An American mercenary captured after a bungled attempt to topple Nicolás Maduro has claimed he was on a mission to seize control of Venezuela’s main airport in order to abduct its authoritarian leader – and he alleged that was acting under the command of Donald Trump.
Luke Denman was one of two US citizens seized by Venezuelan security forces this week after what appears to have been a catastrophically conceived bid to overthrow Maduro by sneaking into the South American country in a fleet of battered fishing boats.
In a heavily edited video confession, broadcast on Wednesday by the state broadcaster VTV, Denman said he had flown to Colombia in mid-January, where he was tasked with training Venezuelan combatants near Riohacha, a city 55 miles west from the Venezuelan border.
From there, Denman – who said he had never previously set foot in Colombia nor Venezuela – claimed the group planned to journey to Caracas to “secure” the city and the nearby Simón Bolívar international airport, before bringing down Maduro.
Denman said his mission had been to secure the airport, set up a perimeter, communicate with its tower and then “bring in planes” including “one to put Maduro on and take him back to the United States”.
“I thought I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Denman added.
There was no sign that any lawyers were present during Denman’s alleged confession, or that he was not speaking under duress.
Denman said he had been working for Silvercorp, a Florida-based private security firm run by Jordan Goudreau, a former US special forces soldier who on Sunday claimed his 60-man team had launched “a daring amphibious raid” designed to overthrow Maduro and “liberate Venezuela”.
Denman, from Austin, Texas, was detained alongside another American, named as 41-year-old Airan Berry, and 11 others . Eight other alleged “mercenary terrorists” were killed.
Speaking on Wednesday, Maduro painted the failed invasion as a 21st-century version of the failed US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and claimed the intruders had been working for Trump.
“Donald Trump is behind all of this,” Venezuela’s authoritarian leader said, brandishing a contract allegedly showing that the mission had been commissioned by his rival, the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó.
“Here is the contract. Here are the signatures … a contract for the invasion of Venezuela. A serious offense,” Maduro said, holding up a Washington Post article which also branded the operation “a Bay of Pigs-style fiasco”.
Guaidó has denied any links to the incursion.
Maduro claimed Trump had “subcontracted” the “disastrous” invasion so as to be able to “wash his hands” of the episode if it went wrong.
The mission does indeed seem to have backfired quite spectacularly.
“They came to Venezuela thinking the people would greet them like some kind of Rambos, with applause,” Maduro celebrated on Wednesday. “But the Venezuelan people … captured them, tied them up, and the police had to intervene so there were no acts of violence against them.”
Maduro claimed Venezuela’s justice system would decide whether or not Guaidó would be arrested.
In Washington, the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said the US would “use every tool” to get the two captured Americans back, and raised eyebrows by saying there was no “direct” US government involvement in the strange raid.
“If we had been involved, it would have gone differently,” Pompeo told reporters shortly before Denman was shown on Venezuelan state television. “As for who bankrolled it, we’re not prepared to share any more information about what we know took place. We’ll unpack that at an appropriate time. We’ll share that information that makes good sense.”
Asked about what action the administration would take, Pompeo said: “We will start the process of trying to figure a way – if, in fact, these are Americans that are there – that we can figure a path forward. We want to get every American back. If the Maduro regime decides to hold them, we’ll use every tool that we have available to try and get them back. It’s our responsibility to do so.”