What do we know?
On May 3, 2020, a group of mercenaries attempted to enter Venezuela through the port city of La Guaira with stated intentions to capture de facto President Nicolás Maduro and transport him to the United States. The ambitious military raid failed immediately as Venezuelan security forces intercepted mercenaries at the border, leaving eight dead and at least 10 individuals—including 2 U.S. citizens and former Green Berets—arrested. The plan was led, financed, and armed by Miami-based security contracting firm Silvercorp and its founder, Canadian-American and former U.S. Green Beret Jordan Goudreau.
Two days prior to the armed incursion, Josh Goodman of the Associated Press broke the story that Goudreau had been planning the operation alongside former Venezuelan army Major General Cliver Alcalá, who is now in U.S. custody after turning himself in for narcotrafficking charges in March. On the day of the operation, Goudreau appeared in a video alongside former Venezuelan National Guard Captain Javier Nieto Quintero, proclaiming his mission to ‘liberate’ Venezuela.
In the days following the failed military incursion, now known as ‘Operation Gideon,’ reports emerged linking the participants with Venezuelan opposition. These reports showed that, in late 2019, representatives of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s ‘Strategy Committee’ met with several private security contractors who offered to carry out covert armed activity within Venezuelan territory. The Associated Press and Washington Post confirmed that these representatives signed a contract with Silvercorp USA, further implicating them in the disastrous raid.
This story has raised significant questions about what U.S. and international intelligence services knew about the incident, potential opposition ties, and what the implications are for Venezuela’s political crisis. We have prepared responses to some of the most pressing questions around the operation to clarify the details and put the headline news story in context.
Who was implicated in this operation?
Jordan Goudreau’s contracting firm Silvercorp USA lies at the center of the failed ‘Operation Gideon.’ According to the Washington Post, Goudreau reportedly misled recruits to believe that the operation would be much larger and more sophisticated than it truly was, boasting a force of 800 men, direct support from the Trump administration, and a budget of approximately $1.5 million. As the plans for the operation went ahead, it became clear that Goudreau did not have the resources or support that he alleged. Following the failed raid, Goudreau is now reportedly under federal investigation for violating international arms trafficking laws.
The majority of the combatants involved in the failed incursion of May 3 were former Venezuelan soldiers exiled in Colombia, alongside former U.S. military officials who helped train the mercenaries and guide the mission. Among these former U.S. military officials were Airan Berry and Luke Denman, both former U.S. Green Berets who had previously served alongside Goudreau in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both Denman and Berry have been in Venezuelan custody since the raid on May 3 on charges of terrorism, arms trafficking, and conspiracy.
Was the Venezuelan opposition involved?
A critical detail of the operation is the alleged involvement of the Venezuelan opposition coalition led by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, who is recognized by nearly 60 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate president. An article published in the Washington Post on May 6 revealed that two opposition representatives, J.J. Rendón and Sergio Vergara, had met with several military contracting firms, including Silvercorp USA, in late 2019 to explore the possibility of military action to remove Nicolás Maduro from power. More recently, reports have emerged suggesting that Leopoldo López, longtime Guaidó ally and founder of the Voluntad Popular party, was behind these efforts to contract mercenary groups. Rendón and Vergara were Commissioners in what the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s interim government, and were coordinating a high-level “Strategy Committee” to plan out the opposition’s next moves.
These representatives signed a contract with Silvercorp USA on October 16, which has since been authenticated and published by the Washington Post. Goudreau separately released a supplemental document to the agreement showing the signature of Juan Guaidó himself, as well as a secret recording that appears to show Guaidó present at the signing of the contract. Opposition officials who were aware of the operation claimed that they withdrew from the contract after it became clear that Goudreau was not going to deliver on various aspects of the agreement.
Was the U.S. government involved?
Jordan Goudreau allegedly informed opposition representatives J.J. Rendón and Sergio Vergara, as well as his own trained mercenaries, that Operation Gideon had the full backing of the Trump administration and U.S. military. Similarly, in a “confession video” released by the Maduro government, Luke Denman claims that the orders to fulfill the operation came directly from President Trump. However there has been no evidence presented to prove these claims, and Denman’s statement was almost certainly coerced.
Another development that raised suspicions of U.S. involvement was the arrest of Cliver Alcalá, who promptly turned himself in to the DEA and agreed to cooperate after being indicted for narcotrafficking charges in March. Alcalá’s deep involvement in Goudreau’s failed plot, as well as his apparent willingness to cooperate with U.S. authorities months prior to the incursion, suggests that it is highly unlikely that the U.S. was unaware of this operation in advance.
Since the failed operation on May 3, the White House has publicly denied any involvement. U.S. policymakers in the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees have led efforts to press the White House, State Department, and Department of Justice to disclose what they knew about the operation and the extent to which the U.S. government may have been involved. One key question is whether Goudreau received military equipment through legal channels, which would require a license from the Department of State. Here’s what U.S. officials have publicly said regarding the incursion:
- According to the Associated Press, Goudreau allegedly had contact with Keith Schiller, a longtime bodyguard of President Donald Trump, in 2019. However, after Schiller heard of Goudreau’s aspirations in Venezuela, he cut off all contact. In a press briefing on May 5, Trump claimed that he had “just heard about” the operation, and said that it “has nothing to do with our government.”
- On May 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that “there was no United States government direct involvement” in the failed Silvercorp operation, the wording of his claim raising further questions about what indirect involvement the U.S. may have had. He said, “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently.”
- Jordan Goudreau allegedly initially sought U.S. government support through an aide in Vice President Mike Pence’s office. According to the Washington Post, a spokesperson for Pence stated that they had had “zero contact” with Goudreau.
Was this operation really comparable to ‘Bay of Pigs?’
In a word, no. The comparison of Operation Gideon to the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs incursion first came from Maduro, who equated the two operations in a propagandist televised address on May 6. While there are obvious similarities—both being failed mercenary incursions to attempt to overthrow a socialist state—the comparison to Bay of Pigs oversimplifies the details of Operation Gideon and deeply exaggerates the role of the U.S. government in the operation. While the CIA backed the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, AP News asserts that it has found no concrete evidence of direct U.S. involvement in Operation Gideon. Rather, the operation was financed and led by private security contracting firm Silvercorp USA, which is based in the U.S. and is primarily run by former U.S. military officials—but with no evident ties to the U.S. government or the Trump administration.
How has the opposition reacted to the failed incursion?
Since the news of the failed incursion broke on May 3, Juan Guaidó has vehemently denied any knowledge of or involvement in Operation Gideon by the Venezuelan opposition, even claiming that the Maduro government staged the plot itself as a strategy to divide the opposition coalition. As pressure increased to address the role of radical sectors of the opposition in the failed operation, the two High Commissioners who had been implicated in the plot, J.J. Rendón and Sergio Vergara, publicly announced their resignation on May 11. After accepting their resignation, Guaidó issued a statement thanking the two representatives for “their support for the democratic cause,” and calling for reinforced support for the interim government. In failing to acknowledge the missteps of Rendón and Vergara, this statement sparked controversy among civil society groups that sought a more outright condemnation of the decision to recruit security contracting firms.
Following the failed operation, hundreds of civil society groups including WOLA signed a letter to the interim government demanding that Guaidó take a military option off the table and commit to a peaceful and democratic solution out of Venezuela’s crisis. There was also backlash within the opposition, with the Primero Justicia party issuing a statement condemning the use of mercenaries and calling for a change in decision making processes.
The following week, the Guaidó government responded to the letter, for the first time openly rejecting a military option and stating its support for a peaceful and democratic solution. The letter stated, “The possibility of a negotiated solution to the Venezuelan conflict is an option that we have always supported; In spite of the violence and persecution by the [Maduro] regime, we believe in a orderly, peaceful and democratic transition that leads to the least suffering possible for the Venezuelan people.” While this letter was apparently meant to be confidential, it was immediately leaked on Twitter by civil society organizations seeking to hold Guaidó to his word.
What has been Maduro’s response?
Maduro’s reaction to Operation Gideon was swift and calculated, as reports suggest that loyalists to the Maduro regime had infiltrated the operation before it even got off the ground. Top Maduro officials quickly denounced the operation, describing those involved as “mercenary terrorists” guided by the U.S. and Colombian governments. On May 6, Maduro appeared in a televised address in which he showed the interrogation video of detained U.S. citizen Luke Denman, who describes the intended strategy to take over a major Caracas airport and arrange to transport Maduro to the United States. Maduro provided this video, along with the signed contract, as evidence that the U.S. government was behind the operation.
Maduro and his allies widely compared the failed operation to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, advancing the decades-old Chavista narrative of the U.S.’s imperial interests in Venezuela. Maduro’s chief prosecutor, Tarek Saab, stated in May that his office was calling for the extradition of Jordan Goudreau, as well as opposition representatives J.J. Rendón and Sergio Vergara, all of whom are based in Florida. Saab later appealed to the Supreme Court to designate Voluntad Popular, Guaidó’s political party, as a terrorist organization on May 26 due to its alleged involvement in the operation.
- AP News: Ex-Green Beret led failed attempt to oust Venezuela’s Maduro
- The Washington Post: From a Miami Condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue
- Wall Street Journal: Poorly Organized and Barely Hidden, Venezuela Invasion Was Doomed to Fail
- El Pais: Mitos, egos y torpeza: anatomía de un complot disparatado en Venezuela
- Wall Street Journal: Venezuelan Opposition Guru Led Planning to Topple Maduro