The red minivan sped down the highway, baking under the Caribbean sun. In the middle row, gazing out onto a sandy field blemished with thick patches of yellowed grass and puddles filled with trash, sat Roberto. He had traveled down this familiar road many times on the way to the compound.
Almost two years earlier, he had been only a few miles away on the beach in Riohacha, a main town in the department of La Guajira, the northernmost and one of the remotest parts of Colombia, doing paramilitary training at ungodly morning hours with several other ex-Venezuelan soldiers. They were preparing for one thing: a coup d’etat against the Nicolas Maduro government in nearby Venezuela.
The driver missed the turn and made a jerky maneuver to set the van back onto a dirty side street lined with burnt ferns and green overgrowth. Across the street stood six vultures devouring something in a brown pool of rainwater. Roberto pointed out the compound and the van stopped. It was one of the barracks and headquarters in which he and his fellow plotters had congregated between sessions while training for the overthrow of the government of their native Venezuela. The building's concrete walls were painted white and stood one story high. Nestled beside the large iron gates with three colored murals: one of a pink flamingo, another of a parrot, and one of a red tropical bird with a long tail feather.
“There was a pool in there,” said Roberto, scratching his head. “It makes me a little sad to be here.”
Roberto’s thoughts turned to Jordan Goudreau, an ex–Green Beret and a veteran of the War on Terror. Goudreau, a man with cartoonish Popeye muscles, a shaved head, and a boyish smile that he frequently posted to Instagram, was a mercenary and owner of Silvercorp, a Florida-based private military contractor. Before the coup attempt, Silvercorp wasn’t known for much, other than doing security at a few Donald Trump rallies and a harebrained scheme to staff armed ex-commandos at Florida high schools.
“He shared knowledge of military tactics from his war experience,” said Roberto, who had last seen Goudreau in the same compound nearly two years ago. “He filmed us training, but we didn't see him as a leader.”
But Goudreau was leading the same small force Roberto was a part of, and had even recruited two other former Green Berets, Airan Berry and Luke Denman, to the cause. Trumpworld power players, Juan Guaidó (the unofficial, yet official president of Venezuela), and a laundry list of suspect backers were also involved in Goudreau’s attempt to build an invading force able to take on the government in Venezuela.
Yet according to Roberto, Goudreau wasn’t really a presence for he and the other troops.
“I mean, he just didn’t interact with us,” said Roberto. “In fact, only on two or three occasions did we meet him.”
By May 2020, when it finally came time to launch the attack on Maduro, the small army Goudreau had helped assemble had dwindled to about 60. Neither Goudreau nor the cabal of brokers who had supposedly backed him to organize the invasion force were anywhere near the Colombian side of La Guajira. Instead, Roberto and the others jumped onto two boats bound for Venezuela, but they were quickly intercepted by the Venezuelan military. Shooting ensued, with at least six of Goudreau’s men killed and at least 17 more captured, including the two Americans. As the Eisenhower of his own personal D-Day, Goudreau was busy tweeting about the invasion—not sitting shoulder to shoulder with his soldiers, but, according to multiple sources, from the safety of Florida—and then disappeared into the abyss. While it was reported that Goudreau was prevented from traveling to Colombia and joining his mission due to pandemic travel restrictions, he hasn’t really been seen in public since.
Operation Gideon, often remembered as a brief bit of comic relief in the early months of a global pandemic, is unquestionably a striking moment in the history of failed invasions, a low-budget Bay of Pigs for the age of social media. And one of the most striking things about it is that somehow, the chief architects of the mission have skated on, completely unencumbered by their ties to one of 2020’s messiest news events: Goudreau remains free, and Trump's allies never answered for it. Maduro, meanwhile, turned it into a propaganda win, and the CIA—which certainly seems to have known about the doomed invasion, and certainly didn’t manage to prevent it—denies any and all involvement.
Through a series of eyewitness accounts of the lead-up to the mission and the fateful day Goudreau’s troops were confronted by the Venezuelan military, as well as never-before-seen videos from inside their paramilitary training efforts, VICE News has carefully pieced together a clear image of the totality of one of 2020’s most bizarre geopolitical quagmires. What has emerged is a portrait of a mercenary mission more ramshackle than even the original reporting of it indicated, the half-baked brainchild of a variety of truly powerful people urging it along or declining to do anything about it for their own reasons. The true cost of it, of course, was borne by the men in the boats.
While much has been made of the abandoned American veterans, who still sit in a Caracas jail to this day, the expatriate Venezuelans enlisted into the doomed plot by their own political leadership have been left dead, captured, or in hiding, all for an epic failure that played out as farce on the international news.
Roberto and his friends remember Operation Gideon, and to them it’s no joke.
Since the conquistadors began ransacking parts of Latin America in the 15th century, the region has been well acquainted with roving bands of foreign mercenaries: mostly white men sent to squeeze the land of any and all valuables, then install local leaders willing to facilitate the plunder of resources on the cheap. That process was essential to the merciless colonization of the Americas, and in 2020, mercenary schemers from the global north were at it again in Venezuela.
The U.S. government has made no secret of its designs on Venezuela in the years since Hugo Chávez came to power, and his taste for socialism made the country a pariah to American lawmakers. President George W. Bush and Chávez infamously hated each other, which partly played into why Venezuela became less friendly to Western oil conglomerates looking for cheaper petroleum goods closer than the Middle East. There was also the matter of a coup attempt on Chávez in 2002; suspected American involvement caused the Venezuelan leader to cry foul over U.S. meddling. (It did come out two years later that the CIA knew about the plot.) With President Trump's election in 2016 and a return to hard-line Republican diplomacy, it became obvious that the most powerful war machine in history, the American military, was being considered for action in Venezuela.
A mix of food riots, inflation, government corruption, U.S. sanctions, and the steadily plummeting economy put Maduro, Chávez’s successor, on the ropes politically, but he refused to step down. Then, in January 2019, opposition leaders in the country’s national assembly, refusing to recognize Maduro's reelection, named young upstart Juan Guaidó, assembly’s leader, as the true president of the nation. Guaidó immediately launched “Operación Libertad (Operation Freedom),” which was a call for mass protests and defections from the security services across the country against Maduro. While the Trump administration, a majority of European Union member states, and Canada, among others, quickly recognized Guaidó, a serious uprising against Maduro didn’t really materialize. The old disciple of Chavez still held onto the loyalties of the military and security forces, leaving Guaidó as a president without the guns or the muscle to back up his claim on the office. So he and advisers in a “Strategic Committee” consisting of influential and connected expatriate Venezuelans began exploring options to usurp Maduro. This meant looking into the legality of any proposed options; it also meant looking into hired guns. Central to the scheming was J.J. Rendón, the general strategist of the committee and Guaidó’s onetime right-hand man.
The 50-something Rendón has a head full of salt-and-pepper hair, and he was wearing a black, Mandarin-collared shirt with stylish glasses when he spoke to VICE News this summer. Described in a flattering 2018 Ozy profile as “Latin America’s most feared election maven,” Rendón was once the political adviser of former president of Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto. By all accounts, Rendón is the sort of political wizard you read about in pulp spy thrillers that make no sense.
“We did the analysis,” said Rendón about a planned overthrow of Maduro. He was in his Miami apartment, which is adorned with several priceless samurai artifacts. “So we studied what is the possibility of someone else, a third party—the French Legion, whoever—to pick him up like they have bounty hunters in the United States and present him to justice.”
The committee, he said, was “plotting” and investigating ways to remove Maduro, which included hiring mercenaries who would then bring him to face charges in the U.S. (The Department of Justice has indicted Maduro and members of his retinue with a litany of drug trafficking crimes in absentia.)
When it came to mercenary options, Rendón said he only ever met with Goudreau. It is well established that Trump fixer and former bodyguard Keith Schiller is believed to have first introduced Goudreau and Silvercorp into the movement to overthrow Maduro, which, according to an ongoing lawsuit, also included a cast of characters counting a Kraft family heir (who denied to the Associated Press that he ever gave Goudreau a dime for the operation) and a member of the vice president’s staff. Most involved parties, including the office of former Vice President Mike Pence, have categorically denied involvement with Goudreau and Operation Gideon. (Emails to a lawyer representing Schiller in a lawsuit involving President Trump, asking for comment on Goudreau and Silvercorp for both a previous story and this one, went unanswered.) Rendón, on the other hand, is up-front about meeting the Canadian-American mercenary and agreeing to work with him.
“I can say I liked the guy in the beginning,” said Rendón, who admits that trusting Goudreau proved costly. “He was clever and empowering, proper, educated. And it was a mistake.”
“We needed to transform our military, so he came with a proposal of reengineering the entire armed forces after freeing the country,” he said. Rendón believed that Goudreau, a man with multiple tours fighting insurgents in the War on Terror for one of the most secretive branches of the U.S. military, and who cut the figure of a real-life John Rambo, knew what he was doing. “We wanted to know more, and that began the conversation about, you know, later what we call Operation Gideon.”
For the supply of troops and on-the-ground logistics for any potential coup on Venezuela, the former Green Beret had already linked up with a coalition of pissed-off ex-Venezuelan soldiers called CARIVE, which has an eclectic Instagram page full of biblical imagery. Clíver Alcalá, a retired general from the Venezuelan Army who was once a close ally of Chávez and became an enemy of Maduro, was an early recruit into the operation as the field commander for the eventual invasion and worked with Goudreau to come up with a plan.
“He came with a like, ‘Hey, I have contact with the Venezuelans who are in exile, et cetera,” said Rendón, quoting Goudreau describing his links to defected Venezuelan soldiers keen to be part of an uprising against Maduro.
Convinced by his connections and credentials, as per court documents Goudreau filed against Rendón for breach of contract, Rendón and the Silvercorp head signed an agreement to begin preparations for the removal of Maduro from power.
Rendón maintains that there was never any specific talk of a murderous coup with Goudreau and that he’d never even heard the term “Operation Gideon” until news media broke the story of the botched incursion in May 2020. Nonetheless, the contract Goudreau signed promised that Silvercorp would get paid more than $200 million, secured by barrels of Venezuelan oil, if Maduro fell from power, and outlined that the company would receive a $1.5 million retainer for its services. (That same contract has subsequently become the subject of a hefty lawsuit Goudreau brought against Rendón in a Florida court for failure to pay him. Rendón says he hasn’t filed a motion to dismiss and isn’t concerned by it.) By late fall 2019, Rendón and the Strategic Committee cut ties with Goudreau, making any deal null and void—at least according to the election guru. Rendón characterized the agreement with the former Green Beret more as an exploratory contract, with clauses and stipulations that needed to be met in order for the whole coup to be backed, rather than a guaranteed and greenlit deal.
Regardless of whether Rendón specifically discussed a violent overthrow with Goudreau, Silent Professionals, a private military contracting jobsite, said it received an aggressive offer for its services in helping to overthrow Maduro from Guaidó’s people, which it outright rejected.
“We regularly receive requests all around the world to support a coup, staff or train armies in territorial conflicts,” said a representative of Silent Professionals in an email to VICE News. “One example of that is the 2020 coup attempt against Maduro in Venezuela. We received heavy solicitation to assist in that effort for a substantial amount of money by certain Venezuelan factions. We declined to assist. But those organizing the coup eventually found their way to a U.S. private security firm who decided to accept the solicitation—whose botched attempt is now infamous.”
One of the most tantalizing mysteries surrounding the plot to overthrow Maduro has been the persistent talk that Erik Prince, the disgraced Blackwater founder, mercenary villain, and former adviser to the Trump administration, was consulted about a potential coup by some opposition faction. Prince’s lawyer, Matthew L. Schwartz, did not respond to multiple requests for comment; he previously told the Miami Herald that Prince had not submitted a proposal outlining what he would do if he got involved. Guaidó told VICE News, “I never spoke [to], much less met with, Mr. Erik Prince.”
Do you have information about private military contracting (mercenaries) or Operation Gideon? We would love to hear from you. You can reach Ben Makuch by contacting 267-713-9832 on Signal or @benmakuch on the Wire app.
Goudreau’s lawsuit against Rendón posits that there was a “Prince Proposal” floated by the former Blackwater founder on how to overthrow Maduro, which proposed that “5,000 men and approximately $500 million” would be needed for any such coup. Rendón, like Guaidó, is adamant that he has never met or even spoken with Prince. The political strategist said that through media reports he and the Strategic Committee were aware that other Venezuelan plotters looking to gather the U.S government’s bounty on Maduro were in contact with Prince, but he insisted his faction had nothing to do with it.
“We were [aware] there were maybe some Venezuelans talking to [Prince],” said Rendon. Whoever these unnamed people were, he asserted, they were not operating “at a high level.”
Though Goudreau doesn’t possess the genocidal skills of the conquistadors, he—wittingly or not—invoked biblical imagery to affirm his actions, as many of the misguided soldiers of fortune of that era did. “Gideon” can be read as a reference to an event in Judges in which the Israelites defeat a larger force using their godly favor and cunning. God’s support of Goudreau aside, Operation Gideon possessed no cunning whatsoever. It also didn’t have much official support, from either the U.S. government or Venezuelan opposition figures.
By the early days of 2020, Guaidó and his people had completely distanced themselves from the plot. Preparations for Operation Gideon didn’t end, though. Against the odds, and with the help of CARIVE and other Venezuelan defectors, Goudreau had already established training camps in La Guajira, with quarters for the fighters who had been recruited into the operation.
Goudreau and the plotters tweeted a now-infamous video while Operation Gideon was failing in real time, reassuring the internet that the forces were at war with Maduro and continuing to fight. It was filmed in front of a forest canopy and in a tropical location, suggesting he was located in Venezuela or Colombia. In reality, sources familiar with Operation Gideon have told VICE News, he was in Florida (social media, at the time, also seemed to have figured it out). And kneeling beside the baseball-capped Goudreau was a flak-jacket-wearing man with a serious grimace and a bald head. He looked like the type of warrior you’d expect to be trying to take out Maduro with nothing but a Kalashnikov and a buck knife between his teeth.
This man was quickly identified as Captain Javier Nieto Quintero. Once an acclaimed member of the Venezuelan military who had been arrested and imprisoned by the Chavez government in the early 2000s for allegedly conspiring against it, he is a leading figure inside CARIVE. When he eventually got out of prison, he defected to the U.S. and moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he still lives today.
Nieto maintains that if Operation Gideon had had the “total support from political leader Juan Guaidó,” it might’ve actually worked. But as Rendón and others have made clear, the official support from Guaidó ended around late fall 2019, with Goudreau being paid $50,000 to walk away and cut ties with the Strategic Committee. Nieto says that in a private meeting with Guaidó in Florida that same year, he told his “president” to fully back the mission or else it would falter.
“I say, Mr. President, the troops who are willing to die,” said Nieto, who was helping Goudreau with the mission, “they need support at that time. They already have a lack of water, lack of food.”
The living conditions in the houses and at the compound in La Guajira were far from ideal, but Nieto’s pleas to Guaidó fell on deaf ears and Operation Gideon continued onward without the official support of the Venezuelan opposition.
“One of the tragedies of our country is the political leadership,” said Nieto, who himself never made it over to the camps in La Guajira.
One member of CARIVE who did goes by the alias “Cacique,” a reference to an indigenous chief commonly used in Latin American Spanish vernacular. Cacique was a personal confidant of Nieto, and he agreed to speak with VICE News on the condition that he remain anonymous and that his location isn’t revealed, as he fears reprisals from the Venezuelan government.
Like Nieto, Cacique is a defector and looks the part of a soldier, with broad shoulders and the frame of a man who can do many chin-ups and roll around on the ground with an assault rifle. Nieto dispatched him to La Guajira as a sort of quality control specialist, to keep an eye on the training and help do some translation between the men and Luke Denman and Airan Berry, the two Green Berets who in the winter of 2020 had already made it to Colombia to help prepare the soldiers for the operation.
“My first impression was totally different from what one imagines an operation to be,” said Cacique. “In the month I was there, I never actually saw any weapons. And most of the people practiced with wooden weapons.”
Cacique said all of the men were also suffering from a lack of food and clean drinking water. They ate one meal a day, he said, and a general malaise settled into the group. At that point, he began to believe the operation was completely doomed.
“When I got there I thought there were going to be weapons, equipment. And during the 30 days I spent there, I did ask, and always received the same answer: ‘They were on their way.’ But what I saw that gave me strength was the goodwill of [the soldiers] to do something for Venezuela.”
Cacique said Denman and Berry, whom he described as “chicos buenos” and affable guys, didn’t seem completely aware of what was going on. As he put it, both Americans were clearly skilled soldiers but not necessarily ready to lead a bloody revolution. Berry in particular seemed like a pacifist, Cacique described, someone more interested in trying to start a farm in La Guajira than a war with Maduro.
VICE News obtained exclusive videos from inside two of the training houses, showing both ex–Green Berets running what looks like an extremely beginner course of drills with men armed with wooden cutouts of rifles. The men move through hallways as they’re being instructed on how to clear an urban household.
“They didn't have enough support for such an operation. Not with the food, not with basic needs … even economically,” said Cacique about what he witnessed in Riohacha. “It was tragic, and I think it was why the operation failed.”
An army that apparently once comprised at least over a hundred recruited Venezuelan fighters keen for the coup shrank to about 60 by March 2020. At that point, Cacique had already left La Guajira, leaving behind a mission he didn’t believe would ever even happen given the lack of logistical support.
Around this same time, in the winter of 2020, according to two sources aware of the background machinations surrounding Operation Gideon, a representative of the CIA approached Goudreau somewhere on an undisclosed Carribean island (apparently Jamaica, which was reported, or possibly off the coast of Colombia) as he was putting together the doomed plot. They brought a clear message: end Operation Gideon; if it is launched, the U.S. government will offer zero support.
Goudreau’s lawsuit against Rendón makes clear that he believed he was acting with the support of the Trump administration, even as things continued to fall apart. Sure signs that the U.S. government didn’t approve of the operation weren’t hard to find. In late March, a little over a month before the eventual launch date, Alcalá, the supposed commander of the entire operation, turned himself in to U.S. authorities in Colombia after being indicted on drug trafficking charges.
Nieto, all the way back in Jacksonville, began to have serious doubts.
“When Cliver Alcalá got in prison, he called me: 'Nieto, this is impossible.' It was two days after the government of Colombia seized the rifles and stuff. After that, I lose my hope,” said Nieto. Following that phone call and around that same time, Nieto claims, he told Goudreau to call off the mission entirely. (Requests for comment to Alcalá’s lawyer pertaining to his role in Operation Gideon went unanswered.)
Somehow, with the top field commander behind bars and the ill-equipped force burning up in the La Guajira sun and losing men by the day, things got even worse for Operation Gideon.
Maduro spies had clearly infiltrated the entire mission. The same month Alcalá was arrested, Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro lieutenant, stood on Venezuelan national television pointing and marking a giant board with the names and images of people it claimed were involved in a dark plot. The Maduro government knew about Operation Gideon, knew about the alleged agreement with Guaidó and Rendón, and knew the names of Goudreau and his two fellow ex–Green Berets. After the explosive report, it would have easily been assumed that Goudreau would abandon ship. But he still pressed on, against the obvious truth: his ambitious plot to overthrow a Latin American government was headed for disaster, and the millions of dollars he hoped to gain from the coup were already gone.
The men on the ground in La Guajira, with the likely exception of Maduro’s spies, were completely unaware. With the help of Nieto and Cacique, VICE News came into contact with Roberto (an alias), one of the few fighters who was still in the camps during the days leading up to the May 2020 assault who was neither captured nor killed by the Venezuelan military. (Only one other man, whom Al-Jazeera interviewed earlier this year, has been publicly identified as a survivor and escapee of Operation Gideon.)
Roberto, who defected to Colombia from the Venezuelan military in 2019, said that following the arrest of Alcalá, Captain Antonio Sequea took charge of Operation Gideon with the help of his partner, Captain Robert Colina, who went by the alias “Pantera.” They gathered the men and set off into the deserts of La Guajira to train. This time, Roberto claims, the group finally obtained weapons to train with. (Roberto provided VICE News with images of the men in the deserts of La Guajira in spring 2020.) At some point in April, the group received word: Gideon was going forward in early May, and there would be two boats full of men sent into Venezuela.
Using the desert area of La Guajira on the Colombian and Venezuelan border as a launching pad, the men would set off for the area around Caracas. That part of La Guajira is one of the most isolated parts of Colombia, controlled mainly by the Wayuu indigenous people and the smugglers and narcotraffickers who exploit the region and its lack of government control.
“We set off at night to avoid being spotted,” said Roberto. “The first motorboat was manned by Captain Pantera and nine commandos. Behind them followed [Captain Sequea] with the rest of the troops.”
Roberto said he was in the fishing boat with Sequea and the two Green Berets—the same vessel in which the last known photograph of the two Americans was taken before their capture. The men inside it were dressed as locals with hidden weapons, explaining why the men would eventually appear on Venezuelan national television wearing shorts and T-shirts. Roberto said his crew was looking to disembark in Venezuela and travel to the area surrounding Caracas and make camp, then prepare an invasion force that would hopefully draw disaffected Venezuelan soldiers looking to join the coup.
Unlike what has been previously suggested, Roberto says the two Americans were fully aware of the coup plot and weren’t duped into it, which matches up to what Mark Denman, the brother of Luke, told VICE News in April 2021: the two were under the impression that Operation Gideon was fully backed by the U.S. government. Roberto did say Airan and Luke had the role of helping establish the camps outside Caracas rather than serving as part of an assault force.
But like everything else involving Operation Gideon, things didn’t go according to plan.
“We had direct communication when we set off to Venezuela,” said Roberto. “We actually lost communication with Captain Pantera since their boat was faster and ours was overweight.”
As they lost contact with Captain Pantera and the other commandos, Roberto said, they received word from the leadership of Operation Gideon that the mission had already taken a turn for the worse and that Pantera and five other men had been killed by the Venezuelan military. (VICE News obtained a forensic report from the incident produced by the Venezuelan opposition, which suggests at least two of the men were killed execution-style from gunshots at close range.)
“They informed us that we failed,” said Roberto, “and that we should try to touch Venezuelan land to regroup on the ground and escape and go into the mountains.”
The boat did just that, but Roberto described how the Americans didn’t get off the boat. Instead, they stayed behind, looking to possibly escape using international waters as a refuge.
“They never got off the boat. We got off, but they stayed, the Americans and Captain Sequea. They left us and they went far from the coast.”
The Americans and Sequea never made it out and were then captured. Roberto, who fled into the mountains, could still see their boat from afar as they were arrested.
“With fast boats from the Coast Guard, and helicopters, [Denman, Berry, and Sequea] were surprised,” he said. “They didn't put up any resistance. They were trying to pretend they were fishermen, but there was already a lot of information the military had [that proved otherwise].”
Using the survival skills taught to him by the Venezuelan military he’d just tried to overthrow, Roberto said, he escaped into the mountains and eventually made his way back to Colombia and to freedom. He said that when he finally was able to reach a WiFi signal and see the details of the entire plot and how it played out, he was shocked. How could Goudreau have gone forward with the operation knowing everything he knew? Why did he tweet about it?
“I realized, one month after, when I got access to the news, everything that he did,” said Roberto. “What he said and the video he shared, and really, it was a disaster!
“It wasn't the right way of doing it.”
The exact nature of the U.S. government’s involvement in Operation Gideon is still an open question. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was adamant that the Trump administration played no part, but given the shambolic nature of Trump’s governance, and the porous borders between official and unofficial business during his presidency, that doesn’t mean Trumpworld was uninvolved. Trump associates clearly circled it in some way or another, and “rogue” elements of the administration undertaking sideshow diplomacy or spycraft was a hallmark of the regime.
Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, has been leading the charge to secure the release of Denman and Berry. (Using his name and influence, he runs a nongovernmental organization negotiating for American hostages abroad.) Richardson, who is well-connected with the U.S. government, said that while he can’t prove it, he suspects that President Trump’s team had its fingerprints on Operation Gideon.
“I don't have access to intelligence reports the way I used to, but it seemed suspicious,” said the ambassador in an interview with VICE News. “And the Trump administration did, in foreign policy, have rogue elements—people that were not in the State Department that were doing stuff on their own. And, you know, so I wouldn't put it past them, but I can’t conclusively say.”
An even more mysterious element of the Gideon saga is the exact nature of the CIA’s involvement.
Clearly, the CIA seems to have known about the plot. Aside from the supposed meeting between a CIA representative and Goudreau that continuously comes up with sources involved in Operation Gideon, it has been previously reported that the agency was monitoring La Guajira. It’s also true that given intense U.S. interest in Venezuela, it’s reasonable to surmise that the Maduro spy operation that penetrated Goudreau’s army was itself being spied on by U.S. intelligence. There is, though, an even closer connection between the agency and the plotters.
During its own investigation into Operation Gideon, Venezuelan intelligence allegedly wiretapped Hernán Alemán, a defected Venezuelan politician who lived in Colombia. (He recently died of COVID-19.) Alemán was working with Goudreau and was an active member of the mission to overthrow Maduro, and a target of enemy spies. According to intercepted communications with an informant to the Venezuelan intelligence (which could very well have been tampered with by a security service loyal to Maduro) Alemán openly bragged about discussing Operation Gideon with an officer in the CIA at a party in the American embassy in Bogota.
VICE News obtained a copy of the intercept from a source familiar with a government investigation into Operation Gideon in the region.
“Here in a meeting with all the bigwigs in the house of the [U.S. ambassador], they did a toast there, I was there,” said Alemán in the exchange, which is in Spanish. “I was even speaking with the guy from the CIA. They put me there so that the CIA guy would talk to me.”
Why the CIA didn’t more forcefully or effectively act to prevent the invasion of a sovereign nation by an army under the command of a U.S. citizen is one of the many questions the CIA has never answered. Others could shed light on why Goudreau seems to have been so convinced that he had the support of his government. When VICE News brought the information regarding Alemán and the phone call to a spokesperson at the CIA, the agency declined to comment.
President Juan Guaidó, the man who stood to gain the most from any potential coup of Maduro, has persistently tried to divorce himself from the operation, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he, for a time, participated in it. To his mind, the whole thing was owned and operated by Maduro.
“It was an Operation financed and promoted by the dictatorship with the aim of mounting a false positive to link the democratic alternative,” he said in a statement provided to VICE News. “The only ones that this Operation served was the Maduro dictatorship, to use it as propaganda and victimize themselves in the international arena and to once again point out the interim Government, the national Parliament, the democratic alternative and myself as responsible.”
As for Goudreau and his own motives, several people with knowledge of the affair have wondered whose team he was really on. The operation was so disastrous, and he moved forward in the face of such overwhelming evidence that it was doomed, that it’s natural to wonder if there were factors beyond his own stupidity and greed. Was he really stupid enough to think he could outclass an entire national army with 60 soldiers and some fishing boats? Did he have some reason to think that the capture of his men would trigger a U.S. invasion? Or was he a plant for the Maduro regime from the beginning?
There is open speculation about who could’ve been the Maduro spy embedded in the operation; but whether there was one isn’t contested. Another frequently cited tidbit is about the private plane Goudreau took to ferry himself into Colombia was owned, according to the PanAmPost, by a Venezuelan government contractor with ties to the Maduro regime.
Others have less-conspiratorial theories. They point to a parachuting accident in 2016 that gave Goudreau a concussion and back injuries, forcing him to retire from the military, as an explanation for his decision-making.
Whatever Goudreau’s excuses for the spectacular failure, he continues to dodge questions for his plan’s demise, other than a defiant interview for a December 2020 Rolling Stone feature on the entire fiasco. Through Gustavo Jesus Garcia-Montes, his Miami-based lawyer, Goudreau declined to answer a detailed list of questions about his role in Operation Gideon.
The only thing he would respond to, through Garcia-Montes, were about his relationship to Maduro: “He denies any and all coordination with the Maduro regime,” the lawyer said in an email.
While several people who spoke to VICE News have wondered if Goudreau fled the U.S. out of fear of prosecution, Garcia-Montes says his client has spent his time between Texas and Florida since Operation Gideon. Two sources familiar with his current doings have heard he’s involved in a media project of some kind on the entire Gideon affair. (Goudreau’s lawyer said he wasn’t aware of it.) One of those sources says they were already interviewed for it and that the producers of the acclaimed crime documentary series Cocaine Cowboys are involved. Rakontur Films, which produced the film series, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but email tracking software shows the company viewed the messages several times. Billy Corben, the director, did not respond to a Twitter message.
As for the imprisoned Americans, their families continue to hope they’ll be released from Venezuelan prison before their decades-long sentences are up. But for that to happen, tensions between the U.S. and Maduro need to calm down, which is increasingly unlikely: Recently, the Department of Justice extradited one of Maduro’s key financiers in a move that has angered a Venezuelan government already hesitant to negotiate with Washington over the fate of imprisoned Americans.
Mark Denman has begun a nongovernmental organization, the American Rescue Coalition, that is trying to bring both ex–Green Berets back home. He says Goudreau’s behavior throughout the entire debacle has been cowardly.
“Honor your oaths. You made oaths. These are your brothers. Do what you're meant to do. Step up,” said Denman, pointing out that Goudreau not only faded into the ether after the operation but also has done nothing for his brother Luke and Airan Berry.
“Stop looking out for yourself,” he said, as a message directly to Goudreau.
The operation left two Americans, supposed friends of Goudreau, languishing in Venezuelan prison serving a 20-year term for terrorism along with 15 other ex–Venezuelan soldiers he recruited into his defective pipe dream. It also led directly to at least six men losing their lives.
“I feel bad because we were part of a group, a task,” said Roberto. “It's hard because you have to accept the consequences of a mission that ended up being a disaster.
“Operation Gideon was a disaster.”
Miguel Fernández Flores contributed reporting.
Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter.