President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that the United States government had nothing to do with an alleged incursion into Venezuela that landed two US citizens behind bars in the crisis-stricken South American country.
Trump said he had just learned of the detention of the pair, accused by Venezuela of being mercenaries. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said they were part of an operation to kill him that was backed by neighbouring Colombia and the US.
“Whatever it is, we’ll let you know,” Trump told reporters in Washington, DC, before departing from the White House to Arizona. “But it has nothing to do with our government.”
Maduro said: “The United States government is fully and completely involved in this defeated raid” and praised members of a fishing village for cornering one group and netting the “professional American mercenaries”.
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper echoed Trump’s comments later on Tuesday, saying “The United States government had nothing to do with what’s happened in Venezuela in the last few days.”
Authorities in Venezuela identified the two detained men as Luke Denman and Airan Berry, both former US special forces soldiers associated with the Florida-based private security firm Silvercorp USA.
A third US ex-Green Beret and Silvercorp founder, Jordan Goudreau, claimed responsibility for leading “Operation Gideon”, which was launched with an attempted beach landing before dawn on Sunday that left eight suspected attackers dead.
The two former US soldiers were detained on Monday dozens of kilometres from the first attempted beach landing in a fishing village. Authorities say they confiscated equipment and detained dozens of others.
Goudreau said the operation was designed to capture – and not kill Maduro. He said he carried it out on a “shoestring budget” after signing an agreement with US-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who Goudreau accuses of failing to pay him. Guaido denies having any relationship with Goudreau.
Venezuela is gripped by a deepening social, politico and economic crises under Maduro’s rule that has led nearly five million residents to flee crumbling social services, such as unreliable water, electricity and broken hospitals.
The US is among nearly 60 countries that back Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Guaido invoked the constitution more than a year ago and declared himself interim president. Maduro, who maintains the backing of China, Russia and most of Venezuela’s state institutions, including the military, accused Guaido and the US as staging a coup at the time.
Venezuela and the US broke diplomatic ties a year ago, so there is no US embassy operating in Venezuela’s capital of Caracas.
“It shocks me how insane they were,” said Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. “They walked right into a coiled rattlesnake without even having minimally studied the capacity of the Venezuelan armed forces. There’s no way the US government would’ve supported an operation like this.”
Guaido – often derided by Maduro as a US puppet – has cast doubt on the government’s version of Sunday’s events.
“They’re trying to create a state of apparent confusion, an effort to hide what’s happening in Venezuela,” Guaido said in a virtual session of Congress on Tuesday, citing gasoline shortages, a deadly prison riot and a violent gang battle in Caracas. The Venezuelan government is also struggling to cope with the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.