clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The “ridiculous” failed coup attempt in Venezuela, explained

“It’s so mind-bogglingly dumb,” a former Navy SEAL told Vox about the plan.

A Venezuelan government handout photo shows two “mercenaries” caught by Venezuelan soldiers on coup charges in Puerto Cruz on May 8.
| Defense Ministry of Venezuela/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Last September, a group of former Venezuelan troops who had fled to neighboring Colombia trained and prepared for a daring mission: to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — with the false hope of US government assistance.

The plan, to be executed two months later in November, consisted of two parts for the roughly 300 men. One team would take over Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city, which has a crucial seaport. A second team would simultaneously push to Caracas, the capital, to launch an air assault on Maduro’s mansion with US helicopters flown by American pilots wearing Venezuelan military garb.

Once inside the compound, the ex-soldiers, armed with US-provided machine guns and night-vision goggles, would capture Maduro and hold him until help from the Maracaibo team arrived. By that point, the hope was that many of Maduro’s forces would join the rebel cause and stand down without a fight.

With Maracaibo and the seat of Venezuelan power secured, American helicopters would transport Maduro to the US, where he is wanted on drug trafficking charges. Juan Guaidó, the US-backed Venezuelan opposition leader who nearly 18 months ago launched a global movement to become the country’s new president, would finally take over.

That was the plan, anyway. The actual operation that would end up taking place in May was less Michael Bay and more Keystone Cops.

“The whole thing was so ridiculous that it would never work,” former US Navy SEAL Ephraim Mattos, who was not involved in the plan but heard the details directly from the Venezuelans involved, told me. “It was totally insane.”

Beginning on May 1, nearly 60 Venezuelans and two former US Green Berets tried to enter the northern tip of Venezuela in two fishing boats, armed with far fewer weapons than desired.

The plot was immediately foiled. Maduro’s forces killed eight Venezuelan members of the raiding team and arrested another 13 members, including the two American veterans. Maduro claims his forces knew all about the operation. “We knew everything. What they talked about. What they ate and drank. Who financed them,” he said on Venezuelan TV last Monday night.

But even if Maduro didn’t know of the plot beforehand, tweets and videos announcing the raid to the world as it was underway surely would’ve tipped him off.

Those tweets and videos were posted by one of the men behind the attempted invasion: US Army veteran Jordan Goudreau, a three-time Bronze Star recipient and founder of Silvercorp USA, a small Florida-based private security company.

A screenshot of a Silvercorp USA promo video featuring Jordan Goudreau.
Silvercorp USA

After talks with an exiled high-ranking Venezuelan general and having secured what Goudreau, at least, believed to be a signed memo of understanding with Guaidó’s team to pursue the operation, Goudreau and his company worked with the anti-Maduro forces to fulfill the mission despite the long odds.

Now some have dubbed Goudreau’s raid the “Stupid Bay of Pigs,” a reference to the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba in 1961. The ordeal has become an embarrassment for both the Trump administration and Guaidó, with each fiercely denying any involvement with the raid.

Here’s how it all came together, how it all fell apart, and what it all means for the future of Venezuela.

The mercenary and the ringleader

To understand why such an ill-conceived raid would go forward in the first place, you need to understand the two men who made it a reality: Goudreau and Clíver Alcalá, a retired major general in Venezuela’s military.

The story begins with the Canadian-born 43-year-old Goudreau. After first serving in the Canadian military in the 1990s, he went on to serve as a medical sergeant and indirect fire infantry member in the US military from 2001 to 2016, deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. He opted to retire after a parachuting accident resulted in a concussion and back injuries.

Such danger comes with the territory of serving as a Green Beret, the colloquial name for Army Special Forces, who are the service’s best for counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions. When Goudreau finally retired from the military, he had received three Bronze Stars, which are awarded for valor or combat service.

By nearly all accounts, he was an exemplary soldier. “He was incredible. He was who you wanted in the trenches with you,” Drew White, who served with Goudreau in Iraq and was formerly a partner at Silvercorp USA, told the Globe and Mail.

But even special forces operatives need to make money once they retire. Goudreau especially needed the funds, as a friend told the New York Post he had more than $100,000 in debts in 2018.

A screenshot from a Silvercorp USA promo video.
Silvercorp USA

Searching for an opportunity, Goudreau found one after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. He got a job at a private security firm, which made him realize those in need would pay good money to have a former soldier do tough work for them.

After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Goudreau saw dollar signs. “I saw Parkland, and I was like, ‘Well, nobody’s really tackling this, so I want to fix this,” he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper during an expo on campus safety later that year. So he created his company, Silvercorp USA, to fill what he deemed a hole in the lucrative school security market.

His big idea: have ex-special forces operatives embed in schools and pose as teachers. Since students would not know their instructors’ actual identities, they might be more willing to describe how they’re feeling, or maybe even reveal their intentions to shoot up the school.

“He’s just a — he’s a cool shop teacher: ‘Hey, what’s up, fellas,’” Goudreau said at the expo, per the Sun-Sentinel, play-acting an imagined conversation that might take place between a student and his teacher-cum-Jack Ryan. “I go sit down with a kid who’s alone, playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ and I just try to see whether there’s any problems.”

Goudreau’s business plan was to charge the parents of the students — not the school directly — $8.99 a month for this service. (He wanted to work directly with the parents, he told the Sun-Sentinel, “so his staff could remain independent from any district’s ‘chain of command.’”)

“The beauty of it is it’s all for the price of a Netflix subscription, so it’s really hard to argue with me about, ‘Well, it costs too much.’ You can’t tell me that,” he said at the expo.

It’s unclear if anyone purchased that specific service from the former Green Beret’s company. But that didn’t stop Goudreau from offering a suite of options for clients, including a two-hour “masterclass” training video on how to respond to a school shooting — starring him, of course.

And, according to the company’s Instagram account, Silvercorp USA was involved in teaching school safety to school children in Cartagena.

What seems clear, though, is that his company did security work for President Donald Trump at least once.

A video on Silvercorp USA’s website features Goudreau, wearing an earpiece and a black suit, walking around the arena during an October 2018 Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina. (The area code of Goudreau’s personal cellphone number comes from that state. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Goudreau’s big break, though — if one could call it that — seems to have been when he did security work for a February 2019 concert organized by billionaire Richard Branson on the Colombia-Venezuela border in support of Guaidó.

The ex-Green Beret clearly enjoyed being there, as he posted a video filmed from the side of the concert stage on his company’s Instagram account with the caption: “Controlling chaos on the Venezuela border where a dictator looks on with apprehension.”

According to White, the former soldier who served with Goudreau, being at the concert made clear to Goudreau that there was a business opportunity for Silvercorp USA in Trump’s desire to oust Maduro. “He was always chasing the golden BB,” he said, referencing military slang for a long-shot success.

But something else happened at the concert that put Goudreau on the path to trying to overthrow Maduro: He met Alcalá.

Retired Venezuelan Gen. Clíver Alcalá during a press conference in Caracas on July 18, 2016. Alcalá was reportedly the ringleader of a group of former Venezuelan troops in Colombia planning to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.
Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

Alcalá was reportedly the ringleader of a group of former Venezuelan troops in Colombia planning to overthrow Maduro. That might seem extreme, but David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) human rights group, told me such brazen plots have been commonplace in recent years.

In 2017, for instance, renegade pilot Óscar Pérez threw grenades at government buildings from a helicopter. The following year, drones targeted Maduro during a military parade on one of the capital’s main streets. In mid-January 2019, days before Guaidó launched his campaign to force Maduro out of power, there was a military uprising against the dictator in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza. And Guaidó himself led a public coup attempt in April 2019 that ultimately failed and set back his movement.

So for Alcalá to have a band of rebels at his disposal plotting a coup perhaps wasn’t so surprising. What was more surprising was that he would be the one leading the group. After all, he was a fan of Maduro’s mentor, the late President Hugo Chávez, and his brother had been Maduro’s ambassador to Iran.

He was also wanted in the US on drug trafficking charges, and in 2011 had been sanctioned by the US government for allegedly giving Colombian guerrillas surface-to-air missiles in exchange for cocaine.

If Goudreau knew any of that at the time, it didn’t seem to faze him.

As the concert wound down, the two men had a meeting at the JW Marriott hotel in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, during which the former general told Goudreau about his plan to send two teams into Maracaibo and Caracas, extract Maduro from his presidential mansion, and install Guaidó as president.

Goudreau said he could help, people familiar with the meeting told the Associated Press, promising to train and arm them for an operation that would cost roughly $1.5 million.

He also said he knew top people in the Trump administration, almost surely referencing his time working security at the president’s 2018 rally. In later months, Goudreau would form a passing relationship with Keith Schiller, Trump’s then-bodyguard, in meetings with Guaidó’s team on Venezuela’s future.

It appears nothing ever materialized from that, though, and there remains no direct evidence of close contact between Goudreau and the Trump administration or anyone close to it.

By the end of the meeting, Goudreau and Alcalá must have come to some agreement. Goudreau and four others — all combat veterans — later traveled to Colombia to meet with some of the rebels and start work with Alcalá.

A June document prepared by Goudreau and shared with me by Mattos, the former Navy SEAL who interacted with the Venezuelans training in Colombia, shows a wish list of items for the operation. It included everything from uniforms, machine guns, night-vision goggles, and pistols, to Sharpie markers, cameras, and morphine. There’s even a line item for anti-tank weaponry, though Goudreau labeled it “Not necessary.”

That Mattos got this document from those preparing to oust Maduro suggests Goudreau shared it with Alcalá and others in the group. Whether or not he promised to get all the items himself, and how he planned to pay for it all, remains unclear.

It’s possible that one source of potential funding was Roen Kraft, a member of the famous cheese-empire family, who reportedly tried to fundraise for the effort partly by promising his contacts inside access when bidding for government contracts in Venezuela once Guaidó was installed. Kraft has denied this, telling the AP, “I never gave [Goudreau] any money.”

Goudreau in August also turned to his friend White, who served with him in the US military, seeking a $750 million investment to seize oil fields in Venezuela after Guaidó became president. Goudreau implied he had the backing of the State Department and other Washington contacts for his plan, White told the Military Times last week.

Still, any operation of this type would require some kind of well-connected financier, and preferably one who had some cachet with Guaidó’s camp.

That’s where J.J. Rendón came in.

The agreement

After months of sputtering efforts to remove Maduro from power, Guaidó had clearly run out of ideas. His allies thus formed a secretive committee last August to explore new ways of achieving their goal, and selected Rendón to lead it.

As the Washington Post notes, Venezuela’s socialist regime pushed the 56-year-old Rendón out of the country in 2013. Now based in Miami, the Maduro critic has become a political consultant.

Rendón told the Guardian that he and his committee looked into several possible options, including hiring private security companies run by veterans. But Rendón quickly found the prices for their services were through the roof. “There were no limits — $1 billion, $1.5 billion,” Rendón said.

J.J. Rendón, a right-wing political consultant and critic of Maduro, was pushed out of Venezuela in 2013. He is now based in Miami.
Emma Brown/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Goudreau made his pitch to Rendón and his group in a Miami condo last September. He dubbed his plan “Operation Resolution,” which was basically a beefed-up version of the Alcalá plan featuring 800 men instead of 300. The real selling point, though, was almost surely the price he was asking. Instead of charging in the billions, Goudreau requested $213 million from Venezuela’s future oil earnings, along with a $1.5 million retainer.

After a few more meetings, Silvercorp USA and the committee signed a deal in October. Rendón told the Washington Post that the deal was a trial balloon, basically, to see if Goudreau could deliver on his promises. But the full general services agreement and attachments, which can be found online, explicitly outline what was agreed to: a coup.

“An operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro ... remove the current Regime and install the recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó,” section 4a of the attachment reads.

Stunningly, the agreement features the signatures not only of Rendón and Goudreau but also of Guaidó, whose name appears just to the left of the former soldier’s. Despite his signature, Guaidó denies any involvement in the planning, telling Venezuela’s legislature he has “no relationship [with Goudreau] nor responsibility for any actions.”

Maduro’s government on Friday, however, released audio of an alleged phone conversation between Goudreau and Guaidó. The Venezuelan opposition leader notes his unease with the plan, but states it’s the right move for his cause.

Rendón acknowledged to CNN en Español on Wednesday that his signature is on the contract, though he maintained the deal was preliminary. “It was an exploration to see the possibility of capture and bringing to justice members of the regime,” he said, adding that the committee also looked at other methods to achieve their anti-Maduro goals.

The major reason nothing came of the contract, Rendón told the Washington Post, was because Goudreau began behaving “erratically” after signing it. The war veteran couldn’t produce any proof he had funding for the operation or 800 men at his disposal, yet he consistently demanded he be paid the promised $1.5 million retainer, Rendón said.

Rendón showed the Guardian some text messages Goudreau sent him during that time. “I will get the 1.5 the legal way. What a shame,” Goudreau wrote. “We gave this to you on a silver platter and you fucked the whole thing up.”

Rendón eventually gave him $50,000 to see if what Goudreau needed was more time, but that didn’t help either.

Very quickly, the committee lost faith in Goudreau, and Rendón had a major argument with him in November. For those at the highest levels, it seemed, the plan was dead.

Yet for the ragtag rebels still waiting on Goudreau’s help in Colombia, the plan was anything but.

The wait

Mattos, the former Navy SEAL, leads a nonprofit organization that provides free training for humanitarian rescue and relief operations. Last fall, a contact put him in touch with the ex-Venezuelan soldiers to provide them with medical training.

Mattos told me he was comfortable doing just that, but wouldn’t cross the line into military training. The only way he’d consider offering actual military training was if the Venezuelans could put him in touch with the American government official coordinating with them.

They couldn’t — because there wasn’t one. The fighters believed Goudreau was the go-between, liaising with the Trump administration to get funding and combat equipment to fulfill the mission.

They showed Mattos a picture of Goudreau, with some saying he was CIA and would get all the things he promised them. The former Navy SEAL tried to disabuse them of that idea: “He’s not who you think he is,” he recalls telling them. “They thought it was US assistance coming down to help them, that he was US-government approved, and that he talked to President Trump.”

“They were convinced,” he added.

Mattos did end up providing medical training to roughly 20 ex-Venezuelan soldiers in Colombia, who were living in a rundown house with barely enough food and water for everyone. The only way the men could reliably quench their thirst was from the untreated water of a nearby river, Mattos told me.

Yet their spirits were high, he said, in part because they believed in the mission and their leader, Alcalá. Mattos said the former general casually stopped by one day with his wife and younger daughter, and the demeanor of the lower-level soldiers clearly conveyed a sense of respect.

The situation got worse in December and January. There were suspicions that some of the men in Colombia were loyal to Maduro and secretly reporting back to Caracas, Mattos heard from some of the rebels. The team eventually broke up into smaller groups, and some original members were kicked out.

But that didn’t stop the plotting. Mattos heard from an anti-Maduro fighter in mid-February that the operation would finally happen in March. It didn’t, and Mattos has no information on why. There are four possible answers, though.

First, one of the rebels was arrested after he entered Venezuela in early March. Second, that same month the US indicted Alcalá along with Maduro and other top officials on charges of narcoterrorism. Third, Colombian authorities seized a shipment of weapons meant for the mission. And finally, a full year after his first meeting with Alcalá, Goudreau still hadn’t provided the rebels with the weapons and equipment he’d said he’d get them.

“He overpromised and underdelivered,” Mattos concluded.

That would become evident just a few months later, when the operation finally went ahead.

The invasion

On May 1, the Associated Press reported the story of Goudreau and Alcalá’s efforts. It detailed much of the original plan, how Goudreau got involved, and why no operation launched despite months of training and planning.

It’s possible Goudreau saw the article and decided to act, because the mission to overthrow Maduro — dubbed “Operation Gideon” — began that same day. “Dollar signs and pride” are likely what led Goudreau to move forward with the plan, Mattos told me. “It talks.”

About 60 men, not the 300 from the original plan and far short of the 800 Goudreau said he could field, set out from Colombia to Venezuela in two small fishing boats armed with guns, ammunition, and two-way radios. Among the crew were two former US Green Berets — Airan Berry, 41, and Luke Denman, 34 — whom Goudreau had recruited to help with the overthrow after serving with them in Iraq.

ID cards of people linked to “Operation Gideon” are displayed during a meeting with members of the Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela, on May 4.
Miraflores Presidential Palace/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It was a rough trip in almost every way. Seasick, many of the men vomited on the journey over. “To call it an amateur operation would be very, very generous,” Fernando Cutz, formerly the director for South America at Trump’s National Security Council, told me.

One person who was noticeably not in a fishing boat heading to the Venezuelan coast was Goudreau himself. Instead, he was in another location recording a video to announce to the world that the operation was underway.

“A daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia deep into the heart of Caracas,” Goudreau said in the video, standing alongside a former Venezuelan army captain. “Our units have been activated in the south, west, and east of Venezuela.”

The video was put out by Factores de Poder, a Miami-based YouTube channel focused on Venezuela, and Goudreau would continue to be interviewed by the outlet as the raid progressed.

Silvercorp USA also tweeted about the mission on May 3, the day the boats were intercepted by Venezuelan authorities. (The Silvercorp USA Twitter account has since been deleted.)

Needless to say, announcing a coup attempt before it had really begun wasn’t the best way to maintain the element of surprise. “It’s so mind-bogglingly dumb that I thought it was misdirection,” Mattos said.

Between the AP story, the video, the tweet, and Maduro’s likely knowledge of the operation beforehand, the 60 men stood little chance.

Venezuela’s information minister, Jorge Rodríguez, told reporters last week that the first boat made its way to a town near Caracas on May 1. The second boat was behind the first, he noted, but it got into a 45-minute firefight with Venezuelan military helicopters, snipers, and even angry fishermen.

Those who survived tried to flee to a nearby Dutch island, but instead the boat just ended up dropping off members in different areas along the coast, where Venezuelan authorities eventually arrested them.

Ultimately, at least eight members were killed and 13 were taken into Venezuelan custody, including the two American ex-Green Berets; some Maduro critics claim his forces executed some of the prisoners.

The operation was a failure before it even started.

During a TV address on May 4, Maduro ridiculed members of the invasion force as “playing Rambo” and held up IDs the two Americans had apparently been carrying on them when they were captured, including Berry’s passport as well as an expired Pentagon badge.

Venezuelan state media also released a video of Denman under interrogation in which he admits to his involvement. “I was helping Venezuelans take back control,” he says, adding that the mission was codified in the contract signed by Goudreau, Rendón, and Guaidó.

Mattos told me he recognized some of the men he trained in videos of the botched raid. “I’ve been sick to my stomach the last couple of days because of all this,” he said. “I know these guys, and I care about these guys. I consider them friends and would have them over for dinner.”

“Now I see them in shackles and only God knows what’s happening to them,” he continued.

Not even Goudreau knows. “I’ve tried to engage everybody I know at every level,” he told the Associated Press on May 5. “Nobody’s returning my calls. It’s a nightmare.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured reporters on May 6 that “we will use every tool that we have available” to bring the two Americans home.

The aftermath

It’s fair to say things haven’t gone well for anyone even tangentially implicated in the failed raid.

Guaidó remains on the defensive, fielding questions about his involvement and whether he orchestrated a coup attempt with American help.

“This clearly contributes to the deterioration of the opposition’s national and international standing,” said Smilde, the Venezuela expert at WOLA, and in the short term, he said, it “strengthens the Maduro government’s effort to demobilize the opposition by appearing invincible.”

Officials in the Trump administration from the president on down have also denied any “direct” role in the operation.

Cutz, who worked on Venezuela policy for Trump’s National Security Council, told me he thinks both sides are likely telling the truth.

If Guaidó really was involved, he did a bad job of helping out. “There was no reception for these individuals when they arrived. No street demonstrations. No anything on the Venezuelan end,” Cutz said. “Why would he sit there quietly and not try to help this operation?”

Furthermore, Cutz said, “If the US government decided to overthrow Maduro, Maduro would be gone. The American military could defeat the Venezuelan military, I have no doubt about that. But could 60 guys do it? No.”

Trump himself expressed similar sentiments on Friday. “If I wanted to go into Venezuela I wouldn’t make a secret about it,” he said in a Fox News interview. “I’d go in and they would do nothing about it. They would roll over. I wouldn’t send a small little group. No, no, no.”

“It would be called an army,” he continued. “It would be called an invasion.”

Maduro, meanwhile, just had his best week in months. He insists the American government orchestrated the whole thing, claiming the “government is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid.”

Whether or not that’s actually true — and, again, there is no evidence so far that the US government was involved — the fact that two American former special forces soldiers were captured carrying their military IDs helps bolster Maduro’s longstanding assertion that Guaidó’s efforts to remove him are part of a thinly veiled American coup attempt.

The notion that the US government would be involved in a clandestine operation to overthrow a government in Latin America is not exactly farfetched, either. And the Trump administration hasn’t been subtle about its desire to remove Maduro and install Guaidó.

Indeed, Cutz said he faults the Trump administration, and especially former National Security Adviser John Bolton, for an aggressive stance toward the country that set the scene for something like this to happen.

Bolton and Trump’s team “used language that was excessive, and led to interpretations by individuals that overthrow was official US policy,” Cutz told me.

Goudreau certainly came to that conclusion and tried to profit from it. Instead, he got people killed and captured, and upended US foreign policy. And US federal law enforcement officials reportedly are now investigating him for arms trafficking. A spokesperson for the FBI, citing Justice Department policy, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing probe.

Possibly going to prison for that crime is not the punishment Mattos, the former Navy SEAL, believes Goudreau deserves. “He needs to turn himself over to the Venezuelan government in exchange for the two Americans,” he told me emphatically. “He should do that voluntarily.”


An oil executive is leading the UN climate summit. It’s going as well as you’d expect.

Supreme Court

Two new Supreme Court cases ask if there is a right to medically necessary abortion

World Politics

Israel moves into southern Gaza after a week-long truce — and its goals are murkier than ever

View all stories in Politics