It started with a routine police search on a road in northern Colombia.
Within days the government of Venezuela was claiming it was proof of a foiled plot to “liberate” the country from its socialist rule, with echoes of past failed efforts to overthrow Latin American regimes.
The details of the alleged plot are murky. Officials in Washington deny it even existed. But it comes at a time of heightened tensions between the US and Venezuela, as the Trump administration steps up efforts to force President Nicolás Maduro to relinquish power.
The story began in Colombia on March 23, when police stopped a van on the Caribbean coast heading in the direction of Venezuela. In the back, according to the Colombian public prosecutors’ office, were 26 US-made semi-automatic rifles, helmets, night-vision goggles and flak jackets.
Three days later, a former Venezuelan general, Cliver Alcalá, said he was responsible for the cache. In a rambling and contradictory radio interview he said he and his supporters, “all committed to the liberation of Venezuela”, had planned “a military operation against the Maduro dictatorship”.
Mr Alcalá, who lives in Colombia, having fallen out with the government in Caracas, said US advisers, who he described as contractors working for companies, knew about the plot. So, he added, did Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó. They, along with Colombian politicians, all signed a contract authorising it, he alleged without producing the document.
In Venezuela, the government jumped on his statements as proof of what it had long claimed: that Mr Guaidó, the US and Colombia are working together to violently overthrow the Maduro regime.
“It’s a campaign started in Miami, in Washington, in Colombia, to justify the coup d’état . . . the military, terrorist attacks they were preparing against Venezuela,” Mr Maduro said. “The US government is behind this. [Colombian president] Iván Duque is behind this.”
Venezuela’s attorney-general ordered Mr Guaidó to testify. The opposition leader, who has been trying to oust Mr Maduro for more than a year with the backing of the US, the EU and most of Latin America, denied all knowledge of the plot and refused — a decision that could lead to his arrest.
“They are dangerous lies because they may be used as a pretext to arrest or harm interim president Juan Guaidó,” a US state department official told the FT, adding that close advisers and relatives of Mr Guaidó had been targeted by greatly increased “violent repression” in past weeks.
Elliott Abrams, the US special representative for Venezuela, said claims that Mr Guaidó had contracted Mr Alcalá to dispose of Mr Maduro were clearly a lie, describing them as “despicable and quite dangerous”.
Mr Alcalá’s claim came just hours after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) charged him, Mr Maduro and a dozen other Venezuelans in connection with “narco-terrorism” and other crimes. The DoJ offered $15m for information leading to Mr Maduro’s arrest and $10m for Mr Alcalá.
The former general said he had nothing to hide and handed himself over to US authorities in Colombia. He was whisked out of the country within hours, even though Colombian prosecutors said there was no warrant for his arrest and no request for his extradition. He is being questioned by the DoJ in the US.
Caracas and Washington have offered starkly differing accounts of what is going on.
The Venezuelans say that once the plot fell apart, the Americans had to extract their “agent”, Mr Alcalá, so they charged him with narco-terrorism and hauled him back to Washington before he could reveal more secrets.
Washington’s version is that Mr Alcalá was acting on the orders of Caracas when he made his “wild allegation” against Mr Guaidó.
“Clearly, he was put up to making those terrible charges by the regime, and then realised he’d better get out of Colombia and get to a place where at least he was physically safe, which was the United States,” Mr Abrams told reporters this week.
The episode comes at a jittery time in Venezuela.
On Monday, one of its naval vessels sank in the Caribbean after colliding with a Portuguese-flagged cruise liner. Both captains blamed the other. The cruise ship’s owner said “gun shots were fired”. Mr Maduro said the cruiser might have been transporting mercenaries, without offering evidence.
The following day, the US said Mr Maduro should cede power to a transitional government in exchange for sanctions relief and humanitarian aid to help the country deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Caracas dismissed the “pseudo-proposal” as “miserable”.
On Wednesday, Mr Trump said he was sending warships closer to the Venezuelan coast to stop “cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors” exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to smuggle drugs to the US.
“Donald Trump has become crazy,” Mr Maduro responded, anticipating possible US action to topple him. “If he enters Venezuela, he will be defeated.”
On Friday night Mr Maduro ordered the movement of artillery to prepare for what he described as “the battle for peace”. He did not give further details.
Washington insists it wants a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela as it ratchets up its pressure campaign to oust Mr Maduro, who has presided over the collapse of the country’s economy and a spiralling humanitarian crisis. The US hopes it can draw domestic military support away from Mr Maduro.
“Historically, no one who’s confronted the US justice system has come out well,” warned Mauricio Claver-Carone, Mr Trump’s top adviser on Latin America, in an interview with a Miami TV channel.
“Whether it’s Noriega, Pablo Escobar or “El Chapo” Guzmán, it never ends well.”