An American recently arrested in Venezuela could be facing years in prison for his involvement in a botched military operation against President Maduro. The wife of former soldier Airan Berry has issued an appeal from Germany for everything possible to be done to secure his release.
Melanie Berry learned the news from the internet: There had been a failed coup attempt in Venezuela and two former elite soldiers had been arrested. The story was accompanied by photos of the two men and one of them, bearded with dark hair, was her husband. He is now facing charges of terrorism and could wind up spending years in prison in Venezuela. “We were in shock when we saw it,” wrote Melanie Berry in an email. Like the couple's children, she also has dual German and American citizenship (the German version of the article can be found here).
How did a 41-year-old from Schweinfurt become a central figure in a failed and amateurish coup attempt for which Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is also trying to blame U.S. President Donald Trump? The authoritarian Venezuelan leader has been engaged in a bitter power struggle for over year with self-appointed interim president Juan Guaidó, who is backed by the U.S. A security firm has confirmed that the former soldier from Schweinfurt was to help bring Maduro to the United States. But how did all of this take shape? Even if you ask his wife, it still remains a mystery.
For Melanie Berry and her two teenage children, the background and geopolitical considerations aren’t the most pressing issues. “Our children, especially, are very upset and very sad – they want their dad back.” They would like to see him either allowed to come back home or rescued – as long as he returns healthy. “My husband Airan and I have been married for 19 years,” Berry wrote. “He means everything to me and our whole family, and he is my best friend.”
Arrested and paraded: Airan Berry (circled on the right) and Kuke Denman (circled on the left) int the port of La Guaira after the botched mission. (Quelle: Screenshot/TeleSur)
The 41-year-old’s mission ended prematurely on May 4 in a small boat in the port of La Guajira, a city of 30,000 inhabitants that is considered the “Gateway to Venezuela” because of its location just 20 kilometers from the capital city of Caracas. Armed forces were waiting for his arrival and a helicopter was already in the air. Just minutes later, Airan Berry was lying face down in the dusty street, his hands tied behind his back.
Just a few hours earlier, a photo had been taken showing him in a boat next to a man giving a thumbs up. The man's name is Luke Denman, and he also was tied up on the street on May 4, a triumph for the socialist president of crisis-ridden Venezuela. His military reported the arrests of two former members of the Green Berets, American elite soldiers.
Thumbs up: By the time this photo of the boat was published on the Twitter account set up for the risky operation, Airan Berry and Luke Denman had already been arrested. (Quelle: Twitter)
Melanie Berry is currently in contact with Luke Denman’s family. "We’re hoping that the U.S. government will use all its resources to bring my husband Airan and Luke Denman home," she wrote to t-online.de. They’re good men, she wrote, “who are worthy of being protected, supported and provided with the kind the help they have so often given to others.”
In an apparent effort to publicize this appeal, Berry agreed to answer questions from t-online.de. Public attention, after all, could prove helpful to her husband. The fact that she didn’t answer every question could be the product of fear of potentially endangering her husband in the Venezuelan prison where he is being held. Or perhaps she really does not know the answers and was unaware of what her husband was getting himself into.
He had worked as a craftsman in Germany in recent years, after leaving the Army in 2013 following 17 years of service. The couple settled in Schweinfurt, where they had also established themselves professionally. Berry was also fond of tattooing friends in the city. “Tattooing is his hobby, he’s very talented artistically,” Melanie Berry wrote. There are also photos of a local language school on Facebook showing him taking courses there and receiving his completion certificate last summer. “He wanted to improve his German,” she said.
After ending his career in the U.S. Army, Airan Berry and his family stayed in the Würzburg area of Germany. He is pictured here on the banks of the Main River. (Quelle: private family photo)
And then, at some point, this job offer came up. “It was his first assignment for a private security firm,” Melanie Berry said. The company, Silvercorp USA, is run by Jordan Goudreau, a former soldier. “My husband knew him from the time they spent together in Iraq and he trusted him.” On its homepage, the company even claims that is has provided training to Germany’s KSK elite military force.
On December 18, Goudreau posted a photo from Stuttgart on Instagram. Indeed, he has some familiarity with Germany: Goudreau, Denman and Berry had all been stationed in Germany with the 10th Special Forces Group 1st Battalion. The soldiers in that battalion are trained to provide training and support to covert national resistance groups or militias and to carry out guerrilla operations deep in enemy territory. Berry was awarded two Bronze Star Medals for heroic service.
“After all the years that Airan worked to ensure the safety of Americans, he deserves every possible resource to get him home safely to his family,” his wife insists.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has promised exactly that, saying the U.S. will use every tool at its disposal to try and get the men back “if the Maduro regime decides to hold them.” Currently, there isn’t even a U.S. Embassy in the country, and all consular services were discontinued in March 2019.
As such, the Berry family has obtained painfully little information. “Since we learned of the arrest, we have been in constant contact with various agencies and organizations, but we don’t have any details right now,” Melanie Berry said.
The news that her husband has been accused of terrorism hit the headlines on Sunday. The charges brought by Venezuela’s attorney general also include conspiracy and trade in illegal arms. These charges can carry sentences of 25 to 30 years.
Both Berry and Denman have made what appear to be confessions, statements that the Venezuelans have released publicly. The authorities are doing their best to keep the prisoners in the public eye, even releasing an image of Berry's German health insurance card.
A residence permit and driver’s license issued by Schweinfurt: The authorities in Venezuela released images of Berry’s IDs to the public. (Quelle: t-online.de)
The confession videos are each several minutes long, with many statements having been edited together. In one part of the video, Airan Berry is wearing a button-down shirt, while in another he is wearing a T-shirt printed with the word “Moscow." He looks to be either completely exhausted or under the influence of strong medication.
His wife declined to comment on his appearance. “Seeing him in that video was a relief,” said wrote, adding that both she and the family of Luke Denman were extremely happy to see a sign of life. “Our hope is that Airan and Luke are treated in accordance with international human rights law,” she said. When asked in his confession video whether his treatment was adequate, Denman replied in the affirmative, but an expert cited by the Washington Post believes that his eye movements reflected a coded denial.
In the videos, the men say that they trained three groups of 15 to 20 men each in Colombia. Their job was to secure the Caracas airport so that President Nicolás Maduro could be taken abroad.
But the authorities had already been gift-wrapped a broader confession – from Jordan Goudreau himself. Even before the arrest of his two colleagues, a video appeared on May 3 showing him together with a former Venezuelan military official living in exile. In it, he states that “Operation Gedeon” has begun, “deep into the heart of Caracas.”
Goudreau goes on to say: “Our units have been activated in the south, west and east of Venezuela.” Berry and Denman were arrested a few hours later. If Goudreau's announcement on Twitter had been intended to spur other units in Venezuela to rise up against Maduro, then that attempt also failed spectacularly.
Silvercorp itself then exacerbated the situation by telling journalists about a $213-million deal it had cut with the Venezuelan opposition. The Washington Post has posted the long version of the annex to the service agreement on its website.
The company’s contract stipulates it will advise and assist in “planning and executing an operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro … and install the recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.”
The general service agreement was signed by Guaidó himself, but not the detailed annex. These 41 pages were signed by a close advisor to the opposition leader. Both sides claim that no payment has been made. The adviser to Guaidó said that doubts had been raised about the seriousness of the plan and they considered it to have been scrapped. Guaidó himself had not been briefed on the details, the adviser said.
But for Silvercorp, there was another way of obtaining remuneration for a successful mission: The U.S. is offering $55 million in bounties for Maduro and other leading politicians from a program combating drug trafficking.
Madura has claimed U.S. government involvement. “Donald Trump is the direct chief of this invasion,” he has said. Secretary of State Pompeo, however, has denied that claim. “If we had been involved, it would have gone differently,” he said, grinning.
It appears that Venezuela’s intelligence service had also been informed in advance. Arrests in the port city had already been made the day before Berry’s fateful deployment. With the two Americans, a total of 31 suspects have now been arrested in what has become a success story for the government of the downtrodden country, which millions of people have left in response to the tumult.
- Missglückter Umsturzversuch?: Bangen in Schweinfurt: Vater als Söldner in Venezuela in Haft
- Lawrow zu Besuch in Caracas: Russland stärkt Maduro – und provoziert Trump
It remains unclear how much money the two Americans were to receive. Denman speaks in his interrogation video of $50,000 to $100,000. He says in the video that he doesn’t know exactly. He also says that his mission was supposed to last two weeks.
"I definitely knew nothing about any set period of time," said Melanie Berry. When asked if that means that her husband left without telling her when he would be back or where he was going, she responded: “He couldn’t give me any information. He took the job offer, and that’s all I know.”
- Translator: Daryl Lindsey
- Militarytimes.com: Here’s the career info for the former Green Berets involved in Venezuela raid debacle
- Twitter: Video Joran Gordeau
- Washington Post: From a Miami Condo to the Venzuelan coast, how a plan to capture Maduro went rogue
- Youtube.com: Pressekonferenz mit Video von Vernehmungen Airan Berry
- bellingcat.com: The Venezuela/Silvercorp USA Saga Keeps Getting Weirder
- Wall Street Journal: American Says Failed Venezuelan Invasion Was to Arrest Maduro