American Says Failed Venezuelan Invasion Was To Arrest Maduro

American Says Failed Venezuelan Invasion Was to Arrest Maduro

Maduro shows video of imprisoned American who says the mission of weekend raid was to topple the president and bring him to the U.S.

Luke Alexander Denman, an American, was hired to lead a ragtag group of insurgents to seize the Caracas airport, overthrow President Nicolás Maduro and fly him to the U.S., the imprisoned Iraq war veteran explained in a video released by Venezuela Wednesday.

Instead, Mr. Denman, 34, from Austin, Texas, and another American, Airan Berry, 42, who has addresses in Florida and Texas, were among the 13 “terrorists” whom the Venezuelan government said were captured in a thwarted weekend incursion.

Mr. Denman wasn’t the mastermind; that credit goes to Jordan Goudreau, another American and former U.S. Army Green Beret soldier, and Cliver Alcalá, a retired Venezuelan general who broke with the Maduro regime. But, in the video, Mr. Denman said he led the armed group, which had been trained in neighboring Colombia, into the country on two boats for what they hoped would be an audacious rebellion.

The plan failed spectacularly, said the Venezuelan regime, which on Wednesday went on a propaganda offensive to characterize the action on its beaches Sunday and Monday as a glorious victory over imperialist forces.

In the video, Mr. Denman said he was hired to train and lead the mercenary force by Mr. Goudreau, a former Special Forces soldier, and had expected to be paid between $50,000 and $100,000. Mr. Goudreau runs a Melbourne, Fla.-based private contractor called SilverCorp USA.

“I thought I was helping the Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Mr. Denman said in the 10-minute edited video that Mr. Maduro played twice during a televised news conference before posting on social media. Mr. Denman held up what he said contained a contract signed by Mr. Goudreau and Juan Guaidó, the U.S.-backed opposition leader, in Venezuela, showing support for the operation. Mr. Guaidó in a statement called the contract a fake, denied any ties to Mr. Goudreau’s company and warned that the regime was using the incident as a smokescreen to justify political persecution.

In the video, a mustachioed and scruffy-looking Mr. Denman could be seen only from the torso up in front of a white wall in an undisclosed location. Looking straight into the camera and wearing a loose gray T-shirt, he answered questions posed in broken English by an off-camera interrogator. It was unclear what kind of pressure the Venezuelans had exerted on him, and his assertions couldn’t be independently verified.

Mr. Maduro had said he would broadcast videos of both American men but has made only Mr. Denman’s interrogation public. Eight members of their raiding party were killed in a shootout, his regime said.

“They confessed and were caught red-handed,” Mr. Maduro said, blaming the Trump administration for the raid, an assertion the U.S. president denied. “Here in Venezuela they will be tried, respecting all of their rights.”

The arrests have set up the latest showdown between Caracas and Washington, which has deemed Mr. Maduro illegitimate since a 2018 presidential election that various governments say was marred by fraud. The U.S. and dozens of its allies back Mr. Guaidó as the nation’s legitimate president, though Mr. Maduro maintains control of the armed forces and the courts.

In March, the U.S. State Department offered a $15 million reward for Mr. Maduro’s arrest after he was indicted by U.S. prosecutors on drug-trafficking charges, which he has denied.

Speaking Wednesday to reporters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied any direct U.S. government role in the operation.

“If we’d have been involved, it would’ve gone differently,” he told reporters.

The Trump administration, though, has openly expressed its wish that Mr. Maduro and his lieutenants vacate Venezuela and has leveled a range of sanctions, including those designed to choke off oil production, to destabilize the regime. Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. would use “every tool that we have available” to get the two Americans back.

That effort is likely to be complicated by the U.S. decision to close its embassy in Caracas last year. The mission is run from Colombia, and any negotiation would have to be handled through a third party. The State Department is already seeking the release of six detained oil executives, including five U.S. citizens and a legal permanent resident.

Juan Cruz, a former top adviser to Mr. Trump on Venezuela policy, said the U.S. could consider a range of military options to increase pressure on Caracas without putting troops on the ground. Last month, the U.S. said it was moving Navy warships to Venezuela to counter drug trafficking.

“We have old warehouses full of Tomahawks that are in excess in our inventory,” he said in an interview. The standoff between the two countries “could absolutely escalate no matter who’s to blame.”

Ephraim Mattos, a former Navy SEAL who runs a nonprofit and provided medical training to a group of Venezuelans involved in the operation, said Mr. Denman appears to signal duress in the video by looking off camera while talking about U.S. government involvement.

“He looks off screen real quick,” Mr. Mattos said. “That’s him clearly signaling that he’s lying. It’s something that Special Forces guys are trained to do.”

Mr. Mattos said he tried to intervene to stop the operation in February after suspecting that Mr. Goudreau was misleading the Venezuelans who had signed on for the mission about possible U.S. government support for the operation.

“I was like, all right, something’s way off. I need to talk to this Jordan guy, ’cause he’s going to get them killed. Something’s clearly wrong here,” he told The Wall Street Journal. He reached out to Mr. Goudreau on Instagram to set up a meeting, but he never responded after an initial exchange.

Mr. Goudreau, who couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, on Sunday took responsibility for what he characterized as a struggle to restore freedom to the South American country. The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about whether he may face charges for arms trafficking or supporting a foreign militia seeking to overthrow a government.

In the video, Mr. Denman said he had met Mr. Goudreau about a decade ago during active service in Germany and received a call from him in December with scant details on the mission. By Jan. 16, Mr. Denman said he was taking his first ever trip to Colombia and traveling by car to an arid and remote region along the country’s border with Venezuela. He and Mr. Berry joined some 60 volunteer fighters who trained for the incursion in small camps, which had been set up by the former general, Mr. Alcalá. Mr. Alcalá, who had moved to Colombia in 2018 as an exile, surrendered to U.S. authorities in late March on drug charges and was extradited to New York.

Hernán Alemán, a Venezuelan lawmaker and Maduro detractor who said he was involved in the planning of the mission, lauded the Americans’ role.

“The attachment and work of these North American compatriots in this operation is an honor,” he said. “I feel they’re more patriotic than most Venezuelans.”

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com and Jessica Donati at jessica.donati@wsj.com

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