Erik Prince wants to use a private army to overthrow Venezuela's president

popular
Blackwater founder Erik Prince arrives for a closed meeting with members of the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 30, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Erik Prince - the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater and a prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump - has been pushing a plan to deploy a private army to help topple Venezuela's socialist president, Nicholas Maduro, four sources with knowledge of the effort told Reuters.


Over the last several months, the sources said, Prince has sought investment and political support for such an operation from influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles. In private meetings in the United States and Europe, Prince sketched out a plan to field up to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire on behalf of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, according to two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's pitch.

One source said Prince has conducted meetings about the issue as recently as mid-April.

White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis declined to comment when asked whether Prince had proposed his plan to the government and whether it would be considered. A person familiar with the administration's thinking said the White House would not support such a plan.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, greets people during a swearing-in ceremony for supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 27, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

Venezuela opposition officials have not discussed security operations with Prince, said Guaido spokesman Edward Rodriguez, who did not answer additional questions from Reuters. The Maduro government did not respond to a request for comment.

Some U.S. and Venezuelan security experts, told of the plan by Reuters, called it politically far-fetched and potentially dangerous because it could set off a civil war. A Venezuelan exile close to the opposition agreed but said private contractors might prove useful, in the event Maduro's government collapses, by providing security for a new administration in the aftermath.

A spokesman for Prince, Marc Cohen, said this month that Prince "has no plans to operate or implement an operation in Venezuela" and declined to answer further questions.

Lital Leshem - the director of investor relations at Prince's private equity firm, Frontier Resource Group - earlier confirmed Prince's interest in Venezuela security operations.

"He does have a solution for Venezuela, just as he has a solution for many other places," she said, declining to elaborate on his proposal.

The two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's pitch said it calls for starting with intelligence operations and later deploying 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire from Colombia and other Latin American nations to conduct combat and stabilization operations.

'DYNAMIC EVENT'

For Prince, the unlikely gambit represents the latest effort in a long campaign to privatize warfare. The wealthy son of an auto-parts tycoon has fielded private security contractors in conflict zones from Central Asia to Africa to the Middle East.

One of Prince's key arguments, one source said, is that Venezuela needs what Prince calls a "dynamic event" to break the stalemate that has existed since January, when Guaido - the head of Venezuela's National Assembly - declared Maduro's 2018 re-election illegitimate and invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency.

Maduro has denounced Guaido, who has been backed by most western nations, as a U.S. puppet who is seeking to foment a coup. Key government institutions – including the military – have not shifted their loyalty to Guaido despite increasing international pressure from sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.

Guaido has stressed that he wants a peaceful resolution, and Latin American governments recognizing his authority have urged against outside military action. Senior U.S. officials, without ruling out armed intervention, have also emphasized economic and diplomatic measures to pressure Maduro.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony to mark the 17th anniversary of the return to power of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela April 13, 2019. Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

CLOSE TIES TO TRUMP

Prince was a pioneer in private military contracting during the Iraq war, when the U.S. government hired Blackwater primarily to provide security for State Department operations there.

In 2007, Blackwater employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad, sparking international outrage. One of the Blackwater employees involved was convicted of murder in December and three others have been convicted of manslaughter.

Prince renamed the Blackwater security company and sold it in 2010, but he recently opened a company called Blackwater USA, which sells ammunition, silencers and knives. Over the past two years, he has led an unsuccessful campaign to convince the Trump administration to replace U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan with security contractors.

Since 2014, Prince has run the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, which has close ties to the state-owned Chinese investment company CITIC and helps Chinese firms operating in Africa with security, aviation and logistics services.

Prince donated $100,000 to a political action committee that supported Trump's election. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is the administration's education secretary.

Prince's role in Trump's campaign was highlighted in the report by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, released this month, on alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

The report outlined how Prince financed an effort to authenticate purported Hillary Clinton emails and how in 2016 he met in the Seychelles islands, off east Africa, with a wealthy Russian financial official on behalf of Trump's presidential transition team.

Prince spokesman Cohen declined to comment on the Mueller report.

TARGETING FROZEN ASSETS

The two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's Venezuela plan said he is seeking $40 million from private investors. He also aims to get funding from the billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets that have been seized by governments around the world imposing sanctions on the OPEC nation, a major oil exporter.

It's unclear, however, how the Venezuelan opposition could legally access those assets. Prince told people in pitch meetings, the sources said, that he believes that Guaido has the authority to form his own military force because he has been recognized internationally as Venezuela's rightful leader.

Prince envisions a force made up of "Peruvians, Ecuadoreans, Colombians, Spanish speakers," one of the sources said, adding that Prince argued that such soldiers would be more politically palatable than American contractors.

(Reporting By Aram Roston and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Kieran Murray and Brian Thevenot)


Afghan National Army forces go towards the site of an airplane crash in Deh Yak district of Ghazni province, Afghanistan January 27, 2020. (REUTERS/Mustafa Andaleb)

KABUL (Reuters) - At least 29 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed in Taliban attacks that followed air and ground assaults by government forces on the Islamist group at the weekend.

The surge in hostilities signals deadlock at stop-start peace talks involving U.S and Taliban negotiators in Doha. The Defense Ministry said on Sunday government forces had killed 51 Taliban fighters in the weekend assaults.

But the Taliban hit back, carrying out attacks on security checkpoints in the northern province of Kunduz on Tuesday night in which a security official who declined to be identified said 15 members of the Afghan army were killed.

Read More
Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) commanded the air campaign of Desert Storm (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

When Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner (ret.) took to the podium at the dedication of the National Desert Storm and Desert Shield Memorial site in Washington D.C. last February, he told the audience that people often ask him why a memorial is necessary for a conflict that only lasted about 40 days.

Horner, who commanded the U.S. air campaign of that war, said the first reason is to commemorate those who died in the Gulf War. Then he pointed behind him, towards the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of over 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam are etched in granite.

"These two monuments are inexorably linked together," Horner said. "Because we had in Desert Storm a president and a secretary of defense who did the smartest thing in the world: they gave the military a mission which could be accomplished by military force."

The Desert Storm Memorial "is a place every military person that's going to war should visit, and they learn to stand up when they have to, to avoid the stupidness that led to that disaster" in Vietnam, he added.

Now, 29 years after the operation that kicked Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army out of Kuwait began, the U.S. is stuck in multiple wars that Horner says resemble the one he and his fellow commanders tried to avoid while designing Desert Storm.

Horner shared his perspective on what went right in the Gulf War, and what's gone wrong since then, in an interview last week with Task & Purpose.

Read More
Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar (U.S. Army photo)

The Navy SEAL accused of strangling Army Special Forces Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar was promoted to chief petty officer two months after Melgar's death, according to a new report from The Daily Beast.

Read More
A C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 911th Airlift Wing is towed across the flightline at March Air Reserve Base, California, Jan. 7, 2020. (Air Force photo by Joshua J. Seybert)

March Air Reserve Base in California will host nearly 200 U.S. citizens who were flown out of Wuhan, China due to the rapidly-spreading coronavirus, a Defense Department spokeswoman announced on Wednesday.

"March Air Reserve Base and the Department of Defense (DoD) stand ready to provide housing support to Health and Human Services (HHS) as they work to handle the arrival of nearly 200 people, including Department of State employees, dependents and U.S. citizens evacuated from Wuhan, China," said Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah in a statement on Wednesday.

Wuhan is the epicenter of the coronavirus, which is a mild to severe respiratory illness that's associated with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus has so far killed 132 people and infected nearly 6,000 others in China, according to news reports.

Read More
A KC-46A Pegasus during testing with a C-5M Super Galaxy for the first time on April 29, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Christian Turner)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Protracted delays on Boeing's new KC-46 tanker could leave the Pentagon with a shortage of refueling capacity, the head of U.S. Transportation Command warned on Tuesday.

Read More