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Venezuelan court sentences two former U.S. Green Berets to 20 years for role in botched raid

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro shows what Venezuelan authorities claim are identification documents of former U.S. Special Forces members Airan Berry and Luke Denman during a news conference in Caracas on May 6. (AP)
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Two former members of U.S. Special Forces were sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Venezuelan court for taking part in a murky raid in May to oust President Nicolás Maduro, the country’s attorney general announced on Twitter.

In the only official statement on the previously unannounced trial, Tarek William Saab tweeted late Friday that Airan Berry, 42, and Luke Denman, 34, admitted “to having committed the crimes of conspiracy, association, illicit trafficking of weapons of war and terrorism” in connection with the botched mission known as Operation Gideon.  

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request to comment. Lawyers for the men said they were barred from the jailhouse proceedings, the Associated Press reported.

The sentence marked another turning point in the most bizarre of a series of failed plots and conspiracies hatched over the past 18 months with the professed purpose of ousting the autocratic Maduro.

Berry and Denman have become trophy prisoners of Venezuela’s socialist government since their capture on the Venezuelan coast in early May. The two Americans were involved in training dozens of Venezuelan military defectors in rudimentary camps in Colombia before the launch of a poorly planned and deeply infiltrated mission that was quickly and easily neutralized.

Denman’s purported confession was shared by Maduro during a news conference shortly after the failed mission. Under interrogation by a man who was not visible, Denman said he worked with Jordan Goudreau, a Canadian-born naturalized U.S. citizen and former Green Beret who ran Silvercorp, a Florida-based security firm that helped organize the mission.

Venezuela executive claimed he was unwitting pawn in failed coup mission

Denman said he was expecting a payment of $50,000 to $100,000 for training men in the Colombian camps and expressed his belief that President Trump was backing the mission. The U.S. government has denied any involvement.

Maduro’s government later shared a video of Berry, who appeared to confirm Denman’s account and added that the mission’s main objective was targeting Venezuelan intelligence and the presidential palace.

Denman’s relatives have said that Goudreau, a person of interest in an FBI investigation into the operation, had falsely convinced Denman and Berry that they were taking part in a covert mission approved by the United States and the Venezuelan opposition.

Venezuelan opposition operatives admit to penning a preliminary deal last year with Goudreau to capture Maduro, but say they backed out after concluding he was both erratic and unable to successfully pull off a mission.

Denman and Berry both served in the U.S. military with Goudreau. In May, Goudreau told The Washington Post that Berry and Denman were “supervisors” of a force he claimed numbered about 60 Venezuelans. Most, if not all of them, were former military and police defectors recruited in Colombia, he said.

Maduro has said his government was so well-informed about the operation’s progress that he knew what its participants were eating and drinking in the camps. In the days after the incident, the Venezuelan government claims to have killed eight combatants and captured at least 57 others.

U.S. Army officials have said that Goudreau, Denman and Berry deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan eight times combined. Berry was known as a capable leader who was dealing with personal family issues, while Denman was seen as an “artistic hipster” type with a lighter, carefree personality, according to those who served with them.

Last month, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D) met with Maduro in Caracas with the aim of securing the release of the two Americans as well as six detained oil executives, five of whom are dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizens. Two of the executives have since been moved to house arrest.

In an interview with The Post last month, Denman’s brother Mark said he has been frustrated by what he described as a failure by U.S. officials to communicate with his family about his brother’s legal plight. He voiced hope that Richardson’s mission would form the start of a process that could result in pardons.

“I had no real expectation that Luke and Airan would be coming back with them, but I’m happy just to have the process started,” he told The Post. “Up until Richardson’s involvement, we haven’t had any help from anyone in the U.S. government.”

Ana Vanessa Herrero contributed to this report.

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