The Mercenary Who Botched a Maduro Coup Is Lying Low in Florida
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Nelson Galvis slept through the first shots. His wife, an insomniac, ran in from the other room and woke him up. Still groggy, the retired business professor stepped to the balcony of their eighth-floor apartment and peered into the 4 a.m. darkness of Macuto, a coastal Caribbean town 25 miles from Caracas. He had a long view of the shoreline, where he could see two boats, one of them flashing blue police lights, and a helicopter circling overhead. Drug seizure, he figured. More gunshots followed.
When Galvis looked again a couple hours later, as day broke on May 3, he could make out a dozen soldiers and police standing on a rock jetty on the beach, with several unmoving human forms at their feet. The state-owned TV news soon reported that authorities had captured foreign mercenaries who’d attempted a coup, but that didn’t make any sense. Macuto is pinched between steep mountains and the sea; any quick maritime getaway from the lone beach is easy to cut off. Besides, the purported firefight occurred directly behind a fortified government building, which a savvy team of infiltrators would’ve known to avoid. More likely, Galvis concluded, the Venezuelan government had staged a phony coup in an effort to unite its angry citizens against a common foe.
Once South America’s wealthiest country, Venezuela is now its poorest. With Earth’s largest oil reserves at his disposal during an unprecedented rise in oil prices, President Hugo Chávez had been able to lift millions of people out of extreme poverty before his death in 2013, but his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has plunged millions back into extreme hardship. Years of cheap crude have combined with inept governance and endemic corruption, some inherited from Chávez, to leave the local currency worthless and electricity, gas, and food scarce. By 2018 almost two-thirds of Venezuelans were reporting that they’d lost more than 24 pounds in the previous year, on average. Today, roughly 5 million of the country’s 30 million citizens have fled. Those who remain are under a strict Covid-19 lockdown.
Galvis, an outspoken critic of the Maduro government, says a hoax seemed to fit with its pattern of intimidation, obfuscation, and periodic crackdowns on dissenters. Fearing they might become targets, he and his wife packed their bags and hid out in a nearby apartment. “We are not dummies,” he says. But his confidence in his theory was challenged several hours later when an odd video began to ricochet around Twitter. The clip showed a fierce-looking man with an action-hero jawline leaning into the camera. It was Jordan Goudreau, a former U.S. Army Green Beret, now head of a Florida security firm called Silvercorp USA. He appeared to be somewhere in South Florida, 1,000 miles north of Venezuela, claiming credit for the raid.
The video played like an Instagram influencer’s first Hollywood screen test. Goudreau enunciated his words carefully. He called the mission Operación Gedeón, as in the biblical kingslayer who rallied an outmatched army. “Our units have been activated in the south, west, and east of Venezuela,” he told the camera. By his side was a flak-jacketed former Venezuelan military captain who said Chávez had once imprisoned him. He told the Spanish-speaking world their men planned to capture Maduro’s “criminal organization” and restore democracy.
But Goudreau’s plan to heist an entire country played out less like a biblical epic than a dark farce. His hapless team never got anywhere near Caracas. About the time his video went online, Venezuelan authorities claimed to have killed eight would-be rebels and would end up arresting 57 others. Two of the arrestees were Americans, ex-Army buddies of Goudreau’s who were captured at sea. Others were nabbed on land with a cache of weapons, radios, and black pickup trucks with guns mounted on their roofs. The Venezuelan government’s network of informants allowed police to anticipate the operation and quickly catch the invaders.
The video’s star wasn’t among those arrested. Pandemic travel restrictions had kept him in the U.S., according to news reports. Since the day of the raid, he’s gone dark, even as the Maduro government parades its Yankee prisoners around in orange prison jumpsuits. Far from the image Goudreau presented to a small army of Instagram followers—shirtless selfies, a security gig at a rally for President Donald Trump, videos of cyborg-speed treadmill runs—he’s sequestered himself in Florida.
The Trump administration no longer recognizes Maduro as the rightful president of Venezuela, and hasn’t responded to his government’s demands to extradite the mercenary influencer. But at a press conference on May 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denied Venezuela’s allegation that Goudreau was operating on behalf of the U.S. government, which has offered a $15 million bounty for information leading to Maduro’s arrest on drug-trafficking charges. “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently,” Pompeo said.
What the hell was Goudreau thinking? He didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. U.S. government records and interviews with more than a dozen of his close associates, friends, and family members, as well as eyewitnesses to key events, suggest even he might not be entirely sure.
Goudreau was born in Canada in 1976. He grew up in Calgary, enthralled by family war stories. His great-grandfather was a decorated World War I medic, his grandfather a World War II infantry sergeant-major. While dreaming of his future military exploits, Goudreau drew comic books about ninjas and practiced judo religiously, according to his father, Paul. In 1998 the younger Goudreau obtained a computer science degree at the University of Calgary while serving in the Canadian military reserves. He obsessed over the prospect of joining the elite U.S. Navy SEALs until he learned pay rises faster in the Army.
After graduation, Goudreau moved to the affluent Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., where he stayed with and worked for his mother’s cousin Donald Ian MacDonald, who’d been a drug policy adviser in the Reagan White House. MacDonald’s wife, Bobbie, says Goudreau was a lousy houseguest. Picking up groceries for the family was beneath him, and he didn’t just leave the toilet seat up, he’d argue about it with her. “He was just arrogant,” she says.
Overconfidence didn’t hurt Goudreau’s plans. He enlisted in February 2001, shortly after obtaining U.S. citizenship, and qualified for the U.S. Army Special Forces (aka the Green Berets) around the time the second Bush administration ordered the invasion of Iraq. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times in the next 15 years as an infantryman and a medical sergeant, earning three Bronze Stars for distinguished service in combat. “He was a grounded guy,” says Drew White, a close friend and former business partner. Sure, Goudreau might exaggerate his badassedness—a story about a firefight could turn 20 Taliban fighters into 100—but he was hardly the worst offender on that front, White says.
Other former comrades remember Goudreau differently. One describes him as both a talented marksman who could snipe a target three-quarters of a mile away and a reckless thrill-seeker who put friends’ lives at risk. A former Green Beret, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harming his career, recalls Goudreau almost colliding with him while skydiving because he wasn’t paying attention to his surroundings. Goudreau later apologized, but it didn’t seem sincere. “My personal opinion of that guy is nothing is ever genuine,” the veteran says. “What do you call a guy who believes his own lies?”
In September 2009, Goudreau and his wife, June, bought an apartment in Phoenix. She stayed there, working toward an accounting degree from Arizona State University. Goudreau, who was stationed in Stuttgart, told the Army that June was living in Brooklyn, N.Y., where the housing allowance was more than double that of Phoenix, according to an official investigation. The investigators found probable cause to conclude Goudreau had committed fraud and tried to cover it up with forged documents, costing the government $86,000. Forced to pay back what he owed, he went into debt, friends say. He also received an official reprimand, which would likely limit his prospects for promotion. He and June split up, and in 2016 he left the service.
Goudreau initially received full disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs because he’d suffered a series of concussions during his tours. Friends say they don’t know if he was ever diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but few soldiers with a résumé like his return home unscathed.
Out of the Army, Goudreau lived an itinerant life, driving around on his Harley and sleeping at KOA Campgrounds or on friends’ couches. He could be moody and unpredictable, friends say. In 2017, while attending a surf camp for wounded veterans in California, he told the Orange County Register he’d been shot multiple times and “blown up” once. Later, he called a friend from a hospital in Las Vegas to say he’d been shot by an ex and required “extensive physical therapy,” according to the Military Times.
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, an Army buddy recruited Goudreau to work for a private security firm guarding AT&T linemen as they repaired the company’s cellphone network there. One night, on a Puerto Rican hilltop with a few other guys, Goudreau pulled out a pair of $13,000 PVS-15 night-vision goggles like the ones used in Army Special Forces, according to someone who was present at the time and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“Where did you get those?” one of the other men asked.
“Afghanistan,” Goudreau replied, implying that he’d stolen them. He said he was joking, then just as quickly told them he’d once been paid to shoot a drug dealer in the face.
A few months later, on Valentine’s Day 2018, Goudreau was crashing in Melbourne, Fla., with another Army pal when a gunman shot and killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a few hours south. The shooting gave Goudreau a new idea: deploying Special Forces vets to provide active-shooter training in schools. He pitched the plan to his friend White, and they created Silvercorp that month. But they never found any customers. Goudreau seemed more focused on finding overseas work, White says, adding, “I’d want nothing to do with any of that.” He focused on his mortgage lending business, and the two lost touch.
Goudreau did manage to secure one international gig, helping guard the Venezuela Aid Live concert in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta in February 2019. Billionaire Richard Branson organized the show to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela and support exiled opposition leader Juan Guaidó. In a video Goudreau posted on Instagram, a well-behaved crowd bounced along to a DJ set. His take on the sunny scene was appreciably grandiose. “Controlling chaos on the Venezuela border,” he wrote, “where a dictator looks on with apprehension.”
By then, relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, never friendly under Chávez or Maduro, had soured further. In January 2019, following disputed elections, the U.S. joined about 60 other countries in declaring Guaidó the rightful president. A few weeks later, Trump also suggested he might send in the American military to support Guaidó’s claim. The U.S. put the $15 million bounty out on Maduro in March.
The history of U.S. intervention in Latin America is long, bloody, and antidemocratic. From the so-called Banana Wars of the early 20th century to the Bay of Pigs invasion to the funding of right-wing death squads in half a dozen countries, U.S. meddling over the past century has united many otherwise-divided residents of the Southern Hemisphere. Still, Maduro has regional enemies beyond Guaidó.
In 2018, Cliver Alcalá, a former Venezuelan general, fled to Colombia after Maduro’s government discovered his plans for a coup. Alcalá already had shady connections to Colombia from his days inside the Chávez regime. According to U.S. officials, he’d been fomenting conflict through a state-run program that gave rocket launchers and machine guns to Colombia’s rebels in exchange for cocaine. In exile, he’d begun telling people he wanted to assemble an invading force to capture Venezuela’s capital city and oil reserves.
Goudreau went to Bogotá in the spring of 2019 to meet with Alcalá, according to the Associated Press, which later broke the news of Goudreau’s campaign in Venezuela. They began plotting with associates of Leopoldo López, a mentor of Guaidó, whose anti-Maduro political party had been shopping around for mercenaries to carry out a coup, according to the Wall Street Journal. Alcalá helped connect Goudreau to a group of exiled Venezuelan fighters in South Florida who were sketching out security for the aftermath of the planned coup. Javier Nieto, a former military officer who leads the group, says Goudreau’s background and apparent dedication to their cause was energizing. “He feels the suffering of the people,” Nieto says.
During the summer of 2019, Goudreau began soliciting investors to contribute money for a combat operation that would last 30 days and require 300 soldiers. The estimated cost of $5.2 million included itemized expenses ranging from M4 assault rifles to Sharpies. He didn’t seem to be getting far until September, when he finagled a meeting with members of Guaidó’s inner circle at the $3 million Miami penthouse apartment of J.J. Rendón, a Venezuelan refugee and political strategist. Rendón, who’s suing Bloomberg Businessweek for defamation over a 2016 article dealing with his influence in Latin American elections, was compiling a list of scenarios that could topple Maduro.
According to Rendón, Goudreau said he’d recruited secretive investors to help finance a coup in Venezuela in exchange for a chunk of the country’s billions in seized assets, and that he already had 1,000 fighters on the ground preparing for an invasion. His backers, he said, would reveal themselves and produce a letter of intent only if he brought them a commitment from Guaidó’s camp. Rendón says that while the plan sounded crazy, he was impressed with Goudreau’s military record.
Eventually, Rendón signed a bizarre contract Goudreau prepared. It promised Goudreau a $1.5 million retainer and $212 million—payable in barrels of oil—if he succeeded in deposing Maduro. Rendón says he didn’t believe the contract truly bound him or his boss, because Goudreau knew they didn’t have the money. Five days later, instead of providing the names of his backers, Goudreau returned to complain about his expenses and demand his retainer, according to Rendón. He grudgingly wired $50,000 of his own money to Silvercorp’s Bank of America account to, he says, make Goudreau go away.
In one last meeting on Nov. 8, Rendón asked the would-be mercenary to sign a document voiding the deal. Goudreau began shouting, and Nieto had to step between them. Goudreau’s lawyers sent Rendón a letter demanding the retainer, but he never responded, and they haven’t sued for it.
Goudreau’s fighting force in Colombia remained far from what he was promising. Ephraim Mattos, a former Navy SEAL who offers medical training and humanitarian aid to civilians in conflict zones, says he and some colleagues visited one of the operation’s training bases last September and found no highly trained army, but an insurrectionist Fyre Festival. Twenty Venezuelans, mostly former police officers and soldiers in T-shirts and swim trunks, were packed into a house on the outskirts of a city in the north of Colombia. They had almost no supplies or money. The men weren’t living in squalor, but they were hungry—and not doing much training.
“Why don’t you have enough food?” Mattos asked during the 10 days he spent giving the men combat medical training. “Where’s the water? Where’s the support?”
It’s coming, they replied. They showed him Goudreau’s Instagram account, filled with videos of the mercenary in the field and soft-focus photos of him directing a Blue Steel squint at a setting sun. They also said the operation had the formal backing of the U.S. government. One day, Alcalá, the exiled general, visited with his wife and daughter and said the same thing.
Mattos left the men some supplies and wished them well. “I’ve come across guys like that before,” he says of Goudreau. “They leave after a couple weeks when they realize it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme.” Mattos doubted the assembled forces would ever go through with their plan.
Former friends attribute Goudreau’s next moves to his greed and blinding self-importance. Toward the end of last year, he started calling old Special Forces comrades, offering them money he didn’t have to train the fighters in Colombia.
Airan Berry was one of the few who said yes. He’d left the military in 2013 and was working as a construction tradesman in Germany when Goudreau called. Berry “didn’t know the time frame, and he couldn’t give me, or didn’t want to give me, any more information,” says Berry’s wife, Melanie. “He trusted Jordan.”
Luke Denman signed on, too. A motorcycle aficionado who often wore a Van Dyke beard, Denman had joined the Army after high school in Texas. He met Goudreau in the military, first in Germany, and grew close to him when their tours in Iraq overlapped in 2010.He remained a reservist until 2014. After working in private security for a few years, Denman trained to become a commercial deepwater diver. He began taking jobs on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, says Braxton Smith, a lifelong friend, but grew tired of the non-exhilarating parts of the job, including the months at sea away from his girlfriend. “He’s not, like, the Rambo type,” Smith says. “What I think happened is that Jordan probably caught him at the right moment.”
On Jan. 13, Silvercorp obtained a last-minute loan from an undisclosed source, according to a lien filing. Three days later, Goudreau, Berry, and Denman boarded a private plane in Miami and flew to Colombia. Not long after, Denman sent an encrypted text to his brother Mark with details of the job. Denman, too, said the coup had U.S. government backing. Mark says he wrote back “Clear and Present Danger,” alluding to the book-turned-movie in which the government disavows knowledge of a CIA team that gets into trouble in Colombia. He says his brother waved away his worries. “He didn’t believe in that stuff,” Mark says. “I always called him Captain America. He’s very patriotic.”
There had once been 300 men in Colombia waiting for Goudreau and his buddies to train them. Now there were perhaps 60, including the 20 or so Mattos had met. Fearing they’d been infiltrated by spies of the Maduro government, the leaders in Colombia had cut loose most of their already tiny force, Mattos says.
Goudreau returned to Florida to scrounge for more funds, leaving Berry and Denman behind to train the remaining fighters. He bought a 42-foot fiberglass boat from a venture capitalist for $90,000 of unknown provenance and christened it the Silverpoint. He popped up in Jamaica around the beginning of March, according to a friend. He was making calls again, trying to rope in more former military guys with six-figure promises. Denman wrote his brother, telling him to keep an eye on the news around the start of May.
In late March, the Silverpoint broke down off the island of Curaçao, about 40 miles from the Venezuelan coast, according to the AP. That same day, Alcalá surrendered to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which extradited him to New York and indicted him for his role in arming Colombian rebels in exchange for cocaine. Goudreau went back to Florida and asked Guaidó’s people for money, without success. By the end of April, there didn’t seem to be much coup left to speak of.
Then came Friday, May 1. At 6 p.m., according to Venezuelan authorities, more than a dozen rebels set out in two boats from a property on the barren Guajira Peninsula, which the country shares with Colombia. The property the authorities identified had served as one of the Goudreau team’s training camps; it was owned by a Colombian drug trafficker related to Alcalá’s wife, according to local media reports.
The Americans would have passed by Aruba and Curaçao as they made their way east, covering some 400 miles of open ocean. They planned to rendezvous with comrades inside Venezuela who’d been stockpiling weapons and attack vehicles. Their targets included the military’s counterintelligence agency, the president’s security force, the presidential palace, and the airport control tower. Once they secured the airfield, they planned to put Maduro (nicknamed “Jackpot”) on a plane out of the country, then help receive incoming humanitarian aid. Goudreau was to fly to Caracas when the job was done.
Of course, they never got that far. Most of these details come from statements Berry, Denman, and their collaborators made to Venezuelan interrogators, possibly under duress, after they were arrested on the morning of May 3 aboard a two-engine motorboat. The rest of their would-be invading force was captured, killed, or otherwise dispersed. “The United States is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid,” Maduro said on TV, holding up the two Americans’ passports.
In interrogations posted online, Berry and Denman seemed utterly naive about what they’d signed up for, though they didn’t exactly deny the charges of terrorism or arms trafficking. Berry told his interrogator he didn’t even know how much he was supposed to be paid. “I was told the money would be good, and I trusted him on that,” he said of Goudreau. If convicted, he and Denman are facing 30 years in prison.
Mark Denman says he believes his brother and Berry signed on to train the rebels, but not that they took part in the fighting. The Americans were dressed in beach gear with their wallets on them, which he speculates might be because they tried to escape by boat, perhaps to nearby Aruba, when the raid plans fell apart. “Look, I fully expect to call my brother an idiot when I see him again,” he says. “But he knows how to run a combat operation. And it involves having a firearm. And pants.”
Absent clear answers for central questions surrounding the coup, conspiracy theories have flourished. Guaidó said in a statement that the Americans were merely pawns and that the operation was a false flag “infiltrated and financed by the dictatorship.” Fallout from the raid has further hobbled Maduro’s opposition. López remains cornered in the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas where he took refuge last year under threat of arrest. Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s former humanitarian aid coordinator, says Goudreau was just a fool and Maduro took advantage of the public spectacle his coup attempt generated. “I think he is a guy who has no idea what he is doing,” Toledo says.
U.S. officials are investigating Goudreau for arms trafficking, according to the AP. At least one of his associates has told people he’s spoken with the FBI, possibly in connection with such an investigation. (The FBI wouldn’t say whether it’s looking into the matter.)
Family, friends, and former colleagues say they can’t understand what happened. Goudreau’s father says they haven’t spoken in a few months, but that his son always liked helping people. That’s little comfort to Berry’s and Denman’s families, who say Goudreau stopped answering their calls after the first day or so. “You just straight-up betrayed your brothers-in-arms,” Mark Denman says.
In a typical photo on Silvercorp’s Instagram account, posted a year before Denman and Berry were captured, Goudreau cuts a swashbuckling figure on what looks to be a military base in Afghanistan, wearing wraparound shades and a broad grin. “Clearly,” he wrote, “the morale is always high with a well-oiled Silvercorp team.” During one of his last interviews given to an online Venezuelan news show based in Florida on the day of the raid, Goudreau’s bravado had evaporated. “I’m just a guy who is trying to help out a group of people,” he said. “I’ve been a freedom fighter my whole life.”
It was all just so unfair, he went on: “I’m out a lot of money.”
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