'Bay of Piglets': A 'bizarre' plot to capture a president

By Linda Pressly
BBC News

  • Published
The Venezuelan military said it captured mercenaries after the failed coupImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Venezuelan military said it captured mercenaries after the failed coup

On Sunday 3 May, the government of Nicolas Maduro announced Venezuela's armed forces had repelled an armed incursion. Operation Gideon was a deeply flawed coup attempt. But what would compel exiled Venezuelans and former US Special Forces soldiers to join a plan that, from the outset, looked like a suicide mission? 

It is a story that leaps straight out of a 20th Century playbook of Latin American conspiracies.

"It made the Bay of Pigs look like D-Day," quipped one commentator, referring to the failed US-financed invasion of Fidel Castro's Cuba in 1961. Operation Gideon is a staggering tale of hubris, incompetence and treachery. Eight men were killed by Venezuela's armed forces off the coastal town of Macuto. Dozens of others were captured and remain in jail in Caracas. Less than a handful escaped. And coinciding with the height of the coronavirus pandemic, it has attracted less attention outside the Americas than it otherwise might have done.

At the heart of the failed mission was a former US Special Forces soldier, Jordan Goudreau.

Image source, Silvercorp
Image caption,
A screenshot of a Silvercorp promotional video showing Jordan Goudreau

Medic, marksman, veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq and recipient of three Bronze Star medals, Goudreau was way out of his depth.  

"A daring amphibious raid was launched from the border of Colombia," he intoned, in a widely distributed video published hours after it began. "Our men are continuing to fight right now… Our units have been activated in the south, west and east of Venezuela."

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This was not true. Some supporters in Venezuela may have been tipped off, but Operation Gideon - named after a Biblical character who triumphed over a much larger army - consisted of fewer than 60 poorly armed men and one woman. And in reality the operation had already descended into bloody chaos.

In 2018, Jordan Goudreau founded Silvercorp USA, a private security contractor. Its Instagram account is a mix of images of military prowess and Goudreau sprinting fast on a running machine. 

In February 2019, he was hired to provide security for a Richard Branson-sponsored gig on the Colombian side of the Venezuelan border. The purpose of the concert was to pressure Nicolas Maduro into allowing humanitarian aid into Venezuela, where an economy in freefall, violence, hunger and the collapse of basic services had forced millions into exile in Colombia.

"Controlling chaos on the Venezuela border where a dictator looks on with apprehension," is the caption Goudreau wrote on the video he uploaded to the Silvercorp Instagram account. By "dictator" he meant Nicolas Maduro.

Image source, Silvercorp
Image caption,
A Silvercorp promotional video shows Goudreau in various security roles

These were almost halcyon days for Venezuela's fractured and wrangling political opposition.

The month before the concert in Caracas, Juan Guaido had declared himself the interim President of Venezuela. In a direct challenge to Nicolas Maduro, more than 50 nations recognised him, including the US. 

Guaido had hoped the aid convoy championed by the Branson gig would help to sweep him to power, but it was blocked at the border, amid violent scenes. An attempted rebellion at the end of April also came to nothing. So Guaido's supporters began to consider removing Maduro in a surgical military operation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Juan Guaido

The first training camp was set up in the Colombian city of Maicao in June.

"We had men getting fit, gaining knowledge. But we had a lot of economic difficulties - sometimes we could only afford to provide two meals a day, not three," an exiled member of the Venezuelan parliament, Hernan Aleman, told the BBC before his death from Covid-19 earlier this month. 

"We collected money where we could - I sold my car and my apartment." 

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This was a conspiracy desperately in need of cash. Step forward Jordan Goudreau. Back in the US, had already made contact with Venezuela's opposition.

On a trip to Colombia in July, Goudreau was introduced to Gen Cliver Alcala, the founder of the training camp, who had been close to Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, but then fell out with Maduro and went into exile. The two Alpha males joined forces. 

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Gen Cliver Alcala

"We talked about the plan - a tactical operation to capture the big players in Venezuela who would be handed over to the United States. Juan Guaido would assume the mandate as interim president, leading to free elections in Venezuela," remembered Hernan Aleman.   

Jordan Goudreau said he would arrange the finances, and further meetings were held in Miami, this time with Juan Guaido's presidential commission, a body tasked with secretly exploring ways of deposing Maduro. 

"We researched around 22 scenarios… maybe a third of them involved the use of force," says J J Rendon, a fiercely right-wing, Venezuelan, Florida-based political strategist and member of the presidential commission. 

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
J J Rendon

"We didn't talk with any other military contractors [except Silvercorp], but we reviewed them big time, sure. We even reviewed the Foreign Legion." 

Goudreau said he had business backers - people who would invest in the military operation on the understanding they would reap the economic rewards under a Guaido-led administration in Venezuela. A contract was signed on 16 October 2019 for an operation, "to capture / detain / remove Nicolas Maduro, remove the current regime and install the recognised Venezuelan President Juan Guaido".  Goudreau would get a $1.5m retainer, and later collect over $200m. 

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro at a virtual news conference in Caracas

For those made aware of the hush-hush plan, there was elation. 

"For years we were just by ourselves, with our own resources and no support from any political system," says Javier Nieto, an exiled former captain in Venezuela's national guard, who was once accused of plotting to assassinate Hugo Chavez and jailed.

"But this time, I was very excited because the plan was made with the support of men like J J Rendon, Juan Guaido and his strategic team."

However, within days, bad blood surfaced. Jordan Goudreau demanded the $1.5m retainer. The commission wanted to see evidence of his backers first. The former Special Forces soldier could not produce any, and a gathering at J J Rendon's ocean-side Miami home ended badly.   

Image source, Silvercorp
Image caption,
A promotional video on the Silvercorp website apparently showing Goudreau providing security at a Trump rally

"He became moody and disrespectful," Rendon says, referring to Goudreau.

"Our last meeting on 8 November last year was very, very uncomfortable. So I said, 'This is not going anywhere, I want you to leave my premises.'"

Even so, he paid Goudreau $50,000 - to cover expenses, he says.

For Juan Guaido's presidential commission, the agreement was now void. But for Goudreau and those in the Colombian training camps - there were now three - it was still very much alive. 

In January 2020, two former US special forces soldiers recruited by Goudreau arrived in Colombia - one was Luke Denman, a veteran of Iraq, who had re-trained as a diver, but who found it hard to leave military life behind.

Image caption,
Luke Denman

"I think he really missed that close bond with the people he was working with because they live, sleep, breathe together, and trust each other with their lives. Jordan was the medic with their team, and Luke saw those men as his brothers - he completely trusted them," says Sarah Blake, Denman's sister.

"We just know that Jordan called up Luke, and must have convinced him this was something important, and would really make a difference to the lives of Venezuelans. Luke called my dad and told him he was taking a job, and it was the most meaningful thing he'd ever done."

Sarah Blake believes her brother - now in prison in Caracas - was misled by Jordan Goudreau. 

"Luke told my brother this was a US government-backed mission," she says.

Image caption,
Airan Berry

According to a number of sources, this was a belief shared by the Venezuelans in the camps, and by the other former US soldier, Airan Berry. But it was false. 

By March 2020, the operation still had no solid financial backing. And although the two Americans had joined the mission, up to 20 of the Venezuelans had left. Some had found camp life too onerous, others feared the whole enterprise had been infiltrated by Maduro loyalists. Then things started to go very wrong. 

On 23 March, the Colombian authorities seized a lorryload of military gear, including assault rifles. Three days later the US Department of Justice indicted Gen Cliver Alcala, accusing him of narco-terrorism, and put a $10m price on his head. He gave himself up after taking to social media to declare the captured arms the property of the Venezuelan people "within the framework of the agreement made by President Juan Guaido, J J Rendon and US advisers" - a reference to the contract Guaido's commission said had been dead in the water for months. 

Hernan Aleman told the BBC he smelt a rat. Alcala was indicted, he thought "so that our action - the operation - would fail".

Several sources have suggested both the Colombian and US authorities became jittery about the camps. They thought if Alcala was removed, the men in training would disperse. But they stayed. And with Alcala gone, Antonio Sequea - a former captain in the National Guard, who had worked in counter-intelligence at the highest levels inside Venezuela - assumed leadership of the operation. So where was Jordan Goudreau? Not in Colombia…

"On 28 March, 2020, our rescue and co-ordination centre located in Curacao received a distress call from some people on a pleasure craft who needed help.  We sent our aeroplane to the location immediately," says Shalick Clement, the spokesperson for the Dutch Caribbean Coastguard. 

The boat was called Silverpoint, and press reports suggest it was owned by Jordan Goudreau's company, Silvercorp USA.  But the Dutch plane was not needed - the Miami Coastguard had already instructed a passing tanker to pick up the two American citizens and take them to the US. Was Jordan Goudreau one of them? Was the Silverpoint carrying weapons to Colombia when it broke down? The Miami Coastguard referred all questions about the incident to the FBI. The FBI did not have a comment. Where the boat ended up is unknown. 

As far as we know, Jordan Goudreau did not travel to Colombia again - the pandemic grounded him in Miami. But if Goudreau was one of the men forced to hitch a ride on that tanker, the death knell of Operation Gideon was probably sounded the same day. This was not because this crack-shot veteran - a man who called himself a freedom-fighter - was not there to lead his troops. But because of a bombshell that dropped in Venezuela.

On 28 March, on his weekly TV programme, Diosdado Cabello - Venezuela's number two after Nicolas Maduro - had some shocking revelations. He presented a comprehensive overview of the exiles' camps in Colombia, with the names of many of the Venezuelans and all three Americans involved.          

The operation was blown.

But by now the men and one woman who endured those austere camp conditions had changed locations. They were in a remote part of coastal Guajira on the border with Venezuela - a land of cacti, sand and desert brush.

Did they know Nicolas Maduro's government had intelligence about the conspiracy? Venezuelans are some of the most connected people on Earth, but apparently only those in charge had access to cell phones. One source says the commander, Antonio Sequea, was aware of Cabello's TV expose and other comments made by Nicolas Maduro's ministers about the conspiracy, but he assured supporters in the US he had everything under control.  

Did Jordan Goudreau know the operation was compromised? That is not clear. None of the Americans spoke Spanish. A source says Luke Denman and Airan Berry had a satellite phone in Colombia. And they were in touch with Goudreau, who continued to tell them more US veterans would arrive to bolster the mission. 

If Goudreau did know the government of Nicolas Maduro had good intelligence, perhaps he did not tell his friends. Sources say he was distracted by money problems: he still owed about $30,000 for the arms cache captured by the Colombians. And at the end of April, his lawyers sent a letter to Juan Guaido's US commission, once again demanding payment of that $1.5m retainer.       

In any case, whether or not the fighters knew that details of Operation Gideon had reached the hands of the Maduro government, the plan as it was finalised looked completely reckless. According to sources close to the mission, but not on it, after amphibious landings on the coast of Venezuela, the men would spend a few days in safe houses before moving covertly to Caracas. In the capital they would again lie low before readying for attacks on the targets: the presidential Palace of Miraflores, military jails to release detainees, and SEBIN - the HQ of Venezuela's Intelligence Service. The aim was to capture Nicolas Maduro and his closest associates.  What could possibly go wrong? As it turned out, pretty much everything.

On Friday 1 May at 6pm, a boat carrying 11 men left the shores of Colombia bound for Venezuela - they had eight rifles between them. Ten minutes later, a second vessel, with 47 on board and just two rifles, motored out into the Caribbean Sea. Within an hour, one of its engines had failed. And there were many more hours to endure - the sea was rough, the men were seasick.   

In the coastal town of Macuto, Nicolas Maduro's armed forces were waiting for that first boat in the early hours of Sunday 3 May - with deadly consequences for eight of the men on board.  

The second vessel was miles behind. And by now it was dangerously low on fuel. A decision was made to drop off most of the men on land to try their luck at escape. The rest - including the commander, Antonio Sequea, and the two Americans - stayed on board and were soon detained.   

Image source, Twitter
Image caption,
Luke and Airan after their capture

Operation Gideon has been christened the "Bay of Piglets" by some commentators, others have described it as "bizarre" and "madness". Could military man Javier Nieto explain why these exiled Venezuelans risked almost certain death or capture? 

"Maybe they wanted to die trying something. If they stayed in Colombia, there's no work - they had zero money to survive. So maybe they would have to join the guerrillas, or a narco-trafficking group," he says.

"It sounds crazy, but in the middle of this desperation, I assume that maybe 60% or 70% thought, 'OK, I'd prefer to be in jail in Venezuela than in Colombia with one of those groups.'"

This would not explain why two highly trained, US former special forces soldiers climbed into that boat on a quest to "liberate" a country that was not theirs. 

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
ID cards of people linked to the operation, presented by Maduro at a news conference

What happened to the man who had roped them into this desperate debacle, Jordan Goudreau? 

On 3 May, hours after recording his video referring to the units that had supposedly been activated around the country, and when it was already clear the raid had been a disaster, he went on the digital US TV station, Factores de Poder, and revealed details of the agreement he made with Juan Guaido's presidential commission, claiming it was still valid, and that Guaido had signed it.

"I have audio, you know… I've got a recording of the actual transaction between President Guaido and myself," he said.

Juan Guaido denied that was his voice on the tape, and said he had never talked to Goudreau, or signed any contract.

Within hours of the disastrous culmination of Operation Gideon, Venezuela's opposition claimed it was a "false-flag" operation - a propaganda exercise sponsored and controlled by Nicolas Maduro's government. 

"That's really a joke," says Jorge Arreaza, Nicolas Maduro's minister of foreign affairs.

"That is a way for the opposition to evade their responsibilities. They have done so many things in the last 20 years - aggressions of all kinds, and they never take responsibility for what they do. They always say it was the regime, it was the dictatorship, it was the tyrant."

So who betrayed the rag-tag band of invaders? Speculation swirled around Antonio Sequea, the commander who replaced Gen Cliver Alcala after he handed himself in and was flown to the US. But one exile with connections to the camps in Colombia, who did not want to be identified, has doubts.

"We knew Sequea used to be well-connected with the regime, so that makes him suspect. But his cousin died in that first boat in Macuto. Would he have sacrificed a family member? That would just be so bad…" 

Jorge Arreaza also denies Sequea was working for the Maduro government.

"Those are all lies," he says.

"It wasn't Venezuelan agents giving us information from the camps, it was several Colombian military people, because they didn't want a war between Colombia and Venezuela."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Members of Venezuela's special forces after the failed mission at Macuto

Venezuelan politics are febrile. They can be venal, they are often violent, but above all they are completely polarised. On the fringes of the opposition, some people believe it is possible Jordan Goudreau sold out to Nicolas Maduro. 

"How can an American mercenary who has been paid to kill Maduro be working for President Maduro?" asks an incredulous and irritated Jorge Arreaza.

So much still does not add up about Operation Gideon. Perhaps - like the Bay of Pigs 60 years ago - it will remain the subject of endless speculation. And what happened to Jordan Goudreau? His whereabouts are unknown. The FBI will not confirm or deny whether he is under investigation.