“We have managed to neutralize an operation that could have been one of the worst in recent times,” Saab said. “A U.S. citizen and presumed military soldier was found to be carrying out espionage activities to destabilize Venezuelan territory. He had the help of Venezuelan citizens, both military and civilian.”
If true, the alleged plot would be the latest in a series of foiled operations against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. In May, two former U.S. Green Berets — Airan Berry, 42, and Luke Denman, 34 — were detained on the Venezuelan coast in connection with a ragtag raid aimed at capturing or ousting the autocratic leader.
In vague comments Friday, Maduro announced the arrest of a “U.S. marine” and “American spy” who had been apprehended a day earlier. Maduro said the U.S. citizen had been captured in a plot to blow up Venezuela’s El Palito refinery in Carabobo state.
State television broadcast images of weapons allegedly seized in the plot, including a grenade launcher, an Uzi submachine gun and packets of C4 explosives. They were splayed on a table alongside bundles of U.S. cash, cellphones and identification documents, including a grainy image of what appeared to be a copy of a U.S. passport.
Saab claimed Heath was detained in a car loaded with weapons and cash on a highway in the Venezuelan state of Falcón. He said Heath had entered the country illegally from Colombia with the aid of his Venezuelan co-conspirators. Saab said that Heath worked as “a contracted mercenary” in Iraq attached to MVM Inc., an Ashburn, Va.-based private security outfit, between 2006 and 2016.
Saab also said authorities had found a coin in Heath’s possession that linked him to the CIA. It was unclear whether he was referring to commonly issued souvenirs known as “challenge coins.”
Saab said Heath had a satellite phone and photos of several Venezuelan military installations and Venezuela’s largest oil refinery, located in Falcón state on the Caribbean coast.
Saab’s claims could not be verified independently. Unlike in the May arrest of the two former U.S. Green Berets, the Venezuelans produced no images or videos of Heath in custody or close-ups of his identification. Public records indicate a Matthew John Heath, 38, lived at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina in the early 2000s. There was no response at a number believed to belong to him.
The CIA declined to comment. Neither MVM nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.
Berry and Denman were sentenced last month to 20 years in prison for conspiracy, illicit weapons trafficking and acts of terrorism for their roles in “Operation Gideon,” a bungled operation in which several dozen defectors from the Venezuelan military and police attempted to reenter the country to capture Maduro.
Venezuelan opposition figures have admitted to penning a preliminary deal with Goudreau last year to capture Maduro, but say they backed out after concluding he would be unable to pull off a mission successfully. The U.S. government denied involvement.
Faiola reported from Miami. Harris reported from Washington. Julie Tate and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.