The strongman socialist president said Monday that his security forces had captured two U.S. citizens among dozens of what he called "mercenaries" that attempted to storm the country by sea on Sunday and Monday. Blaming the U.S., his neighbor Colombia, and Venezuela's political opposition, led by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, Maduro waved the two men's U.S. passports on state television and displayed equipment he said came from their boat.
The bizarre incident has seized headlines in recent days, with Maduro and his allies casting it as another American-led effort to push him from power and the State Department suggesting it could be part of "a major disinformation campaign underway by the Maduro regime."
Speaking to reporters at the White House Tuesday, Trump said he was just hearing about it, "But whatever it is, we'll let you know. But it has nothing to do with our government."
The man reportedly responsible is Jordan Goudreau, a retired Green Beret based in Florida who runs a private security firm. In a video released on Twitter by a Venezuelan outlet, Goudreau said he was behind the operation to capture Maduro and "liberate" Venezuela from his rule, and on Monday, he told the Associated Press he had deployed 60 fighters, including two U.S. veterans, to carry out the mission.
Once one of the Western hemisphere's richest countries, Venezuela has faced an economic, humanitarian, and now political crisis in recent years, as Guaidó and other opposition leaders have tried to push out Maduro over his mismanagement of the economy and consolidation of power. With sky-high inflation and dire shortages of food and medicine, over five million people have been forced to flee the country.
But even after the U.S. and some 60 other countries backed Guaidó in 2019 and the Trump administration steadily tightened American sanctions, Maduro has maintained control of the country and its armed forces, increasingly backed by Russia and Cuba.
Goudreau's side has shared what it says is a contract to carry out the operation signed, but never paid for by Guaidó's. But the opposition leader forcefully denied any involvement in Goudreau's scheme, telling the Venezuelan National Assembly Tuesday, "Nicolás Maduro, you are responsible. They knew about the operation, they infiltrated them and waited for them to massacre them."
At least eight of the fighters were killed in clashes with Venezuelan security forces Sunday, according to the Associated Press, with Maduro officials claiming to have arrested 114 people.
"The Americans -- Airan Berry Sack, a professional mercenary of the United States, confessed -- a security member of Donald Trump. And Mr. Luke Alexander Denman, also a member of Donald Trump's security -- they have already confessed, and all the terrorist group, they are already testifying," Maduro said Monday from his presidential palace.
While Goudreau's private firm says it has provided security at Trump rallies, there appears so far to be no real connection to the president or his administration. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday, "The United States government had nothing to do with what's happened in Venezuela in the last few days."
A State Department spokesperson told ABC News the agency was "aware of reports" of two Americans being arrested, but declined to comment further, citing privacy concerns.
But they went further than Esper, casting doubt on the reality of the entire operation. While the administration is "making efforts to learn more" about Goudreau and the two detained Americans, the spokesperson said, it is also investigating "the role of the Maduro regime in this melodrama."
"The record of falsehoods and manipulation by Maduro and his accomplices, as well as their highly questionable representation of the details, argues that nothing should be taken at face value when we see the distorting of facts. What is clear is that the former regime is using the event to justify an increased level of repression," they added.
In particular, the spokesperson insinuated that despite the Associated Press's reporting that the raid had been planned for months, the spectacle was meant to distract from a riot by prisoners at Los Llanos prison in the city Guanare on Friday. Prisoners protesting new restrictions on food delivered by family were met with force by prison officials, sparking a deadly confrontation that killed at least 46 people and injured more than 70.
Goudreau told the Associated Press his calls to U.S. officials had so far gone unanswered as he seeks help for Berry and Denman, who he said he served in the U.S. military within Iraq and Afghanistan.
His last communication with them was Monday as they were adrift in a boat near Venezuela's Caribbean coast, just north of the capital Caracas, after an initial confrontation with Venezuelan forces Sunday.