Venezuelan executive, detained in failed raid, says he was unwitting pawn

They included two American former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, quickly arrested and now Maduro’s captives, and Jordan Goudreau, the Canadian-born U.S. veteran who, in a breathless video recorded in Florida, would announce the start of “Operation Gideon.” 

The fourth passenger was a Venezuelan national named Yacsy Álvarez. She worked for the man who retained the Cessna jet for his personal use: Franklin Durán — a wealthy Venezuelan business executive who was convicted in a U.S. court in 2008 for working as an unregistered agent of Venezuela’s socialist government.

Now the slim, 52-year-old multimillionaire — who spoke to The Washington Post in a series of interviews, his first since the raid — is a central person of interest in the May operation that continues to upend Venezuelan politics.

Maduro has leveraged the failed mission as a propaganda coup, claiming it is evidence of an effort by the United States, Colombia and the Venezuelan opposition to kill him. Its action-movie details have provided him with a welcome public distraction from the country’s broken economy and spreading coronavirus outbreak.

At the same time, the fiasco has deepened discord within the U.S.-backed opposition, which has grown increasingly paralyzed by bitter internal disputes — including a split over the decision last year to explore the use of force against Maduro’s socialist government with Goudreau’s Florida-based company and other private security firms. Polls show opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader, bleeding public support.

President Trump, who welcomed the leader to his State of the Union address and the White House in February, appeared last week to distance himself, telling Telemundo that Guaidó “seemed to be losing a certain power.”

Maduro, meanwhile, has tightened his grip on power. His supreme court has issued several rulings — the most recent on Tuesday — to strip authority from the leaders of three of the four main opposition parties, effectively allowing the government to replace them with figures more willing to deal with him. A defeated opposition, unable to muster street protests amid the pandemic, has watched impotently.

Both the Venezuelan government and the opposition have sought to portray Durán as a covert operative of the other. He was arrested by Maduro’s intelligence police on May 24 and remains in custody. Over the course of three interviews before his arrest, he admitted to giving money to the architect of the plot, retaining the plane that shepherded participants into Colombia, and employing Álvarez — who four people familiar with the operation say provided logistical support in Colombia. They and others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because of potential legal jeopardy amid investigations into the operation by the United States and Colombia.

But Durán said he had no knowledge of the plot. His only sin, he said, was poor oversight of his assets and staff members. He insisted he was not working for Maduro or for Guaidó.

“I was not financing anything,” he said.

There’s no question Maduro had moles inside the murky conspiracy. A few dozen men, most of them former Venezuelan soldiers, launched the raid May 3 after months of haphazard training and planning in Colombia. The government’s knowledge of the operation was so extensive that it broadcast the names of key participants on state television two weeks before it began.

Maduro’s forces quickly put it down. Officials claimed they captured or killed 65 insurgents.

Yet Maduro’s government also alleges that Operation Gideon amounted to a genuine attempt to kill him, orchestrated with the complicity of the Trump administration, the Colombian government and the U.S.-backed opposition — claims all three deny. Opposition operatives do admit to penning a preliminary deal last year with Goudreau to capture Maduro, but say they backed out after concluding he was both erratic and unable to successfully pull off a mission.

Venezuela’s supreme court has charged Durán with treason, financing terrorism, conspiring with a foreign government and other crimes. The opposition and U.S. officials, meanwhile, are floating their own theory: that Durán, whose family maintains close ties to members of the socialist government, was Maduro’s invisible hand, guiding an operation meant to discredit and divide his enemies.

“The situation of Franklin Durán is puzzling,” said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity while the United States investigates what happened. “It creates a series of questions about what the regime knew and when they knew it.”

Alberto Ravell, Guaidó’s spokesman, said Durán “has always been close to the government of Maduro, and we believe there is no doubt that he was very active in this operation.”

Durán insists he is a pawn in a game he never intended to play.

“I had nothing to do with this,” he said.

The son of a goldsmith, Durán rose from relatively modest beginnings to a life of luxury, purchasing a lavish mansion on a barrier island off the coast of Miami and racing Ferraris across Europe. He amassed some of his wealth in the 1990s in electronics, aviation, imports, exports and high-risk bond markets. But after the election of Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, he became identified as a “Boliburgués,” one of a class of business executives who tapped connections to Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution to join a growing bourgeoisie.

His family controlled Venoco, once Venezuela’s second-largest petrochemical firm, and sold security equipment to the government.

Then, in 2008, he was found guilty by a U.S. court of illegally serving the socialist government in what became known in Latin America as “Suitcase-gate.” Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan friend of Durán’s in Miami, was caught in Buenos Aires with $800,000 in cash. U.S. prosecutors said Durán tried to bribe Antonini Wilson to cover up an illegal campaign gift from Chávez to his political ally in Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. They portrayed him as a well-connected businessman who routinely “paid off politicians, government employees and high-ranking officials.”

Durán served four years. He has maintained his innocence.

“I was trying to help out a friend,” he said, and was punished for it.

“I feel like I’m repeating that history now.”

Durán acknowledged holding repeated meetings last year with Clíver Alcalá. Nearly a dozen people familiar with Operation Gideon say the Venezuelan former general was its initial architect, establishing camps in Colombia and recruiting men. Alcalá was arrested and extradited to the United States in March on drug-trafficking charges.

Durán described Alcalá as a longtime personal friend. Over the course of 2019, he said, he gave Alcalá roughly $5,000 in cash. He insisted Alcalá never informed him of his plan.

“I was trying to help a friend who was short of cash,” he said. “When I saw him, every two or three months, I gave him something, for his wife and child.”

Durán confirmed that Goudreau, Denman, Berry and Álvarez used his plane to fly to Colombia in January, a journey first reported by the conservative PanAm Post. But he insisted the trip occurred without his knowledge. Durán said he had hired Álvarez, a former Venoco employee, to redecorate his South Florida home and gave her the authority to use his private plane. He said he learned of the flight after his pilot saw Denman and Berry on Venezuelan television.

“The pilot called me after the government arrested the two Americans,” Durán said. “He said, ‘You know the guys on TV? They flew with Yacsy in January.’

“I was stunned.”

There’s evidence to suggest that Operation Gideon was funded by multiple people. The Post obtained financial transfer receipts indicating a microfinancing operation with donations from Venezuelans living abroad that ranged between $50 and $300. People directly related to the camp’s management said the funds, often sent to specific participants, were pooled and used to purchase groceries and basic cleaning products.

One receipt shows a 90-euro donation from Carlos Molina Tamayo, a Venezuelan former military officer involved in a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez who now lives in Spain. Reached by phone, Molina Tamayo called the money a personal gift to a struggling former Venezuelan military officer living in Colombia. He would not identify him. He said he did not know he was involved in a covert operation.

“That was a humanitarian, personal thing I did to help an officer and his family,” he said in a WhatsApp message.

Durán said he last spoke with Álvarez in March, after the driver of a truck carrying some of the operation’s would-be weapons was detained by police in Colombia. Colombian authorities say he named her as the person who provided the arms to him.

Durán said he questioned her by phone, asking if she was the Yacsy that had appeared in the news. She responded that she was, he said.

“She said she would explain later and hung up the phone,” Durán said. “I haven’t heard from her since.”

Álvarez could not be reached for comment.

Three people familiar with the operation said she drove Goudreau and the two Americans to the training camps. She also took food to the camps and helped handle the expenses — all, Durán insisted, without his knowledge.

“I introduced her to Clíver’s wife when she first moved to Barranquilla,” he said. “I asked her to help Clíver’s family with everything. Then they met, and became close.”

Two people with knowledge of the situation said Colombian authorities are preparing to arrest Álvarez.

Messages sent to a WhatsApp account believed to belong to Álvarez drew a bizarre response: recordings in a synthetic voice, some of them accompanied by dramatic music.

“Tell me how you got this number,” the voice asked in Spanish.

When asked for more information, the synthetic voice said: “This is not your time to tell this story.”

Faiola reported from Miami. Herrero reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Dalton Bennett in Washington contributed to this report.