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 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
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
"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,
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.
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
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
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
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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