‘We Just Really Want Them Back’: Families of Americans Captured in Failed Venezuela Coup Say They Were Duped

A year after two ex-Green Berets were caught up in a farcical, doomed invasion, their loved ones are still searching for answers.
May 6, 2021, 2:47pm
Denman, Berry
Images of Luke Denman and Airan Berry after capture from Venezuelan state television, teleSUR.
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In early February 2020, Luke Denman told his brother Mark, a lawyer based in Austin, Texas, to download Signal, the favorite encrypted text-messaging app of paranoid journalists, spies, and drug dealers around the world.

Luke, a decorated former Green Beret, had a secret to tell his brother, as he had in the past when he was kicking down doors in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Training Venezuelans,” Luke wrote in a text once his brother had gotten on Signal.

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Mark rolled his eyes and exhaled deeply. 

“Wtf, who got you doing what, for who?” replied Mark, offering up the government or a mercenary group akin to the infamous Blackwater, once headed by real-life Bond villain Erik Prince, as possible employers.

“A little bit of everything,” wrote Luke. “Private company.” He insisted that whatever he was doing, it had the complete approval of the U.S. government. 

“Mission is approved by our government and the government of Venezuela," he wrote. "We have great resources and a strong force.”

Mark was stunned. In the near decade since he'd finished up his military service, Luke had often talked about the mercenary gigs floating his way—they seemed to always involve a foreign country and former colleagues looking to get paid big sums for fast security work—but he’d always turned them down, telling his brother he didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of being a soldier of fortune who stood for nothing but money. This operation, though, was different. Luke believed in the mission of training Venezuelan expats in Colombia for their eventual overthrow of the corrupt dictatorship of President Nicolás Maduro and his government in Caracas. 

Over the following months, Mark kept his brother's mission a secret from their parents, but in late April, Luke told him to keep an eye on the latest developments in Venezuela. Days later, Mark would see him on the news. This wasn't some glorious footage of a victorious coup d'etat, though; Mark recognized Luke by a tattoo on his arm, with zip-ties securely fastening his wrists behind his back, as he lay facedown on the pavement on Venezuelan state television. Luke was now a prisoner, along with Airan Berry, the other American veteran captured by Venezuelan authorities said to be instrumental in what was dubbed "Operation Gideon"—a very bad, very amateurish impression of the Bay of Pigs. Of the 60-man invasion force believed to have carried out the operation, six Venezuelans lost their lives, with as many as a dozen more captured along with the two Americans. 

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A screenshot from Venezuelan state television.

Now, just over a year since the fateful mission went up in smoke, the families of both captured Americans tell VICE World News that they believe the men never intended to participate in an armed coup inside the oil-rich socialist state. Nor, they say, do they believe their family members had their sights on kidnapping Maduro, something Luke admitted to in what is believed to have been a forced confession provided by the Venezuelan government. Questions linger, meanwhile, about how much the U.S. government actually knew about the half-assed plot, while a legal bid by the mastermind of the whole operation sheds chaotic light on one of 2020’s messier geopolitical events.

“It's all so murky and there’s just so many players in this,” said Melanie Berry, Airan Berry's wife, who is still wondering when she’ll see her husband next. “I doubt we'll ever get a sufficient answer to what was going on or … who did what.”

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The much-publicized and failed coup was the brainchild of a muscular and flashy ex-Special Forces soldier named Jordan Goudreau, a Canadian by birth who once fought alongside Luke and Airan. Goudreau directed the mission from Florida, over a thousand miles away from where the pair were arrested on the coast of Venezuela, attempting a remote takedown of a repressive regime in the face of an active and ruthless intelligence apparatus that had already thoroughly infiltrated Operation Gideon.

According to a flurry of early reporting and publicly disclosed documents, Goudreau and his security company Silvercorp USA signed an agreement with the team of Juan Guaido, recognized in early 2019 by the Trump administration and other governments as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, to overthrow the Maduro regime. Guaido had been looking for a coup partner for the better part of a year (with reports surfacing that Prince was interested in the job), but somehow ended up striking a contingent multimillion-dollar agreement with Silvercorp in the summer of 2019 for the eventual failed incursion. 

Neither Goudreau nor his security company had ever been linked with anything as audacious as overthrowing a government. One look at Silvercorp's website and social media accounts made clear that the company, which had a few gigs providing security at Trump rallies and a hare-brained scheme to deploy ex-commandos in Florida schools to gun down mass shooters, was far closer to an elaborate CrossFit and gun-porn advertisement for Goudreau than a cold-blooded mercenary outfit with the skulls of dead dictators to its name. Somehow, though, people in Trump’s world seemed to know about the planned coup, according to legitimate reporting, including people in then-Vice-President Mike Pence's orbit.

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A series of negotiations and a storm of contracts flowed between Goudreau and representatives and investors (including Roen Kraft, a member of the dynastic foodmaking family) backing Guaido for much of the latter half of 2019, according to court documents filed by Goudreau and his lawyer. Goudreau said he had secured land in the Castilletes, an area in the La Guajira region of Colombia near Venezuela, thanks to the support of a sympathetic Colombian politician who let him use it as a base of operations. In the months leading up to the launch of Operation Gideon in May 2020, Venezuelan expatriates keen to overthrow Maduro amassed there, where Luke and Airan trained them. 

There was talk that the CIA had even known about and monitored the base in La Guajira and clandestinely warned Silvercorp in Jamaica—or, possibly, Florida—against any actions against Maduro, and that Venezuelan intelligence had infiltrated the entire operation. (The CIA repeatedly declined to comment on anything Silvercorp or Goudreau-related.) But Goudreau pressed forward, unconcerned, and, in an act the opposite of military genius, announced his invasion to the entire world—on Twitter—while his men were apparently in the process of carrying out the mission into Venezuela.

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An image from a video Jordan Goudreau released on Twitter as Operation Gideon was already underway.

“Strikeforce incursion into Venezuela. 60 Venezuelan, 2 American ex Green Beret @realDonaldTrump,” tweeted Goudreau at the then-commander-in-chief in the midst of a mission he likened to one Alexander the Great's epic battles against King Darius III of Persia.

Operation Gideon was an abject failure entangling an absurd cast of characters fit more for a John Cena movie than a John le Carré thriller, with Goudreau at the center of it all, attracting spies of all stripes, some of whom presumably saw his amateurishness as less a liability than an opportunity. Caught in the crosshairs were Luke and Airan—two men who, according to their families, were duped into participating in the botched coup that was set up by a brother-in-arms they trusted with their lives.

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“I feel like they were just used as pawns,” said Melanie Berry. Her husband, she said, like Luke, had never entertained a private military contractor job following his service in the military. “It almost seems like they were kind of set up in a way.”

Airan’s post-military life had a dramatically slower pace than the endless missions he participated in for years as a soldier. Living with his family in Schweinfurt, Germany, in the country he was previously stationed, Airan took on odd jobs and relished the opportunity to watch his teenage daughter grow up, something his career at war made him miss with his oldest son. At one point, his wife said, he worked security at a center helping an influx of Syrian refugees navigate German society, and learned a little bit of Arabic to help the people who went there after years of war.

“When Airan was still in the military, my son was, of course, younger. And then while he was growing up, his dad was gone a lot,” said Melanie. “So with our daughter, Airan was also happy to be out of the military so he could focus more on the family life and spend time with the kids and see his daughter grow up and do a lot of the things that... milestones that he had missed with his son.”

Long before Operation Gideon, during her husband's years as a soldier, Melanie had met Goudreau, and knew them to be close friends. The two men had formed a bond that she said was forged in the traumatic shared experience of war, things “normal people” couldn’t imagine being subjected to. When Airan told her he was working for Goudreau, he was light on details, as he had been when deploying as a soldier. She said he left for the U.S. in January 2020 and that about a month later, he texted her to tell her he was in Colombia for his work. He was vague about details but made clear it was for an unknown “good cause” that “really matters.”

When news broke of the coup attempt, Melanie got a call from a friend of Airan, breaking the news to her and telling her to check the internet. Then she saw the same array of images and videos Mark had seen of his brother from Venezuelan national television, in which her husband was front and center. There was no mistaking which one Airan was: His face was fully visible with black hair and a full beard, staring upwards, looking very alert. 

“Is this for real?” was her first thought. “And it's just, it's like disbelief at first, and shock. And it's like somebody pulled the rug out from under your feet.”

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Shortly after seeing her husband splashed across international news and being described as a failed mercenary entwined in a geopolitical feud between the U.S. and Venezuela, she says she received her one and only phone call from Goudreau, that was “not even for a minute briefly.” He promised her he would do everything in his power to get her husband and Luke back. She never heard from him again. 

“I mean, if you just look at the story, it seems like Jordan really let them down—let both of them, Airan and Luke down.” she said. “And why would you do that, you know? That's something I can't understand.

“They both respected him enough and that they trusted him and they wanted to do this with him and to help the people over there.”

Goudreau’s lawyer said his client wasn’t willing to talk on the record with VICE World News.

“Yeah, he's not interested in giving an interview,” said his Miami-based attorney Gustavo J. Garcia-Montes, before hanging up. 

Since Operation Gideon, Goudreau has largely disappeared, and his current whereabouts are unknown. In an interview with Rolling Stone from December 2020, he claimed an FBI raid of his home in Florida following the coup was designed to kill him, but that he conveniently “took my shirt off. And they had no reason to death-by-cop me. But they knew my background. They knew I had a gun.” In November 2020, Goudreau filed a lengthy lawsuit against J.J. Rendón, a right-wing Venezuelan political strategist known for working behind the scenes in Latin American elections, alleging Rendón was Guaido’s point man dealing with the Silvercorp mission and owes the former Green Beret millions. (Multiple requests for comment to Rendón and his lawyer were not returned.)

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Those documents offer the only official portal into how Goudreau views the entire debacle, once called the “Bay of Piglets” by the New Yorker. In the 133-page filing, Goudreau claims the planned incursion was done with the support and complicity of the U.S. government. He alleges that it all began when President Trump’s longtime personal bodyguard, Keith Schiller—something of a right hand to and fixer for the property tycoon—and his consultancy company contacted Silvercorp for the coup. A host of American money men and Venezuelan expatriates, including Rendón, allegedly joined the effort, with Silvercorp as the tip of the spear for the entire operation. 

Do you have information about Operation Gideon or Justin Goudreau? We would love to hear from you. You can reach Ben Makuch by contacting 267-713-9832 on Signal or @ben.makuch on the Wire app.

Goudreau even claims he personally met with members of Mike Pence’s inner circle, and that they approved the mission and promised to help him obtain American weapons permits that were critical to adequately and legally arm the soldiers undertaking the operation. (Pence’s office has categorically denied this.) The filing also adds a brief tidbit of mercenary intrigue: Goudreau says the multinational group of players planning the coup endorsed his blueprint for the mission over that of one prepared by Erik Prince, which was significantly more expensive and called for “5,000 men and approximately $500 million.” (This was referred to as the "Prince Proposal" among the plotters, according to the filing.) The Silvercorp plan was a better bargain: It offered the company a $1.5 million retainer payment, and approximately $212 million in barrels of Venezuelan oil if the coup worked. But Goudreau claimed that he only ever saw $50,000 of the deal, which he got from Rendón in a one-off October 2019 payment that suggested Guaido was at least kind of serious about hiring Silvercorp to topple Maduro.

Throughout the filing, Goudreau, who is often taken to be an unreliable narrator who makes assertions without hard evidence, documents his allegations against Rendón and co., including several exhibits. When it comes to the launch of Operation Gideon in the spring of 2020, though, the story is noticeably sparse on details. 

“After consultation with Silvercorp operatives in-country, the decision was made to proceed with Operation Gideon,” the filing reads, suggesting the "operatives" referred to are either his former Green Beret teammates or his cadre of Venezuelan expatriates. (He would go on to tweet about both Airan's and Luke’s presence during the raid.) The filing then describes the unsuccessful mission in obtuse terms, providing little in the way of particulars: “Due to a failure to properly time the launch of Operation Gideon, and a lack of communication equipment, said operation failed.” 

Luke’s brother Mark, who established the non-profit organization the American Rescue Coalition to help take charge of bringing both captive Americans home, recently travelled to Washington and lobbied agencies and politicians on their behalf. Part of his work has involved using investigators to get to the bottom of what exactly happened. He now believes in what he was careful to describe as a “working theory” holding that his brother and Airan had no interest in the actual invasion and were in fact preparing to leave for the U.S. when the mission went down, and that Goudreau went ahead with it anyway even though his two war buddies were backing out. 

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“We have a very strong belief that Luke and Airan are there in Colombia training Venezuelan opposition forces,” he told VICE World News. “At some point, things are going wrong. They're not going well, but they are moving forward with whatever the operation is as well. But Luke and Airan's job at some point is now done, and they are simply getting out.”

As things were disintegrating on the ground in Colombia, as Mark sees it, they began planning their exit. They gathered their passports and personal effects and arranged for what Mark called a “Silvercorp boat,” which would take them to an island north of Colombia, where they could board a plane home. 

“But somebody's on that boat,” said Mark, referring to what he believed was a spy or spies who subverted the mission unbeknownst to his brother and Airan. “Venezuela even bragged about it, that they have this thing infiltrated from the bottom up. So somebody on the boat is not all they appear to be and takes them to Venezuela, intercepts them, and has them get picked up along the way by this helicopter, which escorts them to shore, which is why there conveniently was a helicopter with a camera recording at the moment.”

The well-choreographed media attention, and the extensive video coverage coming out of Venezuela surrounding the raid, certainly suggest the Maduro regime had advance knowledge of the plot and was able to coordinate its propaganda machine to milk it for all its worth. In one much-aired segment, a buzzing helicopter can be seen above Airan and Luke’s boat, with other mercenaries aboard, as it’s escorted ashore to a coastal town by the Venezuelan military after being confronted at sea. Besides Goudreau live-tweeting the raid, it’s well known that Maduro spies had penetrated and compromised Operation Gideon from start to finish. Mark finds it notable that his brother, a veteran of countless combat missions who was a “door kicker” in the Special Forces—the type of operator who engaged insurgents in places like Iraq in close proximity—looked so ill-prepared when he was caught. 

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“I fully intend to give my brother a hard time some years from now about how he trusted the wrong people or whatever went on. But the guy knows how to go on a raid and it involves a firearm. It involves gear,” said Mark. (One strange detail from the raid was caught by people analyzing the photos of captured gear presented by Venezuelan authorities: For some reason the coupists had an Airsoft rifle in their arsenal, which isn’t an effective combat weapon, but is used for military training.) “It's not shorts and [casual footwear] carrying nothing but your passport, employee ID badge, and driver's license—like, the stuff you need to get out of a country.”

“We think it was their intention to get out of Dodge and get home and that instead they were steered,” he said.

As the Biden administration faces multiple international crises, partly the byproducts of a Trump era littered with scrapped treaties and a very bold assassination that nearly kicked off a war with Iran, it has said little publicly about Venezuela. The State Department was cagey when asked by VICE News about the plight of Airan and Luke, but ultimately issued the first statement on the incident the new administration has given.

“We are aware of reports of the arrest and subsequent incarceration of two U.S. citizens in Venezuela,” said a spokesperson. “We are in contact with the families of those detained and are closely monitoring their situations. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”

As for Guaido, per Reuters, aides to Biden continue to assert the administration recognizes him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. At least politically, bringing home two men usually described as failed mercenaries who took part in a farce of a coup attempt against a foreign power doesn't seem to be the most pressing diplomatic issue for the new administration. The previous Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo once vowed to do everything he could to bring the two home, but denied his government touched the coup with a 10-foot pole. 

“There was no U.S. government direct involvement in this operation,” Pompeo told reporters last year following the imprisonment of Luke and Airan. 

But there is good reason to think these men believed they were acting with at least the tacit approval of the government. And if you believe Mark's working theory, they were victims of a convoluted and brainless geopolitical plot fronted by a man who once splashed his company name across his bare chest in an ad for its services on Instagram as a legitimate security outfit. 

“They’re not mercenaries,” said Melanie with a sunken voice. “They went over there to do good, to help the people over there and you know, we just really want them back. We love them.”

Follow Ben on Twitter.