AFTER five years of promises, the CIA recently released fraction of its classified files on the coup it ran in Guatemala in 1954. The documents provide the public with an unprecedented opportunity. For the first time, we have a chance to 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.
The 1,400 pages of newly released files -- about 1 percent of the CIA's secret records on the coup -- explain how the agency's first covert mission in Latin America, although plagued by
potentially fatal flaws, succeeded in its goal of toppling a democratically elected government. The coup served as a model for subsequent CIA operations in the hemisphere.
The documents also illuminate the origins of the region's most devastating human rights tragedy. More than 140,000 Guatemalan citizens died or disappeared during the 35 years of civil war that followed the coup, most at the hands of a murderous military force backed by the United States. Now we can read first-hand about the methods employed by the CIA -- methods that were later adopted by the Guatemalan armed forces for their brutal counterinsurgency campaigns.
It is horrifying reading, precisely because it is not the stuff of nightmares. It is the true story of how the United States helped turn its Central American neighbor into a killing field.
Most historians now agree that the 1954 coup was the poison arrow that pierced the heart of Guatemala's young democracy. Code-named "PBSUCCESS," the operation aimed to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the second legally elected president in Guatemalan history.
Although Arbenz was regarded within Guatemala as a reformist bent on changing the country's rigid oligarchy, the United States considered him a danger of international dimensions. Arbenz permitted the Guatemalan Communist Party to operate openly, and his land reform program threatened U.S. commercial interests, in particular the powerful United Fruit Co. His policies set off alarms all over Washington.
U.S. concerns rapidly became covert plans to destroy the Arbenz administration. By 1952, two years after Arbenz's
election, the CIA began seeking an opposition force which could overthrow the government. It looked to the Guatemalan military for a solution. A "General Plan of Action" written in 1953 stated that the agency 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 willing to consider any means necessary to get rid of the Guatemalan president. A secret report from June 2, just days before the operation began, records one senior CIA official telling his colleagues, "Arbenz must go; how does not matter."
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 "manual," "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 will serve"), and the correct way to club a man to death.
The agency compiled hit lists in preparation for the coup and its aftermath. Even before receiving official approval for the invasion, the Directorate of Operations was building an "elimination list," using information the Guatemalan military had gathered in 1949 on "top- flight Communists." During planning for a first, aborted attempt in 1952, the CIA discussed trait 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 Jan. 8, although its destination, messenger, and recipieThe CIA has been careful to point out, in press materials that accompanied the release of the documents, that proposals for assassination were "neither approved nor implemented" and amounted to nothing more than "contingency planning." It is impossible to verify the 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 containing "CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals" have been carefully purged of all names -- the names of CIA officials involved and the names of their intended victims.
More important, some of the assassination materials in the collection were clearly meant for use in training the agency's Guatemalan allies. According to a 1995 analysis released with the collection, the "Study for 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 grisly murder manual was indeed sent by pouch Jan. 8, although its destination, messenger, and recipient have all been deleted by the agency.
The lessons of the coup were not lost on the Guatemalan army: Violence, murder and mayhem could be effective political tools. 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 subsequently ousted by Defense Minister Enrique Peralta Asurdia, who, with the help of U.S. military training, weapons and funds, soon unleashed a savage wave of repression that left thousands of peasants dead.
In the weeks before the coup, the CIA and its Guatemalan allies undermined and deceived Arbenz and his government, using tactics including:
Provocation. A top secret memo dated June 1, 1954, lists proposals for stirring foreign and domestic outrage at the Arbenz administration, such as "simulated Guatemalan aggression against Honduras," faked kidnappings of prominent Guatemalan citizens and the desecration of Guatemalan churches with pro-Communist slogans.
Nerve war. In order to frighten individual government, police, and unfriendly military officials, 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 large, organized opposition to Arbenz. Students leafleted public gatherings, covered walls with anti-government graffiti and distributed phony news articles written by CIA operatives. The tactics succeeded too well. Arbenz's government cracked down his opposition, arresting and torturing dozens of the young activists used by the agency.
Despite the millions of dollars the CIA poured into Operation Success, it barely succeeded. The account of the coup written by a member of the agency's history staff describes disastrous military planning and failed security measures. In the end, the Guatemalan army decided to depose Arbenz not because it believed Castillo Armas was a serious threat but because it feared the United States was prepared to invade the country.
On June 27, 1954, Arbenz step-ped down after he realized he had lost the army's support. Castillo Armas took his place days afterward as the head of the Guatemalan government.
In Washington, there was jubilation. The CIA scrambled to convince the White House that PBSUCCESS was an unqualified and all but bloodless victory. The CIA's declassified history now reveals that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the director of central intelligence, Allen W. Dulles, and his senior covert planners into a formal briefing on the operation, the CIA lied to the president. An agency briefer told Eisenhower that only one of the rebels it had backed had died. "Incredible," said the president. And it was. In fact, at least four dozen were dead, according to the CIA's records.
Operation Success entered agency lore as an "unblemished triumph" -- and the CIA touted clandestine operations for years to come in the same terms that would be used for nuclear energy a generation later: safe, clean and efficient. The Guatemala coup became the model for future CIA activities in Latin America, including the disastrous invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the agency's failed attempt to topple Cuba's Fidel Castro.
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 U.S. interests. But Guatemala's political center quickly "vanished from politics into a terrorized silence." After a small insurgency developed in the wake of the coup, Guatemala's military leaders developed and refined, with U.S. assistance, a massive counterinsurgency campaign that left tens of thousands massacred, maimed or missing.
Today, almost 43 years after PBSUCCESS swept aside Guatemala's incipient democracy, the country is finally at peace. Representatives of the Guatemalan government and guerrilla forces signed a peace accord in December.
As part of that accord, a United Nations "Clarification Commission" is preparing to begin a definitive study of the human rights abuses of the civil war. Headed by a German expert on international human rights, Christian Tomuschat, the commission will have a scant six months to examine, analyze and report on 35 years of atrocities. Tomuschat has already made clear that, as part of its investigations, the commission plans to formally request documents from foreign governments -- including the United States -- which played a role in Guatemala's past.
The release of the CIA's secret files on the 1954 coup is a vital and profoundly important beginning to the reconstruction of a true history of Guatemala's dark past. Now, the United States has a chance to complete its task. When the U.N. Clarification Commission appeals to President Clinton for documents, the administration should act immediately.
Kate Doyle is a foreign policy analyst at the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute that collects and publishes documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Pub Date: 6/08/97