists that some form of the operation is “ongoing” and that Venezuela’s mainstream opposition betrayed him by reneging on their deal. He said he opted to move forward with what he says he was hired to do. He said it had nothing to do with money; he was doing “the right thing.”

“This isn’t a wartime action; this is a policing action,” Goudreau said. “The world recognizes one guy [Guaidó] as president, so they hired me to arrest the other person who has usurped power, Nicolás Maduro.”

Goudreau, a Canadian-born American citizen, first walked through the looking glass of the anti-Maduro world in February 2019, when he worked security at a Venezuelan aid concert on the Colombian border organized by British billionaire Richard Branson.

He served 15 years in the Army as an infantry mortar man and later as a Special Forces medical sergeant. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan twice each between 2006 and 2014, Army officials said.

“He had an intensity to him that was a little bit different,” said Joe Kent, a retired Green Beret who attended a leader’s course with him in 2007. “He seemed like he was training for something.”

In 2012, the Defense Department launched a criminal investigation into Goudreau for alleged theft and fraud in connection with $62,000 in housing allowances he collected for his wife, court records show. Goudreau said the matter was resolved without any charges.

He founded Silvercorp USA in 2018. The firm advertises a variety of services, including assisting victims of kidnapping and extortion. According to a biography on the company’s website, Goudreau planned and led “international security teams for the President of the United States as well as the Secretary of Defense.”

By last summer, Venezuela’s faltering opposition was looking for options. Guaidó had tried to lead a military uprising against Maduro on April 30, 2019, but the carefully constructed plot utterly collapsed as conspirators close to the autocrat either backed out or had been double agents the whole time. That left Guaidó, the National Assembly president who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader, fighting to regain momentum for his opposition movement.

One little-known element of that fight was the creation last August of a new “Strategic Committee.” Its full membership remains secret, but its most public face is Juan José Rendón.

The 56-year-old political strategist was perfectly suited to the task. Chased out of Venezuela by the ruling socialists in 2013 and threatened with torture should he return, he was no friend of Maduro. From his base in the intrigue-heavy world of Venezuelan exiles in Miami, he became an internationally sought political consultant.

His committee’s mission was to investigate scenarios for achieving regime change. Members researched pedestrian options, such as ratcheting up international pressure against the government.

But they also studied the possibility of effectively kidnapping Maduro and his close associates.

The effort involved speaking to more than a dozen attorneys about the legalities of such a mission, Rendón said. They looked at the “universal enemy” argument — once used to prosecute pirates — that formed the basis of some Nazi renditions after World War II. They compiled a dossier on the failed Bay of Pigs attempt to liberate Cuba from the government of Fidel Castro.

a group of people posing for a photo: A video group from Venezuela’s VTV channel shows Maduro and former U.S. Army Green Berets Luke Denman, 34, and Airan Berry, 41, now in Venezuelan custody. © Vtv Channel Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock A video group from Venezuela’s VTV channel shows Maduro and former U.S. Army Green Berets Luke Denman, 34, and Airan Berry, 41, now in Venezuelan custody.

Questions of legality dogged the prospects of such an operation in Venezuela. But committee members ultimately decided that articles of the Venezuelan constitution, coupled with the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, might offer the legal cover they needed to potentially move forward.

By the time Goudreau arrived in Rendón’s living room on Sept. 7, Rendón said, the committee had already met with a handful of potential partners. But they wanted as much as $500 million for the job.

Goudreau, in contrast, pitched a self-financed plan with a retainer upfront and a more modest payout — $212.9 million — after the mission was accomplished. The money was to come from future exports of Venezuelan oil under a Guaidó government.

But they had an ace in the hole that might not cost Venezuelan taxpayers a dime.

The opposition had identified private warehouses in Venezuela filled with the allegedly ill-gotten gains of Maduro’s inner circle. Photographs shared via text message between Rendón and Goudreau and provided to The Post show massive bales of carefully wrapped U.S. dollars stacked on a wooden floor. Goudreau would have been entitled to 14 percent of the recovered funds.

The plan involved far more than the primary targets of seizing and extracting Maduro and his men. A general services agreement indicated that Silvercorp would advise ex-Venezuelan soldiers in exile for the operation. Goudreau had 45 days for force preparation, equipment procurement and mission readiness. Teams would enter Venezuela clandestinely and form cells that would move deeper into the nation to secure key oil facilities and strategic buildings. They would engage government security forces, as well as the motorcycle-

riding, pro-Maduro gangs known as colectivos and Colombian guerrilla groups operating on Venezuelan soil.

An agreement was signed in Washington on Oct. 16. Goudreau secretly recorded a brief video call that day with Guaidó, which he provided to The Post.

“We are doing the right thing for our country,” Guaidó is heard to say, and later: “I’m about to sign.”

Guaidó declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he denied any existing contract with Goudreau, and said his “interim government” has no connection to the apparently ongoing operation against Maduro.

a group of people wearing military uniforms: Venezuelan soldiers in balaclavas move a detainee from a helicopter Monday after the incursion. © Reuters Tv/Reuters Venezuelan soldiers in balaclavas move a detainee from a helicopter Monday after the incursion.

For a time, Rendón and others thought Goudreau might produce results. But they grew wary after he began demanding payment of the $1.5 million retainer. Rendón describes the payment as a mere gesture, not to be collected upfront, to help Goudreau raise $50 million in private funds.

Goudreau counters that the agreement — supplied in part to The Post by Goudreau, with a more complete version provided by Rendón — bound the opposition to his services and initial fee. A seven-page document provided by Goudreau carries Guaido’s signature, along with those of Rendón and fellow opposition official Sergio Vergara.

“Look, J.J. Rendón pushed for the $50 million for the operation, an operation to flip the country,” Goudreau said. “Nobody here is a Boy Scout. They thought they were going to seize power.”

Rendón, however, insists that the document Goudreau produced was never signed by Guaidó, and provided previous and subsequent agreements to The Post that did not bear Guaido’s name. Rendón said Guaidó knew only the rough outlines of an “exploratory plan” but grew suspicious of Goudreau based on the reports of the committee.

“We were all having red flags, and the president was not comfortable with this,” he said.

Some have feared that Maduro will use Goudreau’s operation to take an action he has so far resisted: arresting Guaidó. On Wednesday, he called for an investigation into Guaido’s alleged involvement.

Days before the incursion into Venezuela, Goudreau’s attorneys delivered a letter to Rendón demanding payment of $1.45 million. Opposition officials began to fear Goudreau might take last year’s discussions public.

a small boat in a body of water: Venezuelan authorities patrol the waters off Macuto, La Guaira. © Rayner Pena/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock Venezuelan authorities patrol the waters off Macuto, La Guaira.

When Rendón woke up Sunday to news of the operation, he said, he was stunned.

“I thought, are these guys crazy?” he said. “They were blackmailing us [for the money]. I thought, wow, are you really going to take it this deep?”

After providing security at the 2019 border concert, Goudreau came into contact with Clíver Alcalá. The former Venezuelan major general had been close to the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez but defected under his successor, Maduro. Alcalá was living in Colombia, organizing former Venezuelan soldiers in a plan to oust Maduro.

The meeting took place in a hotel in Bogotá. There, several people familiar with the events say, Goudreau learned the details of Alcalá’s plan. At one point, people familiar with the events say, the plan was to rush to seize the Venezuelan oil capital of Maracaibo, then push east toward Caracas.

Some senior opposition officials had dismissed the plan as a “fantasy.” When Goudreau got involved, the plan became an operation to extract Maduro, his wife and other government officials, including close Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello.

But that plan appeared to be compromised.

In March, U.S. authorities indicted Maduro and other current and former senior Venezuelan figures on narcoterrorism charges. Defendants included Alcalá, who was brought to the United States. Then Maduro’s government went public with charges it had been lobbing for months — that a plot against him was brewing on Colombian soil.

Maduro has claimed his agents knew every detail of Sunday’s incursion and were lying in wait.

“We knew everything,” he said. “What they ate, what they didn’t eat. What they drank. Who financed them.”

Goudreau briefly came into contact last year with former longtime Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, now a security consultant. The two men attended a meeting in Florida last spring with businessmen at which Goudreau met influential figures in the Venezuelan opposition, according to a person close to Schiller. That meeting was unrelated to the opposition’s strategic committee. Schiller, determining there were no real business prospects, subsequently cut off contact with both the opposition and Goudreau.

U.S. officials were aware, and concerned, about the hundreds of Venezuelan soldiers who had defected and were living precariously in Colombia. U.S. and Colombian officials shared concern that if they were destitute, they could be drawn into illicit activity. Discussions were held about how and whether to feed those men, or organize them to aid the Venezuelan refugee community.

But they viewed the idea that they could be organized into a fighting force as “completely insane,” one official said.

The Colombians “were against it and we were against it,” according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “No one should be doing this kind of military organizing.”

a man in a white shirt: A screen capture from the YouTube page of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows Denman. © Nicolás Maduro/Nicolás Maduro A screen capture from the YouTube page of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows Denman.

Maduro said Wednesday that four additional “terrorists” had been arrested. He showed a video of the questioning of a man identified as Luke Denman, one of two former Green Berets who had served with Goudreau and was now captured.

Denman, who appeared disheveled but calm and unharmed, spoke in response to questions from an unseen interrogator. He confirmed that the goal of the mission had been to capture Maduro, and that he had expected $50,000 to $100,000 for training in Colombia.

He said training and organization of the operation had taken place near the Colombian town of Riohacha, near the Venezuelan border. Only two Americans were in the training camp, he said, including himself.

Weapons and uniforms, he said, had been provided by “Jordan, through Silvercorp.”

They were picked up at airport and driven by a woman called “Alex.” He described a “man in a wheelchair” who showed up at one of two safe houses in Riohacha, who “appeared to have some influence.” He “arrived in a nice SUV, had on a nice shirt, he had gold jewelry on.”

“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Denman said.

karen.deyoung@washpost.com

Faiola reported from Miami, DeYoung from Washington and Herrero from Caracas. Dalton Bennett, Shawn Boburg and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.

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