CIA activities in Guatemala

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Several hundred records were released by the Central Intelligence Agency on May 23, 1997, on its involvement in the 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état.[1]

They reflected Truman administration feeling that the government of Jacobo Árbenz, elected in 1950, would continue a process of socio-economic reforms that the CIA disdainfully refers to in its memoranda as "an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the 'Banana Republic.'"

The Guatemalan Revolution of 1944-54 had overthrown the US backed dictator Jorge Ubico, and brought a popular leftist government to power. Although most high-level US officials recognized that a hostile government in Guatemala by itself did not constitute a direct security threat to the United States, they claimed to view events there in the context of the growing Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union and feared Guatemala could reduce the influence of US corporations (such as United Fruit) in the region, and thus reduce US influence. Decree 900, passed in 1952, threatened to increase Guatemala's autonomy and create a successful example of land reform in Central America.

DCI Walter Bedell Smith believed the situation called for action. Their assessment was that without help, the Guatemalan opposition would remain inept, disorganized and inefficient. The anti-communist elements—the Catholic hierarchy, landowners, business interests, the railway workers union, university students and the army were prepared to prevent socialism, but apart from the US they had little outside support.

Other US officials, especially in the US Department of State, urged a more cautious approach. The Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, for example, did not want to present 'the spectacle of the elephant shaking with alarm before the mouse.' It wanted a policy of firm persuasion with the withholding of virtually all cooperative assistance, and the concluding of military defense assistance pacts, with El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Although the Department of State position became the official public US policy, the CIA assessment…had support within the Truman administration as well."[2]


The first CIA effort to overthrow the Guatemalan president--a CIA collaboration with Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza to support a disgruntled general named Carlos Castillo Armas and codenamed Operation PBFORTUNE--was authorized by President Truman in 1952. As early as February of that year, CIA Headquarters began generating memos with subject titles such as "Guatemalan Communist Personnel to be disposed of during Military Operations," outlining categories of persons to be neutralized "through Executive Action"—murder—or through imprisonment and exile.[1]

Following a visit to Washington by Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza in April 1952, in which Somoza boasted that if provided arms, he and Guatemalan exile Carlos Castillo Armas could overthrow Árbenz, President Harry Truman asked DCI Smith to investigate the possibility…" After seeing the report of an agent sent to investigate, Smith approved a proposal to supply Castillo Armas with arms and $225,000 and that Nicaragua and Honduras provide air cover. PBFORTUNE was approved on 9 September 1952, but was terminated a month later when Smith learned it had become known. The idea of assassinations were mentioned, but only at a general level.[2]


In 1953, the CIA continued to try to influence Guatemalan policy and explore disposing of key adversaries…As psychological warfare, the CIA Guatemala City station sent "death notice" cards to all leading communists. The one-month campaigns in April and June produced no apparent results.[1]

The National Security Council and President Eisenhower approved a covert action against Árbenz in August 1953. It carried a $2.7 million budget for "psychological warfare and political action" and "subversion," among the other components of a small paramilitary war.[1]


Further information: 1954 Guatemalan coup d'état

PBSUCCESS, authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was the codename for the CIA's first covert operation in Latin America, carried out in Guatemala. By recruiting a Guatemalan military force, the CIA's operation succeeded in overthrowing the Árbenz government and replacing it with a military junta headed by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas.

Castillo Armas' CIA-supported force entered Guatemala on June 16. Árbenz sought asylum on 27 June, and 120 other Árbenz officials were given safe passage out of the country. There is no evidence of executions. "Discussion of whether to assassinate Guatemalans....took place in a historical era quite different from the present. In the documents, however, was an unsigned, undated technical discussion of assassination.[3]

Árbenz was elected without a secret ballot. His land reform was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which he then purged. He also received arms from the Soviet bloc.[4] The CIA claimed it intervened because it feared that a communist government would become "a Soviet beachhead in the Western Hemisphere;"[5] however, it was also protecting, among others, four hundred thousand acres of land the United Fruit Company had acquired. Guatemala's official 1999 truth commission accused Árbenz of being involved in the deaths of several hundred political opponents.[6]

Although the CIA's operations were a failure, the Árbenz regime suddenly collapsed without any significant violence when the Guatemalan military turned against it.[7] In the eleven days after the resignation of President Árbenz, five successive military junta governments occupied the Guatemalan presidential palace; each junta was successively more amenable to the political demands of the U.S., after which, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas assumed the Presidency of Guatemala.

The political and consequent social instability created in Guatemala 6 years later resulted in a very long civil war and its consequent, destructive impact upon the society, the economy, human rights and the culture of Guatemala. According to author Kate Doyle, the CIA-sponsored military coup in 1954 was "the poison arrow that pierced the heart of Guatemala's young democracy."[8]


President Lyndon B. Johnson wanted to invade Guatemala with private military contractors.[9] In support of this, CIA Director William Raborn was tasked with finding evidence to support the President's belief that Guatemala was a Cuban puppet state. Raborn was unsuccessful in finding such evidence.


CIA begins to train police and military of Guatemala.[9]


The CIA provided intelligence to the army for its long war against guerrillas, farmers, peasants and other opponents. The CIA station chief in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991 was a Cuban American. He had about 20 officers with a budget of about $5 million a year and an equal or greater sum for "liaison" with Guatemalan military. His job included placing and keeping senior Guatemalan officers on his payroll. Among them was Alpirez, who recruited others for CIA. Alpirez's intelligence unit spied on Guatemalans and is accused by human rights groups of assassinations.[10]

In the latter stages of the thirty-six-year Guatemalan Civil War (1960–1996), however, the CIA helped reduce the incidence and number of the violations of the human rights of Guatemalans; and, in 1983, thwarted a palace coup d’ état, which allowed the eventual restoration of participatory democracy and civil government; the resultant national election was won by Democrácia Cristiana, the Christian Democracy party, and Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo became President of the Republic of Guatemala (1986–91).[11]


In 1993 the CIA helped in overthrowing Jorge Serrano Elías who attempted a self-coup and had suspended the constitution, dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court, and imposed censorship. He was replaced by Ramiro de León Carpio.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d Doyle, Kate; Kornbluh, Peter. "Electronic Briefing Book No. 4". CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents. George Washington University National Security Archive. 
  2. ^ a b Haines, Gerald K. (June 1995). "Electronic Briefing Book No. 4, Document 1". CIA History Staff Analysis: CIA and Guatemala Assassination Proposals, 1952-1954. George Washington University National Security Archive.   This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  3. ^ "Electronic Briefing Book No. 4, Document 2". A Study of Assassination. George Washington University National Security Archive. 
  4. ^ Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954 (Princeton University Press, 1991), pp84, 147, 145, 155, 181-2.
  5. ^ Nicholas Cullather, Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operation in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (Stanford University Press, 1999) pp24-7, based on the CIA archives.
  6. ^ Antecedentes Inmediatos (1944-1961): El derrocamiento de Árbenz y la intervención militar de 1954,” in Comisión para el Esclaracimiento Histórico (CEH), Guatemala: Memoria Del Silencio (Guatemala, 1999), Capítulo primero.
  7. ^ Nicholas Cullather, Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operation in Guatemala, 1952-1954 (Stanford University Press, 1999).
  8. ^ Doyle, Kate (1997). "Guatemala – 1954: Behind the CIA's Coup". The Consortium. Retrieved 2007-04-15. 
  9. ^ a b Weiner, Tim (2007). Legacy of Ashes. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-51445-3. 
  10. ^ "Shadowy Alliance -- A special report.; In Guatemala's Dark Heart, C.I.A. Lent Succor to Death" The New York Times, April 02, 1995
  11. ^ Report on the Guatemala Review Intelligence Oversight Board. June 28, 1996.
  12. ^ Report on the Guatemala Review Intelligence Oversight Board. June 28, 1996. Archived April 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.