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Venezuela raid: How an ex-Green Beret and a defecting general planned to capture Maduro

Jordan Goudreau, the chief executive of Silvercorp USA, speaks about his company during a school safety conference in Orlando in 2018. (Cassi Alexandra for The Washington Post)

For the men in the Colombian safe house, the arrival of the muscular American felt like deliverance.

Defectors from Venezuela’s police and military, they had been rounded up from flophouses and streetside encampments for a secret mission to liberate their homeland from the socialist government of autocratic President Nicolás Maduro. They were holed up in a sweltering smuggler’s town near the Venezuelan frontier late last spring when Jordan Goudreau — a square-jawed former Green Beret who ran a strategic-services firm in Florida — stepped out of a car and approached.

“He had a translator,” said a man who later bowed out of the mission, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of persecution. “Jordan was talking about how he had connections with the U.S. high command.”

Five men who initially trained for the mission, or who came into contact with its operatives, said the 43-year-old veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had convinced the men that they were training for a U.S.-backed incursion into Venezuela. That belief, these people said, bolstered their sense of a serious operation that was worth risking their lives for.

From a Miami condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue

In a video of Goudreau’s encounter with the group, leaked to social media and confirmed by one of those present, one of the Venezuelans lavishes praise on their American hope.

“Mr. Jordan,” he says. “We want to give thanks to you for fighting for the freedom of a nation that is not yours. . . . Thanks to you, we will free Venezuela.”

What followed is a barely believable odyssey, a hall-of-mirrors operation that ended May 3 with Goudreau announcing a mission to overthrow Maduro that had already failed.

Maduro says his forces have killed eight men and captured 34 others, including Airan Berry and Luke Denman — fellow former Green Berets who served with Goudreau and are now being held in Venezuela on charges of terrorism, arms trafficking and conspiracy.

The U.S. government has disavowed Goudreau and his mission. President Trump has lampooned him. If his administration were planning such a venture, he said, it wouldn’t send “a small little group.” Members of Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition admit to having met with Goudreau in their desperation to oust Maduro. But they insist they broke with him last fall after deeming him unreliable and proclaim themselves stunned by last week’s events.

After an initial flurry of interviews with The Washington Post and other media outlets, Goudreau has stopped responding to requests for comment. This account includes previously undisclosed details of Goudreau’s background, the camps in Colombia and planning for the failed incursion.

Ephraim Mattos, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who now works in international aid, came into contact with the Venezuelans in Colombia last September.

Venezuelan authorities detained two U.S. citizens working with a U.S. military veteran for a failed armed incursion, President Nicolas Maduro said May 4. (Video: Reuters)

“They were all under the impression that everything was being supported by the U.S., that they’ve got special Delta Force commandos working with them and that were part of the presidential bodyguard detail,” he said. “I just looked up Jordan’s website and Instagram account, and I was like, ‘Guys, guys, guys, this guy is not who he says he is.’ ”

Goudreau was ‘an extremely talented shooter’

Goudreau grew up in an upper-middle-class family in a quiet suburb of Calgary, Alberta, a city of more than 1 million in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies. Intense and competitive, friends said, he took an interest in video games and kung fu movies. He was no stranger to real-world physical confrontation, either, including a high school brawl that involved a weapon, Goudreau himself later recalled in a video posted online.

He aspired to follow his grandfather and great-grandfather into the armed forces.

“He’s got a family full of military people,” Paul Goudreau, his father, said in a brief interview.

After college, Goudreau enlisted in the Canadian military, but he craved greater opportunities.

“He said the American Army would give him more challenges,” said Bobbie MacDonald, a family member who hosted Goudreau in her home in suburban Washington during his first year in the country.

Goudreau, then in his mid-20s, told her that the U.S. Army had recruited him with a promise of $75,000, she said.

Goudreau could come off as arrogant and off-putting, MacDonald said. She recounted the time she asked him to stop at a store and pick up a loaf of bread. Goudreau declined, she said, telling her he didn’t know how to do that.

Goudreau eventually joined the highly selective Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, a unit responsible for direct-action counterterrorism in Europe that also deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Four former Green Berets who served with Goudreau called him a gifted warfighter who could be both charismatic and hotheaded.

“He was an extremely talented shooter in a talented group of shooters,” said a former Special Forces soldier who served with Goudreau in Charlie Company. He, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

But marksmanship and fitness accolades papered over other issues, the soldier said.

Goudreau seemed to relish confrontations. One night while leaving a restaurant in Stuttgart, Germany, he and a friend were heckled and followed by a group of men, he later claimed in a video about self-defense techniques. Goudreau said he turned around, removed his “trendy, button-up, fitted-collared shirt, best suited for going to the club,” and punched one of them.

“His bro left running down the street,” Goudreau boasted.

U.S. denies involvement in alleged Venezuela invasion attempt as details remain murky

Goudreau’s discharge papers show that he spent grueling months in combat. He was awarded three Bronze Stars. His exploits, he claimed in an interview with The Post last week, involved negotiating with warlords in Afghanistan and bruising battles in Iraq.

“I did Sadr City in 2006,” Goudreau told The Post last week. “I f---ing watched Saddam Hussein hang. We f---ed everybody up in that city.”

The Post could not independently verify his claims.

In 2012, records show, the Defense Department launched a criminal investigation into allegations that Goudreau had defrauded the government of $62,000 while he served abroad. Prosecutors alleged that he collected inflated housing allowances for his wife by claiming she lived in Brooklyn from 2009 to 2012 when she was actually in Arizona and North Carolina, areas for which the military paid much lower allowances.

No charges were levied. A person close to Goudreau at the time said he reached an agreement to pay back a portion of the money in monthly installments. Goudreau dismissed the incident in an interview last week, saying, “It was nothing, man.”

Goudreau was granted a medical retirement from the Army, according to service records. His exact injuries remain unclear, but he told the Orange County Register in 2017 that he was shot several times and “blown up once.” Court records show he suffered an unknown injury in August 2014 and was collecting disability payments after he left the military in 2016. His discharge paperwork and Army records do not show any Purple Hearts, the award given for wounds inflicted by the enemy in combat.

Following his discharge, Goudreau roamed the country with a motorcycle and hammock, a former Special Forces officer told the Military Times. He later turned up in Florida.

In July 2018, Goudreau attended a school safety conference in Orlando, where, in the aftermath of the deadly shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, vendors from across the country tried to convince rattled school superintendents that their company could best protect students from harm.

Venezuela’s Maduro says two Americans captured in failed invasion attempt

Amid the crowd, Goudreau, a self-described “counterterrorist,” stood out. His hair was buzzed, his jawline sharp. He wore a snug gray suit and a shirt unbuttoned to his chest. On a TV screen behind his booth, videos — of himself, talking — played on a loop.

He claimed his Space Coast-based security firm, Silvercorp, was in talks with several Florida schools. His idea: to embed former Special Operations agents posing as teachers.

“We’re the counterterrorist component of military Special Operations, and we’re all retired guys,” he said. He described their approach as “clandestine.”

Goudreau did not say what his staffers would teach, but he knew exactly how Silvercorp would charge for their services. To avoid government bureaucracy, he said, he wanted to bill the parents of each student $8.99 a month.

“The beauty of it is it’s all for the price of a Netflix subscription,” he said.

But his true streaming-service-worthy production would come two years later: the alleged plot to kidnap Nicolás Maduro.

A country deeply divided, but with the promise of riches

Venezuela, a fractured South American country of nearly 30 million, saddled with deepening poverty, shortages of goods, blackouts and runaway crime, is also the object of a seemingly unending tug-of-war for power. Maduro, accused of stealing the 2018 elections and unleashing a repressive campaign to kidnap, torture and kill opponents, faces a rival claim for the presidency. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó, head of the nation’s last democratic institution, the National Assembly, is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

Yet if Venezuela is rife with tragedy and division, the oil-rich state is also a potential pot of gold. And early last year, U.S. businesses looking to profit from opposition-backed humanitarian relief operations — as well as lucrative contracts in a post-Maduro Venezuela — began exploring opportunities with Guaidó’s government-in-waiting.

Goudreau’s first brush with Venezuela’s misery came in February 2019, he said, when he worked security at a benefit concert organized by British billionaire Richard Branson in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. But it was at a meeting with opposition representatives in South Florida in April 2019 that his interest began to deepen.

Goudreau was taken to the meeting by Keith Schiller, a former longtime bodyguard for Trump who worked in the White House in 2017, according to several people familiar with events. Schiller, now a security consultant, had attended a meeting in Washington about how American businesses could invest in Venezuela the month before.

U.S. indicts Venezuela’s Maduro on narcoterrorism charges, offers $15 million reward for his capture

The March 2019 meeting at Washington’s University Club, organized by the consulting firm Global Governments, also included Texas businessman Roen Kraft, according to a consultant at the firm and internal documents, and Lester Toledo, then the opposition’s point man on humanitarian aid.

The focus of the Florida meeting was aid and security. Schiller didn’t know Goudreau before inviting him, according to a person close to Schiller, but had been given his name by a mutual acquaintance. After the meeting, the person said, Schiller concluded there were no business opportunities and severed contact with Goudreau and the Venezuelans.

Kraft, Goudreau later claimed to The Post, was one of his U.S.-based money men.

“He was supposed to be the funding,” Goudreau said.

Kraft, according to three people familiar with his efforts, had pitched business executives and logistics firms on plans to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the Guaidó government. None of them involved fundraising for a covert operation.

“Any matter requiring funding would necessarily require a detailed plan, a realistic expectation of positive results and full accountability,” Kraft said in a statement to The Post. “Having not received those basic expectations, there was no starting point to begin from.”

‘Maduro has to go’

Weeks after the Florida meeting, a Venezuelan opposition official said, Goudreau contacted them again. He was in Colombia and was requesting a meeting in Bogotá. Standing alongside five to six other “big Americans,” he laid out a sensational idea.

“He said he wasn’t able to discuss his real objective on U.S. soil, but that we couldn’t get humanitarian aid into Venezuela with Maduro still in power,” the official said. “He said, ‘You know, Maduro has to go.’ ”

A former Venezuelan military officer who had turned against Maduro put Goudreau in contact with Clíver Alcalá, a former major general who had defected from Maduro’s army. Alcalá, with Maduro, was indicted in March by U.S. authorities on narcoterrorism charges for alleged involvement in the Cartel of the Suns, a feared nexus between drug traffickers and corrupt military men.

Twice in 2019, Guaidó tried to turn soldiers against Maduro — first while attempting to push aid into Venezuela in February, and then during an abortive uprising in April. The efforts yielded only a few hundred defectors.

Many of them fled to Colombia, where Alcalá began recruiting and organizing them, according to eight people familiar with his operation. The details were vague, but one person said they had a “mad plan” to push across the western border, take the oil center of Maracaibo and force their way to Caracas, the capital.

Later, the plan evolved into an operation to target Maduro.

Goudreau told The Post that Alcalá “had a solution, which was like 300 dudes,” he said. But “there was never 300 dudes. There was only ever at any one time maybe 60 dudes.” Goudreau later claimed he had 500 more Venezuelans in Colombia ready to be outfitted, if he could score U.S. licenses to arm them.

The men moved repeatedly around the Colombian border region, staying mostly in remote rural houses. One opposition operative briefed on the Alcalá-Goudreau effort said “it was like ‘Game of Thrones’ — everybody was pledging men. But they didn’t all materialize.”

Colombian authorities have claimed that they had no knowledge of the plot until Alcalá was indicted and a cache of weapons was seized. Alcalá said in an interview with Colombian radio that they were meant to be used in an operation “against the Maduro dictatorship.”

But Venezuelan opposition officials say Colombian intelligence and at least some senior officials were aware of Alcalá’s plans for months.

A recording last spring captures Venezuelan opposition operatives discussing Colombian government resistance to any cooperation with Alcalá and objections from former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, according to four people who have heard it. Maduro made reference to the plot as far back as last summer, suggesting his government was well-informed of the effort virtually from its start.

“The plan . . . is to get 32 mercenaries into Venezuela to kill me and to kill Venezuelan revolutionary leaders,” Maduro said last August.

Inside the secret plot to turn senior Venezuelan officials against Maduro

By September, Goudreau had found another way into the opposition: JJ Rendón, a Miami-based political strategist tapped by Guaidó to study options for ousting Maduro. Goudreau and opposition officials signed an agreement to extract Maduro and key aides from Venezuela, but talks broke down, Rendón said, after Goudreau began to behave erratically and sought to collect a $1.5 million retainer without evidence that he could deliver.

One senior opposition official called the Alcalá-Goudreau plan “the worst-kept secret in Venezuela.” But Venezuelan opposition officials and U.S. officials insist Washington was never told of the effort.

The senior opposition official said U.S. officials included Alcalá’s name last year on a list of current and former Venezuelan military officials they considered too unsavory to work with — another reason not to partner with Alcalá, and thus Goudreau. Rendón said he was not told of Alcalá’s involvement and would not have backed any operation that included him.

“I think they saw him as a threat, that he was going to try to seize power, or whatever the f---, which was crazy,” Goudreau said.

One opposition official met with Goudreau at least four times.

“I thought he was a very ambitious person,” he said.

“I also knew the plan was not going to work.”

Help never came

The lack of backing from either the United States or the opposition was not the story the men in the camps heard.

The day last year when Goudreau visited, he offered a pep talk and classes on combat, according to a Venezuelan defector who was present. In January, they were joined by Berry and Denman, the two Americans arrested by Venezuelan authorities last week.

The Venezuelans and Americans shared a bonding event: the Super Bowl. On Feb. 2, the group tuned in largely for the halftime show, featuring Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.

“We cooked a typical American meal that day,” the Venezuelan said. “Hamburgers.”

He said they were promised that Goudreau and Alcalá would bring financial support: “They talked about giving us cars and motorcycles to move from one town to the other.” They were told weapons for their mission would enter Colombia with diplomatic support.

But as the months passed, financial help never came and would-be participants began to abandon the mission. Others were ejected as fear spread that Maduro’s agents had infiltrated the effort.

Mattos, the former Navy SEAL who now runs a combat-zone nonprofit organization, visited the men at a safe house in September. When he asked about their American backers, they told him about Goudreau.

“They said, ‘He did show us pictures of him protecting President Trump,’ ” Mattos said.

Mattos didn’t buy it.

“They did not have enough food,” Mattos said. “They were drinking water from this river, and that’s where they were bathing and everything. And it was horrible. I was like, ‘You guys, if you were backed by the United States government, you do realize you would have plenty of food.’ ”

He tried to contact Goudreau. Goudreau returned a message, Mattos said, but when Mattos tried to nail down a time to talk, he didn’t respond.

Mattos said he was told their mission would launch in November. After U.S. authorities arrested Alcalá in March and the Associated Press published an article on Goudreau and his plan early this month, he assumed it was dead.

Then Goudreau appeared in the video last Sunday, announcing the start of what he called Operation Gideon. He had sent boats to Macuto, a coastal city 20 miles north of Caracas. Maduro’s forces were lying in wait.

“I just watched Jordan make these horrible, horrible blunders with intelligence and with information,” Mattos said. “He started saying how many guys he had. He started saying how far they had to travel to get to where they were at.

“Sure enough, you know . . . the next morning, Airan and Luke got captured. And I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

Faiola reported from Miami, Boburg from Washington and Herrero from Caracas. Alex Horton, Dalton Bennett and John Woodrow Cox in Washington and Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas contributed to this report.

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