How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 4: Divide and Conquer

You can rile up the public by confusing and polarizing them. The key is to exploit their own existing vulnerabilities.

How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 4: Divide and Conquer

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Stage 4 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Civil Guard Chief Rogelio Cruz Wer and his commandos lay flat on the jungle floor, trying not to make noise as they breathed.

For weeks, the rebel radio had pummeled the police chief personally — as a power-abuser, a murderer, a Communist. Cruz Wer was one of Radio Liberación’s favorite targets. So he had been especially eager when Árbenz finally gave the order to find and destroy the station.

 And now, mere days later, they’d located the rebels’ little shack. In the dark, Cruz Wer and the 12 special forces soldiers with him could see moonlight glinting off the antenna sticking up from the claptrap building’s roof. A light was on inside, and the hum of a generator harmonized with the nighttime jungle sounds. 

Cruz Wer signaled with his hand.

The DJ, Mario López Villatoro, was midway through reading his regular evening monologue, “Nuestra Campana Radial,” when his partner, Pepe, and the others started frantically motioning toward the window. He kept reading the script. By the time he realized what was happening, Cruz Wer’s men had kicked in the door.

Or that’s the story they hoped people would believe.

Truthfully, Cruz Wer and his men never found the station. In fact, it’s unclear if Árbenz had even dispatched his police force to find the station at all; the main source of that rumor was the radio itself.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre announced that the clandestine radio station had been destroyed, May 27, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

What actually happened went more like this:

Back in April in Opa-Locka, Florida, Mario, Pepe, Sonia, Sara and company recorded several broadcasts in which they claimed Árbenz’s forces were looking for them, leading up to a special tape to be aired three weeks into the campaign. On the special tape, the crew recorded themselves pretending to be raided by mysterious attackers — using pots and pans for sound effects. David Phillips, the actor/playwright/radio manager, was pleased.

After the public heard Radio Liberación get cut off mid-broadcast the night before, newspapers reported that the station had been found and captured by Guatemalan authorities. Details were scant, of course. Some of the radio crew may have been arrested by Guatemalan authorities, the papers said. Clearly, at least some of the equipment had been destroyed, the press declared.

President Árbenz and his military leaders were surely confused by the reports. Whoever it was that had “attacked” the station on May 24, it hadn’t been Árbenz’s men.

The airwaves — and intelligence channels — sat silent for two days.

And then, suddenly, Radio Liberación was back.

There it was on the same channel as usual. The same familiar anthem, the same familiar voice of the DJ saying the same slogan, “God, Fatherland and Justice” — transmitting as usual from a secret location within the republic.

“Before beginning our transmission, we want to let you know that our last broadcast was interrupted by circumstances outside of our control,” they said, in Spanish. Government thugs, they said, “who are forever searching for and trying to destroy our transmitters, almost succeeded.”

But, the DJ added, “since we are prepared to shed our blood in defense of the fatherland, their plans were frustrated.” The revolution would continue!

David Phillips, still an actor at heart, was particularly proud of the fake attack ruse. “Credibility enhanced, the Voice of Liberation [sic] was accepted as authentic by foreign newsmen in Guatemala City who were scratching for facts,” Phillips wrote, bragging that, “The New York Times ran a story based on rebel information.”

Even skeptics now had reason to believe that the station was indeed operating inside of Guatemala and that the Árbenz administration was afraid of it. And now that the media had validated the news of the “attack” — and therefore the station itself — the public could now more easily believe the things Radio Liberación broadcast.

Around that time, the station upped the fear factor. Radio Liberación started leveling more serious accusations, even bolder fake news — and it actually started a new daily news segment, “La Notica Atravez de Radio Liberación.” They claimed the government was financing Communist radio stations and “other mind-control programs.” They falsely quoted government officials and announced death threats against “Communist traitors” like Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello. One segment detailed a fake story about Toriello luring Guatemalan boys to casinos to sully themselves with illicit foreign women — and using the revenue to fund Árbenz’s expensive lifestyle and orgies. And of course, there was news that the Liberation Army was growing and planning.

The radio campaign was supplemented by fake “evidence.” Planes made parachute drops in the distance within sight of towns around the country, which the radio indicated were supplies for the rebel army.

And brazenly, a few days before the fake attack on the radio, the CIA planted a small, unmarked submarine with a cache of weapons on the Nicaraguan shore near the border of Guatemala. The weapons had Soviet stamps on them and were also accompanied, conspicuously, by a pack of Guatemalan cigarettes. CIA agents leaked the news to the local press (and Radio Liberación, naturally). But reporters saw through the “evidence” and declined to report on it. Disappointed, CIA Station Chief John Doherty gave orders on May 19 to the propaganda team to “make a cautious effort to obtain added publicity for this story in the Guatemalan press and public opinion.” Ideally, he added, they could get a member of Congress to write an official letter about it.

Though reporters who visited the weapons cache could not be fooled, the CIA doctored photographs of the submarine and weapons and managed to trick at least one American newspaper reporter who asked to see photo evidence.

These activities were all part of Stage 4’s “intensive rumor campaign,” which included influencing foreign correspondents in Guatemala to use inflammatory language when they wrote for U.S. and European audiences. Ambassador Peurifoy held meetings in the U.S. Embassy with newspaper reporters, and reported up the chain as their articles changed their tone to favor the U.S. version of the story. And reporters who wrote skeptically — or who seemed to be telling Árbenz’s side of the story — were dealt with. Allen Dulles himself called New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and persuaded him to deport a correspondent out of Guatemala after the correspondent’s reports threatened to undermine the story the CIA wanted told. (And later on, when the British ambassador shared an inconvenient version of events with the press in Britain, Peurifoy asked the ambassador to Honduras to get him to shut up, and to remind him “of our generous and costly support of British on their recent trouble in British Guiana.”)

The other main propaganda activity in Stage 4 was to “accentuate divisionist activity within target.” So, as the plot entered this critical period before the eventual showdown, the CIA started to accentuate the fault lines in Guatemalan society.



If you want to overthrow a country’s leader using only information, you want to “figure out what intense fault lines are in that country,” explains fake news expert Craig Silverman. You want to know: “What are the psychological buttons you can push with people?”

In Guatemala (as in the United States in 2016 and 2020), those fault lines fell first along race, religion and class. The indigenous and poor masses mistrusted the largely Ladino (considered “white”) upper class — and vice versa. In the rapidly secularizing 1950s, rifts deepened between Guatemala’s Catholics, nonreligious and indigenous religions. And there was mistrust between the military and organized labor; as a political independent, Árbenz had been able to tenuously sew these groups together, but the alliance could easily rip open.

And the big psychological button of the day was fear of American imperialism. Ever since Guatemala had overthrown its dictator in 1944 in favor of democracy, a chasm had emerged between those Guatemalans who wanted more American corporate and political influence and those who desired a more independent Guatemala.

Guatemala’s relatively new policy of freedom of speech made each of these divides ripe for exploitation.

The more these different groups in Guatemala leaned away from each other, the harder it would be for Árbenz to maintain a coalition and defend against a hostile takeover. “The sweet spot is when contemporary events get people riled up about historical grievances,” Silverman says.

This was, of course, key to the disinformation strategy employed by Russia in 2016.

“Polarization is our number one vulnerability,” explains Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit that has spent the last several years tracking Russian efforts to “accentuate divisionist activity.” Brandt says that there are three reasons for this: “One, because it creates an environment where disinformation is ripe to spread. The second is because so often misinformation is about listing out the most extreme narratives already out there and making them more salient. And the third reason is because it keeps us from seeing the bigger picture and organizing ourselves in a way that we can respond.”

The “group polarization” strategy explains reports about Russia trying to intervene to help both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2020 election. And from this perspective, recent reports that Russian social media trolls have been attempting to further stoke racial tension in America lines up as well.

“To the extent that we are doubled over on ourselves, left going at right, left going at other parts of the left,” Brandt says, “all of that leaves us confused [and] divided and [makes it] more difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policy objectives that may not be in line with Russian foreign policy [goals].”

That’s precisely what Stage 4 of the PBSuccess playbook hoped to do — confuse and divide Guatemalans against one another, so that there wouldn’t be a unified front against the pitiful “Liberation Army.” (One CIA cable literally used the words “playing both groups simultaneously” when discussing fault lines among the Guatemalan right wing.)

So, the propaganda team pushed news and rumors meant to rile Guatemalans up in their echo chambers.

The rumor network began targeting housewives with specific fear-based gossip. This was supported by a new, regular Radio Liberación segment called “La Mujer y La Patria,” (literal translation: “The Woman and the Fatherland”), which contained ominous music and frightening speeches by the Orellana sisters. These segments warned women that the Communists wanted to take their children to indoctrination camps, that Árbenz was acting schizophrenically, and that housewives were the ones who needed to pass the anti-Communism message along — but to be sure to leave no paper trail when doing so.

The radio also repeatedly played up fearsome stories about foreigners invading Guatemala and threatening its way of life. Segments repeatedly reported that Mexicans were exporting Communist rabble-rousers into Guatemala. One report announced that Árbenz had invited 2,000 poor Salvadoran families into the country and given them each a tract of Guatemalan land. And they reported that many Europeans were moving to Guatemala to support this new haven for Communism.

And the radio’s messaging increasingly targeted the military. If the CIA could persuade Árbenz’s army to stand down, the game would be over. So Radio Liberación played on the army’s fears: They warned that Árbenz was planning on disbanding the army, that he was planning to give weapons to peasants, so that they could mount a Bolshevik-style assault on the wealthy. And they announced that the government was giving free alcohol to the “Indians” — specifically to get the white upper classes riled up.

The announcer says that Árbenz has admitted to being an instrument of a communist conspiracy through his silence, and that the Alfhem arms shipment

was surely being distributed among peasants.

When a retired Guatemalan pilot named Mendoza defected to Castillo Armas, Phillips and his crew had Mendoza read anti-Communism scripts on air. Having the voice of one of the Guatemalan military’s own exhort the army to defect was brilliant from a divisiveness standpoint. And, the radio crew soon realized, they didn’t need real defectors to make those points in the future; they could have actors play the parts.

Árbenz’s military men became increasingly agitated. Radio Liberación repeatedly levied allegations about various military leaders and cabinet ministers defecting to the Soviets, embezzling government money, and secretly creating plans to escape with Árbenz, all in order to drive wedges between officers in Árbenz’s coalition.

But these were not even the most dramatic parts of the divisionary effort.



As the anti-Árbenz operation escalated, the nation’s Archbishop Mariano Arellano was increasingly disturbed by what he’d been seeing. Operating from the majestic Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago, the archbishop was the shepherd of Guatemala’s millions of Catholics — by far the largest religion in the country — and he was worried. Not just for the church members, but for the soul of the country itself.

 After weeks of prayer, and a consultation with Pope Pius XII himself, Archbishop Arellano sat down alone at his desk to write.

No stranger to the suffering that often accompanies writing, the archbishop poured his heart into his work for the better part of a month — finally producing a 13-page letter to the church expressing what God wished for his people in this time of war and disruption.

It would be the manifesto that called Guatemala’s spiritual warriors to finally stand up and participate in the defense of their country. Against Communism. And against the nation’s fallen president.

Only … once again, that’s not how it happened.

Somebody indeed spent a long time writing that manifesto; it just wasn’t the archbishop.

For months, CIA agents had been working on a plan to distribute propaganda via Guatemalan churches for purpose of riling up the public along religious lines. To do so, agents worked their way into the graces of New York–based Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, who helped agents reach Archbishop Arellano and persuade him to help them.

By April, the timing was right to drop some metaphorical bombs from on high. To that end, the CIA arranged for a letter to be written in Arellano’s name, titled, in the English translation, “Pastoral Letter Concerning the Rise of Communism in Guatemala,” which they then handed to the Archbishop, who read it from the pulpit. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, co-author of the book Bitter Fruit, told us that he believes David Phillips himself wrote it. Of the CIA plotters, “Phillips was,” he said, “the only one who knew Spanish and Latin America.”

In it, Arellano explained, in biblical language, that Communism was a “false redeemer” that would easily trick Guatemalans into becoming enslaved. The 13-page denouncement ended with the words, “All Catholics must fight against Communism because they are Catholic.”

After Arellano read the letter to his congregation, the CIA had copies of it distributed to churches throughout the country. (E. Howard Hunt said in an interview 45 years later that with Spellman’s help, the CIA was able to write additional scripts and leaflets for Catholic clergy across Guatemala, “and this information was going out in the pastorals across the country, and in radio broadcasts.”)

The CIA claimed to have lost the archbishop’s letter, but our research assistant Luis Pablo Rizzo found a copy.

Brandt, of the Alliance For Securing Democracy, explains that one of the most successful types of information warfare in our social media era is “finding existing points of division, finding existing antiestablishment sentiment and exacerbating it, whipping it up into a fervor … throwing a little bit of accelerant on an already burning fire.”

The pastoral letter had indeed created a fire — and now Radio Liberación began aggressively throwing accelerant on it. The station pressed the “Christianity or Communism” case in its broadcasts. They also announced that the pope had backed the archbishop up. Among the fears murmured within the walls of the Catholic church and stoked by the radio were: (a) Chapels would be turned into Communist meeting halls, (b) Communism would replace religious instruction in schools, and (c) photos of saints would have their faces replaced by Lenin.

Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and Vatican representative Genaro Verolino, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

In an official State Department report, Ambassador Peurifoy reported that the archbishop’s letter “has reached the man in the street and is well received.” The ambassador suggested that the propaganda campaign “continue to exploit the letter and tie it into other opportunities.”

In the same report, Peurifoy falsely claimed that two elected members of Congress representing the Labor Party of Guatemala (the country’s small Communist Party, known in Spanish as the “PGT”), Carlos Pellecer and Victor Manuel Gutierrez, were “in fact running the country.” (Radio Liberación would soon say it too.) This fake news was added to the official U.S. record that would continually inform decision-making by government leaders and agents.

To ensure the success of the operation, Peurifoy also recommended that his counterpart, Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello — a favorite punching bag of the rebel radio’s — “be eliminated.”

The Árbenz administration fought back against the fake news with press interviews and its own government radio station, TGW. They pointed fingers at United Fruit, and did so credibly enough that the CIA created a specific propaganda plan to counter it.

So, Radio Liberación began regularly smearing TGW — picking it apart as fake, unreliable news.

Despite this, Árbenz’s refutations of Radio Liberación’s more brazen claims helped keep his coalition together.

But a stroke of luck gave the rebels a wedge with which to finally start splitting it apart.

The Eisenhower administration had ensured that Guatemala could not buy weapons from any of its neighbors. The U.S. had banned arms sales to the country in 1948 after President Arevalo passed reform legislation that was unfriendly to U.S. corporations. After Árbenz was elected, the Dulleses used threats of withholding aid to extort Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and Switzerland into refusing to sell arms to Guatemala as well. Further, the U.S. made public hay of selling arms to Guatemala’s neighbors.

With a battle brewing — and uncertainty about whether the U.S. might find an excuse to send its own troops in at some point — Árbenz needed weapons. So he bought some from the Czechs. Historian Cole Blasier described it as a “kind of last resort.” Rifles, ammunition and artillery pieces were loaded onto a Swedish cargo ship named Alfhem in late April, to arrive on May 15.

Though perfectly legal, buying weapons from a Soviet satellite was a risky PR move at a time when he was being smeared as a Communist. Árbenz was not a good PR guy. But he did keep the purchase top secret.

The CIA found out about the purchase and tracked the Alfhem on its voyage. Initially, the agency planned to intercept the ship, but the U.S. Navy failed to do so. After the ship landed, CIA mercenaries attempted to sabotage the cargo with dynamite, but a rainstorm ruined the fuses. Ultimately, the CIA decided that the propaganda value of letting Árbenz have his weapons would be worth it — especially since their fake Soviet arms cache hadn’t fooled reporters.

The CIA sent out “editorial guidance” to its agents to get news publications to cover the story.

Journalists confirmed that a shipment of weapons from Prague, via Poland, had indeed landed. Eisenhower declared in a White House press conference that the discovery of Czech weapons in Guatemala could lead to a “Communist dictatorship … on this continent.”

Árbenz had stepped on a PR landmine. The government’s rebuttal, which amounted to “it’s not what it looks like” was much less effective than Radio Liberación’s “see, we told you so.” They’d been saying that news like this was coming. Of course, Radio Liberación embellished too, stating that the Alfhem was the first of three ships. The disclosure further shifted the media agenda inside Guatemala. Local media pontificated about what Árbenz would do with the weapons, and whether there was a potential Árbenz-USSR connection.

CIA cables show that U.S. agents were gleeful about their luck with the Alfhem incident. Until this point, they had serious doubts that PBSuccess would live up to its name. After this, they were overjoyed. Radio Liberación began bringing up conspiracy theories about the Czech weapons as often as it could — including a series of fake reports “outing” specific people who were stashing Alfhem weapons to distribute to Communist peasant armies.

A remarkably close 2016 parallel to the Alfhem incident is the Wikileaks release of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s stolen emails.

Like the Czech arms purchase, the content of the Podesta emails was not illegal. But the news was embarrassing — and both the Kremlin’s fake news network and unwitting American propaganda spreaders made continual, conspiratorial hay of it.

The Podesta documents were released strategically in order to keep Americans and their news reporters talking about what Russia wanted, and away from news it didn’t want discussed. For example, when the Access Hollywood footage of candidate Trump bragging about committing sexual assault came out on October 7, 2016, Wikileaks released emails in which candidate Clinton talked about having “both a public and a private position” on Wall Street reform. Only the first of those news stories was an admission of a heinous crime, but the way the second was selectively released and widely spread by social media had the effect of curbing the negative story about Trump by diluting it with lots of negative headlines about Clinton. (Shane, one of the authors of this piece, has a close family member who had never even heard about the Access Hollywood scandal until Shane told her about it two years after Trump had won the election.)

Alliance for Securing Democracy’s data shows that Russian social media accounts were also promoting pro–Roy Moore stories during the senator’s predatory underage sex scandal, and anti–Al Franken stories in the wake of the senator’s butt-grabbing scandal. This selective amplification made certain news items seem more serious, and other news items more doubt-worthy — all in line with the Kremlin’s wishes.

Mixed together with the blatantly false news that Russia promoted during the critical stage of its 2016 disinformation campaign, the Podesta disclosures served to change the media agenda around the election to focus on analyzing Clinton’s so-called sins instead of Trump’s.

And as with the Alfhem disclosure, an enemy government’s fingerprints weren’t on the Clinton leak story. Wikileaks released its documents selectively, and independent news organizations reported on them as if they’d come directly from Wikileaks — without knowledge that the true purveyor of the information was an enemy of the state.

“Audiences evaluate messages in part by evaluating the source of the message,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, the media data expert from UPenn, told us. “So it’s a very different message if it’s coming from a trustworthy source as opposed to an unreliable source, or [if] it’s a source that you would actively distrust.”

In other words, if the Guatemalan people had known that it was really a United States intelligence agency that was behind the pastoral letter warning of Communism, they would have treated the information differently. If they would have known that it was the CIA that leaked the Alfhem news, they would have thought twice about the narrative of who the “bad guys” were. Similarly, many Americans in 2016 would have treated the Wikileaks disclosures differently if they’d known that the information had come from the Russian government.

But instead — in both cases — the sources of the damaging information were not scrutinized, and the trusted press took the story and framed it exactly the way an enemy of the state wanted.

Peurifoy’s reports to the State Department indicate that he saw the benefit of countering pro-Árbenz news — especially anything that threatened to rally Guatemalans together — with anti-Árbenz disclosures that would hijack the media narrative. For instance, when the Árbenz administration pushed information about United Fruit’s involvement in trying to damage the Guatemalan government, Peurifoy sent a telegram to the State Department suggesting that the U.S. accordingly “play down the fruit company” and “concentrate on the commie issue.”

Árbenz’s ambassador Toriello pleaded with Peurifoy to arrange a meeting between Árbenz and Eisenhower himself to sort out a solution between the two nations. Peurifoy told Toriello that he’d see what he could do, then did nothing. A few days later, he sent a note to Allen Dulles saying, “We have gone as far as we can with talk” and “Many people have been to see me saying one bomb on [the] palace would do the job.”

Indeed, telegrams reveal that Ambassador Peurifoy made more suggestions that the CIA bomb things than he did suggestions about diplomacy.

As June approached, the U.S. Information Agency, in coordination with Peurifoy, used CIA source material to write more than 200 guest articles about Guatemala in Latin American newspapers; it also distributed tens of thousands of copies of anti-Communist cartoons and “Communism in Guatemala” pamphlets.

On June 8, Opa-Locka telegrammed Doherty, the CIA station chief, that it was time to start intensifying the radio, leaflet and sabotage campaigns.

And so the plan moved to Stage 5.