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."
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
--Provocation. A top secret memo dated June 1, 1954, lists
proposals for stirring foreign and domestic outrage at the Arbenz
government with such tactics as "simulated Guatemalan aggression against
Honduras," faked kidnappings of prominent Guatemalan citizens and the
desecration of Guatemalan churches with pro-communist slogans.
--Nerve War. To frighten government officials and police, the CIA
and its agents sent them death notices, made anonymous phone calls
("preferably between 2 and 5 a.m."), spread rumors about their personal
and professional lives, and mailed threatening symbols to their homes,
such as a coffin or a hangman's noose.
--Propaganda. The CIA employed a network of anti-communist
Guatemalan students to create the impression of a powerful opposition to
Arbenz. Students leafleted public gatherings, covered walls with
anti-government graffiti and distributed phony news articles written by
CIA operatives. The tactics prompted Arbenz's government to crack down on
these opponents. Dozens of young activists used by the CIA were arrested
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
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. ~
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