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© 1998 SIRS, Inc. -- SIRS Researcher Fall 1998

Title: Guatemala: The Anatomy of a CIA Coup

Author: Kate Doyle

Source: Third World Resurgence (Penang, Malaysia)

Publication Date: March/April 1998 Page Number(s): 37-40



(Penang, Malaysia)

March/April 1998, pp. 37-40

From THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE (a publication of Third World

Network), No. 90/91, March/April 1998, with the permission of the



by Kate Doyle

A Recently Declassified CIA Plan to Topple the President of Guatemala in 1954 Gives a Rare View of the Underpinnings of Covert Action Operation by the Agency Which Continue to This Day.

This past May, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made public, along with several hundred other classified records, a 11 September 1953 memorandum entitled 'Subject: Guatemala'. The 10- page memo, labelled 'top-secret eyes only', outlined 'A General Plan of Action' to destroy the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, Guatemala's democratically elected reformist president. 'During the past few years,' the memo began, 'Guatemala has become the leading base of operations for Moscow-influenced Communism in Central America. Ruled by powerful, anti-US President Arbenz, supported by a leftist coalition government..., Guatemala now represents a serious threat to hemispheric solidarity and to our security in the Caribbean area.'

Altogether, the collection of classified documents provides a blueprint for the secret invasion that toppled Arbenz. The General Plan of Action describes a 'swift, climactic military action' that included the 'neutralisation of key military figures' as the centrepiece of the operation. Other records contain lists of individuals recommended for 'disposal'.

The document also reads like a primer on 40 years of CIA aggression in the region. Here, in gory detail, are the plans and strategies for paramilitary, diplomatic and economic warfare, the provocation techniques, psychological operations, rumour campaigns, and sabotage. Here are the 'black budgets' and the freedom fighters. Here, too, are the dozens of proposals to assassinate political leaders and activists. These documents offer not only an exceptionally close look at the US foreign policy of that period, but also a rare view of the underpinnings of covert CIA operations that continue to this day. The operation mode-named 'PBSUCCESS' was the original bad seed for the CIA in Latin America, and all of the Agency's subsequent missions in the region grew organically from it. As a declassified account of the coup included in the collection explains, PBSUCCESS helped convince President Dwight D Eisenhower that clandestine operations were a 'safe, inexpensive substitute for armed force'--the armed force of the United States, that is. The CIA has worked closely with Latin America's armed forces and intelligence services to contain the perceived Communist threat ever since.


In 1995, revelations that the Agency's contemporary Guatemalan operations exploded onto the public arena. A presidential panel linked members of the Guatemalan military-- paid agents of the CIA--to murder, torture and kidnapping, leading the Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, to fire senior CIA officials and temporarily suspend most of the operations of the Agency's Guatemala station. The disclosures erupted in the middle of debate underway in Washington over whether and how to reform the CIA. But although numerous government officials, members of Congress and independent analysts agreed that the time had come for the CIA to face the brave new post-Cold War world, their debate was focused almost exclusively on incremental, bureaucratic changes aimed at renovating the Agency, not on radically changing its structure. Certainly, none of the 'blue-ribbon' commissions organised to ponder the issue ever considered that the Agency might be forced to end its clandestine activities overseas.

As the Central Intelligence Agency celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, peace began breaking out all over Latin America. Civilian governments throughout the hemisphere are demanding that their armed forces--the CIA's natural allies-- acknowledge the current political moment and return to the barracks. The Agency, however, is not getting the message. Every time the curtain pulls back on the region, we see that the CIA is incapable of operating without employing legions of torturers and kidnappers. Recent reports on the CIA's decision to severe ties with scores of foreign informants contained a chilling detail. Worldwide, 90% of the assets released were fired for failing to deliver useful information to the Agency. The remaining 10% were individuals linked to abusive or corrupt behaviour.

But in Latin America, fully half of the informants fired by the Agency were corrupt or guilty of human rights violations. That means the CIA was paying scores of torturers, kidnappers, murderers and thieves to produce information in a part of the world where no discernible threat to the national security of the United States exists. The CIA's records in the region, so intimately associated with the darkest chapters of Cold War history, makes all efforts to reform the Agency meaningless. There is only one sure way to change the nature of its covert operations in Latin America: end them.

The recently released documents reveal the growing unease of the CIA with respect to the political developments in Guatemala during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The Agency's first covert project was carried out in 1951, when it placed an agent inside the Institute of Anthropology and History in Guatemala City to try and identify 'suitable Guatemalan indigenous personnel' to carry out missions devised by the Agency's Latin America division. Although evidence suggests that this project was not very fruitful, the fact that it existed at all is evidence of a growing preoccupation with the political sympathies of the Guatemalan government. Even before the election of Arbenz in November 1950, officials were complaining about 'the rapid growth of Communist activity in Guatemala and the probability that Guatemala may become a central point for the dissemination of anti-US propaganda'.


The CIA's fears, shared to a lesser extent by the State Department, centred on the Guatemalan government's tolerance of leftist political and labour activities. Although both Arbenz and his predecessor, Juan Jose Arevalo, were regarded within Guatemala as reformists bent on changing the country's rigid oligarchy, the United States considered them part of a threat of international dimensions. Arbenz permitted the Guatemalan Communist Party to operate openly, and his land reform programme challenged US commercial interest, in particular those of the powerful United Fruit Company. His policies set off alarm bells all over Washington.

US concerns rapidly turned onto covert plans to destroy the Arbenz Administration. By 1952, the CIA had begun actively seeking an oppositional force that could overthrow the government. It looked to the Guatemalan military for a solution. The 1953 General Plan of Action stated that the Agency regarded the military as 'the only organised element in Guatemala capable of rapidly and decisively altering the political situation'. The CIA chose as its lead man for the coup a disgruntled officer named Carlos Castillo Armas.

Castillo Armas had first come to the CIA's attention in early 1950, when he was trying to organise an armed rebellion against the Arevalo government. The Agency official who met him in Mexico was impressed enough to cable headquarters stating that 'if any man in Guatemala can lead a successful revolt against the present regime, it will be he who will do it.' He was also mild- mannered, pliable, and unquestionably friendly to US interests. With support from neighbouring US-allied dictators--Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Garcia and Jose Manuel Galvez of Honduras-- Castillo Armas had the credentials he needed to convince Washington. The CIA backed the rebel officer in an early, aborted coup attempt during 1952 dubbed PBFORTUNE, and then kept him on retainer until it was ready to try again two years later.

Operation Success was finally born out of a convergence of Arbenz's increasingly hard line against his opponents, and the national security policies of a new president in the White House. Eisenhower and his top aides were expressly interested in countering what they perceived as a creeping Soviet influence in the Third World. The President's commitment to the new covert apparatus gave Agency planners the green light they had been waiting for. As the Guatemalan leader began cracking down at home in the wake of PBFORTUNE, a previously reluctant State Department--now under the control of John Foster Dulles, brother of Allen Dulles, the new Director of Central Intelligence--signed up for the coup attempt. The Agency's covert-operations directorate immediately swung into action.

However, the situation within Guatemala was not particularly promising for coup plotters in 1953. 'A study of available intelligence,' pointed out that the CIA's General Plan of Action, 'reveals no internal conditions that could be developed into a vital threat to the present Arbenz Administration without determined support from the outside.' The Agency's solution was to create the conditions and provide the support, relying on a mixture of overt and covert actions launched with a close cooperation from the State Department and the Pentagon. To ensure the compliance of Guatemala's Central American neighbours, US embassies in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador turned over generous packages of military and development aid, bringing defence personnel down to provide technical assistance. At the same time, Washington halted delivery of weapons to Guatemala and successfully pressured other governments to follow suit. According to the documents, the CIA was willing to consider any means necessary to overthrow the Guatemalan president. A secret report from June 2, just days before the operation began, records on senior CIA official telling his colleagues, 'Arbenz must go; how does not matter.'

Unilateral actions were matched by international manoeuvring. At a meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in March 1954, Secretary of State Dulles presented a tough anti-Communist resolution aimed squarely at Guatemala. The United States lobbied hard for its passage, threatening nations with aid withdrawals and lecturing them on the evils of the Soviet menace. Secretly, US officials were prepared to take even further steps, including the fabrication of evidence showing Guatemala's subversive intent. They got their resolution.

Meanwhile, the CIA's Directorate of Plans, the euphemistically-named covert-operations team, was busy setting up the clandestine infrastructure needed to run the coup. In an effort to maintain the tightest control possible, the unit assigned to PRSUCCESS reported directly to Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations, who in turn reported directly to CIA director Dulles. Coup headquarters, code-named LINCOLN, was established in Opa-Locka, Florida, on the outskirts of Miami. An abandoned air strip in the Canal Zone called France's Field was used for 'black' flights carrying personnel, arms and supplies. Another fleet of planes was assembled in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and manned by a motley crew of mercenary pilots ready to back the insurrectionists. And from somewhere 'deep in the jungle'-- actually taped in Miami and broadcast from transmitters over the Guatemalan border--came the Voz de la Liberacion, the Agency's clandestine radio station. Launched on 1 May, it bombarded Guatemalans with vitriol, attacks on the Arbenz government, and fabricated news about the gathering storm.

Proposals to assassinate leading members of the Arbenz government and military permeated the CIA's planning. In what is perhaps the collection's most chilling document, an unsigned 'Study of Assassination', the Agency laid out in excruciating detail its methods for murder. Sections on 'accidents', 'drugs', 'edge weapons', 'blunt weapons' and 'firearms' offered tips on the most effective assassination techniques, such as which poisons to use, how to choose a site for 'accidental' falls ('elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges'), and the correct way to club a man to death.

The Agency also compiled hit lists in preparation for the coup and its aftermath. Even before receiving official approval for the invasion, the Directorate of Plans was building an 'elimination list', using information the Guatemalan military had gathered in 1949 on 'top flight Communists'. During planning for PBFORTUNE in 1952, the CIA discussed training 'special squads' for execution; after that operation was cancelled, 'the Agency continued to try and influence developments and float ideas for disposing of key figures in (deleted) government.'

The CIA has taken great pains to point out in its press materials that proposals for assassination were 'neither approved nor implemented' and amounted to nothing more than 'contingency planning'. It is impossible to independently verify this claim. As one of the documents states: 'No assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded.' And although the records are rife with plans to kill, the five folders contained 'CIA officials involved and the names of their intended victims.'


Clearly, some of the assassination materials in the collection were intended for use in training the Agency's Guatemalan allies. According to a 1995 analysis of the assassination files released in May, the 'Study for Assassination' was requested by one of the CIA officials running the operation 'to be utilised to brief the training chief for PBSUCCESS before he left to begin training Castillo Armas' forces in Honduras on 10 January 1954'. The footnotes show that the grisly murder manual was indeed sent by pouch on January 8, although its destination, messenger, and recipient have all been deleted by the Agency.

In the weeks before the coup, the CIA and its Guatemalan allies used a variety of tactics to undermine and deceive President Arbenz and his government, including provocation, psychological warfare and propaganda. A top-secret memo dated 1 June 1954, lists proposals for stirring foreign and domestic outrage at the Arbenz Administration, such as 'simulated Guatemalan aggression against Honduras', faked kidnapping of prominent Guatemalan citizens and the desecration of Guatemalan churches with pro-communist slogans. In order to frighten unfriendly government, police, and military officials, the CIA and its agents sent them death notices, made anonymous phone calls ('preferably between 2 and 5 a.m.'), spread rumours about their personal and professional lives, and mailed threatening symbols to their homes, such as a coffin or a hangman's noose. The CIA also employed a network of anti-communist Guatemalan students to create the impression of a large, organised opposition to Arbenz. Students leafleted public gatherings, covered walls with anti-government graffiti and distributed phony news articles written by CIA operatives. These tactics succeeded too well. Arbenz's government cracked down on the opposition, arresting and torturing dozens of the young activists used by the Agency.

Despite the millions of dollars spent by the CIA, Operation Success could hardly be called a success. Nicholas Cullather's account of the coup describes the disastrous military planning and failed security measures. In the end, the Guatemalan armed forces decided to depose President Arbenz not because they believed Castillo Armas was a serious threat, but because they feared the United States was prepared to invade the country. On 27 June 1954, Arbenz stepped down after he realised he had lost the army's support. Castillo Armas took his place shortly afterward as the head of the Guatemalan government.

In Washington, there was jubilation. The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that the operation was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory, even lying to President Eisenhower during a formal briefing about the number of casualties suffered by rebel forces. Several days after the coup, the Directorate of Plans dispatched two officers to Guatemala City seeking proof of Soviet control of the Arbenz government. Although Project 'PBHISTORY' turned up nothing of value on international Communism, it was extremely fruitful for the new Guatemalan regime. Rummaging through the papers left behind by the ousted Arbenz Administration, US and Guatemalan officials found 'an intelligence gold mine,' according to one participant; information on thousands of Guatemalan citizens from pro-Arbenz political parties, labour unions, student organisations and farming cooperatives. The CIA helped assemble a register and filing system on the suspected 'Communists,' and left them for Guatemalan security forces to use.

In Guatemala, the coup had a deadly aftermath. The same CIA planners who had been so meticulous in preparing an invasion had, according to the Agency's historical account, 'no plans for what would happen next.' They considered democracy an 'unrealistic' alternative for the country, and envisioned a moderate authoritarian regime which would be friendly to US interests. But Guatemalan's political centre quickly 'vanished from politics into a terrorised silence.' After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala's military leaders developed and refined, with US assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing.

Operation Success passed into Agency legend as an 'unblemished triumph' and quickly became a model for future CIA activities in the hemisphere. Eisenhower's enthusiasm for the quick fix of covert intervention found fertile ground in the CIA's Latin America division. The art of the coup became part of its standard repertoire. Over the next four decades, the Agency established secret liaisons with Latin American military and intelligence services, and sought to change by force or clandestine influence any regime perceived to be hostile to US political, economic or national security goals.

The list of nations afflicted by the Agency is a long one. In Cuba, after Eisenhower signed a top-secret directive in early 1960 authorising the CIA 'to get rid of Castro', the Directorate of Plans dusted off its Guatemala operation and rewrote it for revolutionary Cuba. The resulting disaster at the Bay of Pigs on 17 April 1961, was a direct descendant of PBSUCCESS; the same CIA officers planned it and the same strategy of massive psychological warfare followed by invasion lay at its heart. And its success, according to one of the senior officials involved, rested on the assumption that Castro would suffer 'the same loss of nerve' that Arbenz did in 1954. When he did not, the Agency churned out a succession of assassination attempts against the Cuban leader that failed to kill him but poisoned US-Cuba relations indefinitely.

In Guyana, Operation Success had a direct impact on the Kennedy Administration's covert assault on the government of Cheddi Jagan, the freely elected prime minister of what was then British Guiana. Objecting to Jagan and his People's Progressive Party as leftist, Kennedy ordered the CIA to crush him, and from late 1961 to 1964 the Agency compiled. Its covert operators launched a programme of provocation and economic sabotage using black propaganda techniques perfected during PBSUCCESS. When the country's unions turned against him, Jagan lost his seat to a despot more receptive to US and British interests who remained in power for 20 years.


In Chile, Salvador Allende's ascension to the presidency in 1970 prompted Nixon's famous order to Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms to 'make the economy scream'. For the next three years--building on a covert program of political manipulation, propaganda and disinformation that had been ongoing against Allende and his party since the Kennedy Administration-- the CIA pursued 'Trade II', a policy which married economic destablisation with shipments of guns and money to rightwing army officers. Allende was overthrown in 1973, and the violent and repressive military dictatorship that replaced him ruled for nearly two decades.

In Nicaragua, the Reagan Administration's contra war against the Sandinistas was a brutal, protracted campaign of destablisation that drew from lessons the CIA had learned during and since PBSUCCESS. As in 1954, the CIA cultivated, funded and trained a counter-revolutionary force, established paramilitary bases outside the country, employed a calculated strategy of overt and covert aggression, exaggerated Soviet influence on the regime, and launched a massive campaign of psychological warfare, propaganda and provocation. The Agency also revisited some of the gruesome training techniques employed in Guatemala when it printed a 1983 murder manual which advised rebel forces on the 'selective use of violence' against civilians, including using assassination against 'judges, magistrates, police and state security officials'.

In Honduras, the United States sought the cooperation of the powerful Honduran army in its secret war against Nicaragua, and spent huge sums annually on weapons, training, and construction to secure it. The CIA played a key role, establishing deep liaisons with the military and, beginning in 1981, helped create a new army intelligence unit called Battalion 316 to counter subversion in Honduras. According to recently declassified documents, the CIA trained the unit in surveillance, interrogation and torture. These methods were put into practice in the early 1980s, when Battalion 316 tortured hundreds of Honduran citizens and 'disappeared' scores more.

The most recent Guatemala scandal has brought the history of CIA operations in Latin America full circle. In June 1996, President Clinton's Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) released its report on US intelligence activities in Guatemala, concluding that CIA agents among the Guatemalan armed forces had 'ordered, planned or participated in serious human rights abuses' while working for the Agency, including assassination, execution, torture and kidnapping. The CIA also broke the law, according to the IOB, failing to inform congressional oversight committees about the crimes of those agents.

Even the reformists within the government agree that the CIA's covert mission needs to be scaled back. They aimed at genuinely dangerous problems: terrorist groups out to kill Americans, countries with nuclear capabilities, or rogue nations with vendettas against the United States. By such standards, the rationale for maintaining a covert presence in Latin America has become simply untenable. As Anthony Harrington, the head of the Intelligence Oversight Board, commented when the IOB had completed its work: 'The board asked itself: "The Cold War is over--what are we doing there?"' The time has finally come for the CIA to pack its bags and go home.

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The above article appeared in NACLA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS (Vol. XXXI, No.2, Sept/Oct 1997).

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Kate Doyle is a foreign policy analyst and director of the Guatemala Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library in Washington, D.C.