BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro touted a video showing a scruffy-looking American divulging details about a failed invasion as proof Wednesday that U.S. authorities backed an alleged attempt to forcibly remove him from power.
Maduro aired a video of Luke Denman on state television in which the 34-year-old Texas native claims he signed a contract with a Florida-based company to train rebel troops and carry out the assault in exchange for up to $100,000.
“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” he said.
Denman and Airan Berry, both former U.S. special forces soldiers who served in Iraq, were detained Monday following what authorities described as a botched beach landing in the fishing village of Chuao. Both men are associated with Silvercorp USA, a private firm founded by Jordan Goudreau, an ex-Green Beret claiming responsibility for the alleged incursion.
President Donald Trump has said the United States had nothing to do with the purported attack and Goudreau is under federal investigation for arms trafficking, according to current and former U.S. law enforcement officials. Nonetheless, the Venezuelan leader insists his U.S. adversary was behind the apparent attempt to force him out.
“There’s the proof,” he said, pointing to the video, in which Denman indicates that Trump was behind Silvercorp’s incursion. “And there will be more.”
Nonetheless, opposition critics and observers said the testimony should be taken with a grain of salt, noting that Venezuelan authorities have a record of forcing statements. Though Denman did not appear under duress, one expert noted that he made an unusual and exaggerated gesture with his eyes in what may have been a covert signal to those watching.
“Special operation soldiers are trained to find creative ways to discredit any propaganda videos they are forced to make if captured by the enemy,” said Ephraim Mattos, a Navy SEAL who had visited the rebel training camps in Colombia but was not involved in the operation.
He said that the odd eye movement immediately after saying Trump was Goudreau’s boss is “a clear sign from Luke that he is being forced.”
The confusing events have sparked new tensions between Venezuela and the U.S., which has been a staunch ally of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the lawmaker recognized by nearly 60 nations as the country’s legitimate president. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated Trump’s claims Wednesday from a day earlier that there was no direct U.S. involvement.
“If we’d have been involved, it would have gone differently,” he chided.
Democratic congressional staff, meanwhile, contacted the State Department multiple times Monday seeking any information about possible contacts with Goudreau or knowledge of his activities.
In the video aired Wednesday, Denman said Goudreau tasked him with training troops, and then staging an attack to “secure” Caracas and the airport. He said he arrived in Colombia in mid-January, driving to the border with two others to instruct about 60 people.
“I believed it was helping their cause,” he said, dressed in a gray T-shirt and sporting a coarsely cut hairstyle and goatee.
Denman’s family released a statement describing him as a decorated soldier who took up civilian jobs at a tree farm and a hotel since leaving the military in 2014. More recently, he’d begun working as a deep-sea diver.
“The first indication we had of anything different is the images coming out of Venezuela,” said Mark Denman, his older brother. “Our only concern only concern at this time is getting Luke home safely.”
Maduro accused Guaidó Wednesday of being behind the attack, holding up a written agreement with Goudreau that allegedly bears his signature as evidence.
Goudreau has said he was hired by Guaidó and is backing his claim with an eight-page agreement. In a televised interview with “Factores de Poder,” a Miami outlet popular with Venezuelan exiles, he contends he never got a “single cent” for his work but continued to prepare men for battle. JJ Rendon, a Miami-based adviser to Guaidó, said he gave Goudreau $50,000 as requested to cover some expenses.