MIAMI (AP) - From a windowless cell in a maximum-security prison in Colombia, Yacsy Álvarez awaits trial on charges she helped organize an armed invasion of neighboring Venezuela.
Álvarez was a translator for Jordan Goudreau, the former American Green Beret whose ill-fated plan to depose Nicolás Maduro with a ragtag army he allegedly helped train in the jungles of Colombia ended in disaster last year.
Prosecutors in Colombia said Álvarez helped smuggle weapons to the volunteer force. But she claims she’s being made the scapegoat for the sins of others, including U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who distanced himself from the self-declared freedom fighters.
She’s also lashing out at her accusers in Colombia, who she claims were in contact with the plot’s Venezuelan ringleader. Despite being aware of the soldiers’ movements, she said, Colombian authorities did nothing to stop them - even after Maduro’s vice president, seven months before the raid, announced the coordinates of the rebels’ safe houses from the floor of the U.N. General Assembly.
“I’ve got no military training, no political experience, no economic resources,” said Álvarez in the nterview from prison in Medellin. “They grabbed me, the most ignorant, to clean up the dishes broken by others.”
Álvarez’s claims raise new questions about the role of U.S. ally Colombia in the so-called Operation Gideon. The failed attempt last May to ignite an uprising ended with six insurgents dead and two of Goudreau’s former Special Forces buddies behind bars in Caracas.
Colombia has denied knowingly serving as a staging ground for the incursion. The U.S. has insisted it was unaware of any illicit activities.
But Álvarez said the man coordinating the clandestine effort, retired Venezuelan army Gen. Cliver Alcalá, had been in contact with Colombia’s intelligence services ever since he arrived in the country in 2017.
The information tracks with findings of an AP investigation last year that Alcalá touted his plans for an incursion and sought support in a June 2019 meeting with agents from Colombia’s National Intelligence Directorate, or DNI.
Nine months after Operation Gideon was ridiculed on social media as the Bay of Piglets, a full account of how it was organized remains cloaked behind propaganda from Caracas as well as silence from Maduro’s opponents.
Álvarez, 39, has been alternately portrayed in Colombian media of conspiring to overthrow Maduro or a double agent sabotaging the operation. But in her telling, her only crime is having come to the aid of the forlorn troops when Guaidó abandoned the men.
She and three other Venezuelans were arrested in September following a five-month investigation into the arming and training of an exile militia on Colombian soil.
With Goudreau, Álvarez opened an affiliate of his small Florida security firm Silvercorp, in mid-2019.
She also flew with Goudreau and the two other former Green Berets - Luke Denman and Airan Berry - to Barranquilla aboard a Cessna jet belonging to her boss, businessman Franklin Durán, who was arrested by Venezuelan authorities for alleged involvement in the plot.
Álvarez said the Colombian authorities were aware of what was going on and appeared to be supportive if not directly involved. At one point, Alcalá introduced her to his longtime handler at the DNI.
She claims the alleged DNI handler warned her of threats originating from the Maduro-controlled elite police unit known as the Special Action Forces.
The threats are also referenced in a DNI letter sent a month before her arrest to prosecutors urging them to take “urgent” action to prevent her from being harmed or fleeing.
Colombia’s DNI in a statement said it had no prior knowledge of plans for a military incursion nor any information about Alcalá’s relationship with Goudreau. It also denied ever having contact with Álavrez.
But numerous public statements from Maduro’s government, as well as police reports in Colombia, indicate the plot was hidden in plain sight.
On Sept. 27, 2019, Venezuela Vice President Delcy Rodríguez at the U.N. General Assembly revealed the location of what she said were three safe houses where soldiers were being trained to oust Maduro.
Hours later, the Venezuelan government announced the address and a photo taken from Google Earth of one of the houses in the coastal city of Riohacha.
The simple concrete home on an unpaved street was rented for around $700 a month on July 1, 2019, by two Venezuelans, according to a copy of the rental contract provided to the AP by the owner. One of the men, Luis Gómez Penaranda, was arrested two months later in Venezuela for allegedly transporting explosives for a planned bombing of government buildings.
From the outset, the tenants fell behind in rent even as ever-larger numbers of Venezuelans crowded into the house, sleeping on metallic bunk beds.
“I had to kick them out. I was so angry because they wouldn’t leave,” said Dilarina Mendoza, the home’s owner, adding that she never suspected the Venezuelans were up to anything nefarious.
Once evicted, the group of around 20 men moved to similarly downscale quarters 2 kilometers (about 1 mile) away. Police searched that house on March 26, 2020.
Inside they found Venezuelan military uniforms and maps of key states among mattresses strewn across the floor, according to a police report obtained by the AP. There were also receipts of small Western Union transfers from other known conspirators in Miami.
It’s unclear what prompted the raid. But three days earlier, police seized a cache of 26 assault rifles and tactical equipment it was later revealed were destined for the rebels.
By now, the mission had been thoroughly infiltrated. On March 28, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello for the first time named Álvarez, Alcalá, and Goudreau and others on state TV as spearheading a “mercenary” plot to oust Maduro.
Colombian authorities “were either complicit or completely negligent in not shutting it down,” said Ramiro Bejarano, a former Colombian intelligence chief. “But it’s impossible they didn’t know what was going on right under their noses.”
Guaidó has disputed the authenticity of his signature on an agreement presented by Goudreau detailing a snatch and grab operation against Maduro.
The FBI, however, has been investigating Goudreau for weapons trafficking. In May, it seized $50,000 from him when it raided a Miami-area apartment where he was residing, his attorney told the AP.
“We believe the raid was conducted in order to provoke a violent response,” Gustavo Garcia-Montes told the AP.
Back in Colombia, Álvarez and her co-defendants have so far been the only ones held accountable for Operation Gideon.
The evidence against Alvarez includes footage from security cameras in an apartment building showing her handing heavy bags to a person who would be caught hours later transporting the weapons.
She claims she didn’t know what was inside the bags.
“All I tried to do was help some Venezuelan soldiers who trusted and believed in Juan Guaidó’s word,” said Álvarez on the verge of tears as she rushes to finish the call before being returned to her dark cell. “If I have to pay 15 years of jail for that, so be it.”
AP investigative researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
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