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Ex-Green Berets jailed in bungled Venezuela coup may have been duped, negotiator says

Airan Berry, left, and Luke Denman, former U.S. Green Berets. (Provided photo/Miami Herald/TNS)

Two former Green Berets jailed in Venezuela for last year’s botched coup are not mercenaries, may have been duped and should be shown leniency by the Maduro regime, said a prominent private negotiator seeking to win their release.

“The Green Berets are innocent of the crimes they are charged with. They were not mercenaries, they were not part of an invasion,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is working with the families of Luke Denman and Airan Berry to win their release.

The two men hired by the Florida security firm Silvercorp USA, might have been duped, suggested Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has successfully won the release of captives across the globe through his non-profit Richardson Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“They were training Venezuelans, no question, on the border. But they were under contract to train Venezuelans in Colombia,” he said. “They never intended to cross the border themselves. They were not part of any invasion. They both ended up in Venezuela, maybe somebody sold them out.

“They arrived in Venezuela with their passports, in shorts and sandals. That’s not what Green Berets would wear for an invasion. More likely, they thought they were leaving Colombia to go back home. They also believed their contract to train Venezuelans was approved by the U.S. government.”

Silvercorp’s contract for training the Venezuelans was approved by Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan lawmaker the Trump administration and various countries recognized as the constitutional leader of the oil-rich socialist nation.

Details remain sketchy about how the two Americans arrived in Colombia and later ended up on boats accompanying the armed incursion called Operation Gideon into Venezuela on May 1, 2020.

A series of stories last year by the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and the McClatchy Washington Bureau detailed how some members of the Trump administration had prior knowledge of the attempted coup, and how loyalists of Venezuela leader Nicolás Maduro infiltrated the ranks of the coup plotters, leading to a massacre of some invaders.

Adding to the intrigue, Jordan Goudreau, another former Green Beret who ran the Florida company that trained the Venezuelans, brought a breach-of-contract lawsuit in South Florida late last year against Juan José Rendón. The political consultant was a representative in Miami of Guaidó.

And Goudreau’s translator Yacsy Álvarez Mirabal, a Venezuelan woman with ties to Florida, now sits in a Colombian jail, accused of illegally importing high-powered rifles and night-vision equipment. She worked for a former Venezuelan general, Cliver Alcalá, extradited from Colombia to the United States in March 2020 and accused of being part of a Venezuelan drug-trafficking ring led by the military and the regime. There are also allegations that drug money might have flowed through the training camps.

Against that complex backdrop, Richardson is trying to convince the Maduro government to take small steps toward a resolution, such as putting Denman and Berry under house arrest in Caracas instead of prison. The two were sentenced to 20 years in prison for their participation in the coup efforts.

The new Biden administration appears to be moving at a measured pace as it reviews policy options for sanctions, diplomacy and bilateral relations with Venezuela and its partner Cuba.

Some of these decisions are likely to be weighed through a political prism since the Trump administration’s hard-line position on Venezuela helped win GOP votes in South Florida.

The reality of Trump policy was a bit more complex. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and longtime conservative adviser Elliott Abrams pursued a hard line, but Trump confidante Richard Grenell, his former ambassador to Germany, met with a regime leader in September seeking a negotiated exit for Maduro.

Grenell’s trip caught the State Department by surprise and created confusion over who was speaking for Venezuela policy.

The White House and State Department had no immediate comment on the status of any talks over the jailed Americans, including a third man, Matthew Heath, a retired Marine arrested in Venezuela last September and accused of plotting to blow up infrastructure.

Heath’s relatives denied he was involved in any plot and told local news outlets in Tennessee in late February that he had been tortured and that they have sought help from the Biden administration.

Richardson declined to discuss details about Heath or the so-called Citgo 6, a group of American executives from Houston-based Citgo. Its controlling owner had been Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA, although many of Citgo’s U.S. assets are in the process of being sold under pressure from creditors.

The Citgo 6 were placed under house arrest this week after being kept under harsh conditions at a Venezuelan prison.

The six executives had been enticed to come to Caracas for an emergency meeting in November 2017 and were arrested soon after they arrived by armed and masked security agents. They were charged with embezzlement derived from a never-executed proposal to refinance some $4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company as collateral.

Last year, the six were sentenced to between eight and 13 years in prison, even though Reuters reported that documents had shown that the executives had informed top Venezuelan officials, including three ministers, of the plans to borrow the $4 billion.

For now it appears the Citgo 6 are more front and center for the Venezuelan government, in part because it hopes the United States will respond to its loosening pressure on the six by engaging in talks that would lead to easing the sanctions imposed on the Venezuelan economy and on top regime leaders.

A door to those talks appeared to open last week when Guaidó suggested a willingness to negotiate a deal with the regime that would lead to free elections in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. Maduro said he would be willing to attend, but there has been little movement since.

One State Department official told McClatchy that the administration remains committed to Guaidó after he called on the new administration to ease sanctions on Maduro earlier this month as a diplomatic olive branch.

“We’re in no hurry to lift sanctions,” the State Department official said, but added: “The U.S. government has always said that sanctions need not be permanent.”

“The United States has made clear that the removal of sanctions may be available for individuals and entities who take concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order, refuse to take part in human rights abuses, speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate Maduro regime, or combat corruption in Venezuela,” said the official, who spoke anonymously without authorization to speak publicly.

One of the sanctions expected to be eased soon as a good faith sign is a Trump administration move that had banned third countries from swapping Venezuelan crude oil for diesel fuel. This has led to fuel shortages for truckers who deliver food and other essentials to ordinary Venezuelans.

Even though the removal from prison of the Citgo 6 is now seen as a good sign, they had been placed and then removed from house arrest before.

But when it comes to the two former Green Berets held in Venezuela, Richardson remains adamant that they are not soldiers of fortune.

“They are innocent of the crimes they are accused of, so using the term mercenaries is not correct. It would be a good thing to find a way to get them back home to their families,” he said.


© 2021 Miami Herald
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