The Consortium

CIA Death Lists & Guatemala's 'Killing Fields'

By Robert Parry

The topic of assassination is a touchy one for the CIA. In the past, the spy agency occasionally has admitted plotting to kill foreign leaders. But the CIA then insists that the schemes went awry or were terminated before execution. Even when CIA targets have died violently, the agency sloughs off the deaths as coincidences, not attributable to the plots hatched at Langley. The Congo's Patrice Lumumba was such a case.

The CIA offered up a similar argument recently when it acknowledged drawing up death lists of suspected communists in Guatemala who were meant to die in a CIA-sponsored coup. In releasing a sliver of formerly secret documents from that early Cold War operation, the CIA acknowledged drafting the death lists but not implementing the grisly scheme.

More broadly, however, the documents offer a rare look into a covert activity that did oust Guatemala's elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1954. [See "Guatemala -- 1954" story] Arbenz's land reform and tolerance of left-wing political dissent had made him politically suspect in Washington.

In the years that followed the coup, tens of thousands of politically suspect Guatemalans did die at the hands of the CIA-assisted security forces. But a reader of the new CIA report can't know for sure how many of those victims might have been on the CIA death lists.

In releasing the report, the CIA deleted the names of the proposed victims as well as the CIA officers. The CIA insisted that the murder campaign was only a "contingency plan" that never was passed on to the Guatemalan coup-makers for implementation.

Most of the major U.S. newspapers have accepted these CIA assurances at face value. But the available public record suggests that the CIA indeed did go forward with the assassination plots. Not only did U.S. officials apparently give a death list to the Guatemalan military but even forced out of power Guatemalan officers who balked at the murder assignments. That account of the coup's aftermath was reported 15 years ago in the well-documented book, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala by Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.

The 'A' List

As the CIA's Guatemala operation gained strength in late spring 1954 -- with an invading force from Honduras and psychological warfare at work in Guatemala City -- Arbenz relinquished power and sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy. His successor, Col. Carlos Enrique Diaz, then went on the radio and vowed to protect Guatemala's independence in the face of the CIA-sponsored rebel army.

"The two top CIA operatives in Guatemala reacted angrily to Diaz's radio remarks," Schlesinger and Kinzer reported. "An irate John Doherty, the CIA station chief, and an exasperated Enno Hobbing -- the former Time Paris bureau chief who had just arrived in Guatemala to help shape a new 'constitution' for the incoming regime -- met and decided they would overthrow Diaz themselves. In his place, they planned to install Colonel Elfegio Monzon, an officer who had worked with them in the past as a secret leader of anti-Arbenz forces within the military."

U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy had reached a similar conclusion about Diaz. Peurifoy pounded his desk during the radio talk and declared: "O.K., now I'll have to crack down on that s.o.b." So with Peurifoy's approval, the two CIA men confronted Diaz.

With Monzon in tow, the CIA officers lectured Diaz about the problems with Arbenz's "communist" policies. Hobbing told Diaz bluntly, "Colonel, you're just not convenient for the requirements of American foreign policy."

Diaz demanded to hear these ouster instructions directly from the U.S. ambassador. So at 4 a.m., Peurifoy joined the CIA officers at Diaz's headquarters and insisted that Monzon be made the new president. According to Diaz (as later recounted to Guatemalan Foreign Minister Guillermo Toriello), Peurifoy also wanted a number of suspected communists executed.

"Peurifoy waved a long list of names of some leaders," Toriello wrote. "He was going to require Diaz to shoot those who were on that list within twenty-four hours. 'That's all, but why?' Diaz asked. 'Because they're communists,' replied Peurifoy.

"Diaz refused absolutely to soil his hands and soul with this repugnant crime and rejected the pretensions of Peurifoy to come and give him orders. 'It would be better in that case,' he [Diaz] went so far as to tell him [Peurifoy], 'that you actually sit on the presidential chair and that the stars and stripes fly over the palace.' Saying too bad for you, Peurifoy left."

According to Bitter Fruit, officials in Washington had supplied Peurifoy with the death list that he had handed to Diaz, although it is not clear whether the list was identical to the CIA's earlier version.

The confrontation with Diaz spilled into the next day, with Diaz favoring a general amnesty and release of political prisoners to ease tensions inside Guatemala. Since the release would mean freedom for some communist organizers, Peurifoy and the CIA men decided to send Diaz a blunter message: a CIA plane flew over Guatemala City and dropped a few bombs.

Diaz finally succumbed to the pressure. Within a few weeks, Carlos Castillo Armas, who had led the CIA's rebel band, was installed in the presidential palace as Guatemala's new leader.

'Safe Conduct'

But even with Castillo Armas, the Americans had trouble pressing their more violent plans. Washington wanted the new president to invade foreign embassies where Arbenz and about 700 of his followers were hiding. These Arbenz followers were then to be imprisoned under criminal law as "communists."

But Castillo Armas would not go that far. One of Castillo Armas's cabinet ministers angered Peurifoy by arguing that being a "communist" did "not provide legal basis for prosecution." And later that summer, Castillo Armas let Arbenz and several hundred other Guatemalans quietly use safe-conduct passes to go into exile.

Before allowing Arbenz to board a plane, however, Castillo Armas ordered that Arbenz be stripped of his clothes in front of a jeering crowd. But that final humiliation of Arbenz did not go far enough for Peurifoy who complained that Castillo Armas had "double-crossed us" by granting the safe-conduct passes.

In the years that followed, harder-edged anti-communists would gain power in Guatemala. They would not be as reluctant to execute suspected leftists. As guerrilla warfare flared periodically in the countryside, the Guatemalan army butchered tens of thousands.

By the 1970s, Guatemala's reputation as a Central American "killing field" had made the nation an international pariah state. Under pressure from human rights activists, President Carter cut off military aid to the Guatemalan army. But President Reagan reestablished close ties once again in the early 1980s, a period that saw the bloodiest of Guatemala's massacres.

In the name of anti-communism, the Guatemalan army launched scorched-earth warfare against Mayan Indian villages considered sympathetic to leftist guerrillas. The slaughter took on the look of genocide.

By then, the Guatemalan army needed no more coaching. ~

(Special thanks to Edward S. Herman for pointing out the assassination references in Bitter Fruit. ) (c) Copyright 1997

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