MIAMI (AP) — The plan was simple but perilous. Some 300 heavily armed volunteers planned to sneak into Venezuela from the northern tip of South America and ignite a popular rebellion that would end in President Nicolas Maduro’s arrest.
Instead, the ringleader of the plot is now jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges. Authorities in Colombia are asking questions about the role of his former U.S. Green Beret adviser. And dozens of combatants who flocked to secret training camps in Colombia have been left to fend for themselves amid a global pandemic.
This bizarre, never-told story of a call to arms that crashed before it launched is drawn from interviews with more than 30 Maduro opponents and aspiring freedom fighters directly involved in or familiar with its planning. Most spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retaliation.
The poorly-planned operation stood little chance of beating the Venezuelan army, said Ephraim Mattos, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who trained some of the would-be combatants in basic first aid.
“You’re not going to take out Maduro with 300 hungry, untrained men,” Mattos said.
When hints of the conspiracy surfaced last month, the Maduro-controlled state media portrayed it as a CIA plot. An Associated Press investigation found no evidence of U.S. government involvement in the plot. Nevertheless, interviews revealed that leaders of Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition knew of the covert force, even if they dismissed its prospects.
Opposition leader Juan Guaidó was also told about it but was not involved and showed little interest, according to Hernan Aleman, a Venezuelan lawmaker and one of a few politicians to openly embrace the clandestine mission to remove Maduro.
“Lots of people knew about it, but they didn’t support us,” he said. “They were too afraid.”
Planning for the incursion began in the aftermath of an April 30, 2019, barracks revolt by a cadre of soldiers who swore loyalty to Guaidó, recognized by the U.S. as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
A few weeks later, some involved in the failed rebellion retreated to Bogota, Colombia. That’s where they met Jordan Goudreau, an American citizen and three-time Bronze Star recipient who served as a medic in U.S. Army special forces, according to five people who met with the former soldier.
Goudreau, 43, declined to be interviewed, but said in a written statement that he would not “confirm nor deny any activities in any operational realm.”
Venezuelans he interacted with described him alternately as a freedom-loving patriot, a mercenary, and a gifted warrior in way over his head.
After retiring from the Army in 2016, he set up Silvercorp USA, a private security firm, near his home in Melbourne, Florida. The company’s website features videos of Goudreau firing machine guns in battle, running shirtless up a pyramid and flying in a private jet.
Goudreau’s focus on Venezuela started in February 2019, when he worked private security at a concert on the Venezuelan-Colombian border in support of Guaidó.
“He was always chasing the golden BB,” said Drew White, a former business partner at Silvercorp, who broke with his special forces soulmate last fall when Goudreau asked for help raising money to fund his regime change initiative. Golden BB is military slang for a one-in-a-million shot that if it hits in the right place can bring down an aircraft. “As supportive as you want to be as a friend, his head wasn’t in the world of reality.”
According to White, Goudreau was looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s growing interest in toppling Maduro. In May, he attended a meeting in Miami with representatives of Guaidó to hear how he could contribute to Venezuela’s rebuilding.
In Bogota, Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s coordinator for international humanitarian aid, introduced Goudreau to a rebellious former Venezuelan military officer — Cliver Alcalá.
Alcalá, a retired major general, seemed an unlikely hero to restore his homeland’s democracy. In 2011, he was sanctioned by the U.S. for allegedly supplying guerrillas in Colombia with weapons in exchange for cocaine. And last month, Alcalá was indicted by U.S. prosecutors alongside Maduro on narcoterrorist charges.
Over two days of meetings with Goudreau and Toledo, Alcalá explained how he was housing dozens of combatants selected from among the throngs of soldiers who had fled to Colombia, according to three people who participated in the meeting.
Goudreau told Alcalá he could prepare the men for battle, according to the three people. He also claimed that he had high-level contacts in the Trump administration that could assist the effort.
Guaidó’s envoys ended contact with Goudreau after the Bogota meeting, believing it was a suicide mission, according to three people close to the opposition leader. Undeterred, Goudreau returned to Colombia and began working with Alcalá.
Alcalá and Goudreau revealed little about their military plans. But they told the volunteers that — once challenged in battle — Maduro’s demoralized troops would collapse like dominoes, several of the soldiers said.
Many saw the plan as foolhardy and there appears to have been no serious attempt to seek U.S. military support.
“There was no chance they were going to succeed without direct U.S. military intervention,” said Mattos, who trained the volunteers in basic first aid on behalf of his non-profit.
Mattos said he was surprised to find men skipping meals and training with sawed-off broomsticks. He grew wary as the men recalled how Goudreau had boasted to them he was readying a shipment of weapons and arranging aerial support for an eventual assault.
The volunteers also shared with Mattos a document listing wished-for supplies for a three-week operation. Items included 320 M4 assault rifles, $1 million in cash and night vision goggles.
The plot to oust Maduro came to an end in late March when Colombian police stopped a truck transporting a cache of brand new weapons, including 26 American-made assault rifles with the serial numbers rubbed off.
Alcalá claimed ownership of the weapons shortly before surrendering to face the U.S. drug charges, saying they belonged to the “Venezuelan people.” He also lashed out against Guaidó, accusing him of betraying a contract with his “American advisers.”
Guaidó through a spokesman said he doesn’t know Alcalá.
After the would-be insurrection collapsed, Maduro’s allies celebrated. Socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello said the government was aware of the plot for at least six months. He outed Goudreau on state TV, showing snapshots of the “mercenary”,
“We knew everything,” said Cabello. “Some of their meetings we had to pay for. That’s how infiltrated they were.”
Investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York and investigative reporter James LaPorta from Delray Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.
Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APjoshgoodman.