The Consortium

Guatemala -- 1954: Behind the CIA's Coup

By Kate Doyle

Most historians now agree that the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1954 was the poison arrow that pierced the heart of Guatemala's young democracy. Code-named "PBSUCCESS," the covert operation overthrew Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the second legally elected president in Guatemalan history.

Over the next four decades, a succession of military rulers would wage counter-insurgency warfare that also would shred the fabric of Guatemalan society. The violence caused the deaths and disappearances of more than 140,000 Guatemalans. Some human rights activists put the death toll as high as 250,000.

In recent weeks, after five years of promises to come clean on the Guatemalan operation, the CIA has released 1,400 pages from its secret files on the coup. Those pages represent only about one percent of the CIA's records on the topic.

Still, the pages shed important light on the CIA's first covert operation in Latin America. Citizens can now examine the anatomy of a CIA covert operation, in all its gory details: assassination plots, paramilitary and economic warfare, provocation techniques, psychological operations, rumor campaigns and sabotage. Plus, because of its success in toppling Arbenz, PBSUCCESS became a model for subsequent CIA activities in the hemisphere, many of which also have included massive loss of life.

PBSUCCESS got its start when the U.S. government concluded that Arbenz was a danger of international dimensions. Although inside Guatemala, Arbenz was seen as a reformer bent only on changing the country's rigid oligarchy, Washington was nervous because he permitted the Guatemalan Communist Party to operate openly. Also, his land reform program threatened U.S. commercial interests, in particular those of the powerful United Fruit Company.

U.S. concerns coalesced in covert plans to destroy the Arbenz administration. By 1952, two years after Arbenz's election, the CIA had begun recruiting an opposition force to overthrow him. The CIA first looked to the Guatemalan military for a solution. A "General Plan of Action," written in 1953, stated that the CIA regarded the military as "the only organized 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.

The CIA was open to any means necessary to get rid of Arbenz. According to one secret report, a senior CIA official declared bluntly, "Arbenz must go; how does not matter."

Proposals to assassinate leading members of the Arbenz government and his military supporters permeated the CIA's planning. In an unsigned "Study of Assassination" -- perhaps the collection's most chilling document -- the CIA laid out in detail its options for murder.

The study offered tips about the most effective assassination techniques in sections marked "manual," "accidents," "drugs," "edge weapons," "blunt weapons" and "firearms." In the paper, assassins are advised which poisons to use, how to pick a site for "accidental" falls ("Elevator shafts, stair wells, unscreened windows and bridges will serve"), and the correct way to club a man to death.

The CIA went further, compiling hit lists in preparation for the coup and its aftermath. Even before receiving official approval for the paramilitary operation to begin, the CIA's Directorate of Operations was building an "elimination list," using data that Guatemalan military officers had gathered in 1949 on "top flight communists."

During planning for an abortive coup attempt in 1952, the CIA discussed training "special squads" to carry out executions. After that plan was dropped, "the Agency continued to try and influence developments and float ideas for disposing of key figures in the [deleted] government."

Deleted Names

In recent press releases, the CIA has argued that the assassination proposals were "neither approved nor implemented" and were only "contingency planning." But one of the documents read, "no assassination instructions should ever be written or recorded." Also, the five folders containing "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals" have been purged of all names, making it impossible to check on the fate of proposed victims.

In addition, some of the assassination material was clearly meant for training Guatemalans. According to a 1995 analysis released with the collection, the "Study of Assassination" was requested by one of the CIA officials running the operation "to be utilized 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 murder manual was sent by pouch on Jan. 8, although the CIA deleted the manual's destination, messenger and recipient.

The released documents, however, do make clear that the CIA employed a full array of covert tactics to confuse and intimidate Arbenz and his government. According to the newly released documents, those tactics included:

Still, despite the millions of dollars poured into PBSUCCESS, it barely succeeded. The CIA's official history describes disastrous military planning and faulty security. In the end, the Guatemalan army deposed Arbenz because they feared that the United States was prepared to invade the country.

On June 27, 1954, having lost the army's support, Arbenz stepped down. In Washington, there was jubilation. The CIA pitched PBSUCCESS to the White House as a nearly bloodless victory, an unqualified success.

Lies at the Top

The CIA's history reveals that when President Eisenhower summoned CIA director Allen W. Dulles and his top covert planners to give a formal briefing, the CIA team lied to the president. A CIA briefer told Eisenhower that only one of the CIA-backed rebels had died. "Incredible," responded the president. And it was. In fact, at least four dozen were dead, the CIA records show.

But the myths about PBSUCCESS took hold. It entered CIA lore as an "unblemished triumph" and gave boasting rights to the CIA for running clandestine operations that were safe, clean and efficient. The Guatemalan coup became the model for future CIA actions in Latin America, including the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

In Guatemala, the coup had other deadly consequences. According to the CIA's historical account, the meticulous CIA coup-plotters had "no plans for what would happen next." They considered democracy an "unrealistic" alternative for Guatemala and foresaw the best alternative as a moderate authoritarian regime that would be staunchly pro-American.

But Guatemala's center quickly "vanished from politics into a terrorized silence." The violence also caught up many of the coup-makers. Just three years after his grab for power, Castillo Armas died at the hands of his own presidential guard. His successor, Gen. Manuel Ydigoras Fuentes, was ousted by Defense Minister Enrique Peralta Asurdia.

When a small insurgency developed, Guatemala's military used U.S. military training, weapons and money to unleash a savage wave of repression that left thousands of peasants dead. The killing continued for four decades.

Now, 43 years after PBSUCCESS swept aside Guatemala's young democracy, the country is finally at peace. As part of the peace accord signed last December, a United Nations "Clarification Commission" is preparing a study of the human rights abuses.

Headed by a German human rights expert named Christian Tomuschat, the commission will have only six months to do its work. Tomuschat has made clear that the commission plans to request documents from foreign governments, including the United States. ~

(c)Copyright 1997

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