How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 5: Showdown

After legitimizing your fake news network, transition into all-out information warfare. (And bring in a few real guns, too.)

How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 5: Showdown

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Stage 5 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Soon after Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, “The Liberator of Guatemala,” crossed the border from Honduras into his home country on June 18, he stopped in the town of Esquipulas for a photo shoot.

Over the past month — with all of the broadcasts depicting the chaos at home and exhorting patriots to join the revolution — the ranks of the Liberation Army had swollen remarkably. Dozens of former National Army officers wore gleaming uniforms, now with the Liberation insignia.

There weren’t enough uniforms for the thousands of soldiers and volunteers, but there were plenty of machine guns.

It was an impressive sight to see them all gathered in one place. The news photographer who happened to be in Esquipulas and convinced Castillo Armas to let him take pictures struggled to capture the full magnitude of the surprising growth of the movement in a single shot.

Or so the CIA hoped the newspapers would say.

Group of insurgent soldiers lined up and crouched into position. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The actual group with Castillo Armas in Esquipulas was tiny. The total membership of the Liberation Army would never end up being very large at all — and it would consist of mostly mercenaries under CIA pay. Even if civilians had wanted to join up, “The Liberator” had been hiding out in Honduras in secret; how would thousands of defectors have even known where to show up, especially without Árbenz finding out where the hiding spot was?

So the photographer, arranged by John Clements, the right-wing PR man working for the United Fruit Company, had to get creative.

Because Castillo Armas didn’t have enough men for a good photo, much less anyone who looked like a “volunteer,” they put rifles in the hands of some local townsfolk to build out the “army.” They gunned down some mules for good measure, to make it look like the place had seen a battle.

Photos were flown back to the States, where United Fruit distributed them to newspapers.

The invasion had begun!

Now that the CIA had legitimized its propaganda channels in the eyes of the Guatemalan public, and riled the public up, it was time for what the agency called “The Final Big Lie.”

That day, June 18, Radio Liberación announced triumphantly that the rebel army was on the march. The CIA wrote bullets for Castillo Armas to deliver in a “press conference” on Radio Liberación, which he did.

A week earlier, the Opa-Locka headquarters had sent orders to begin the final phase of the propaganda campaign. “Rumors, combining fact and fiction, which ought to be circulated,” included:

  • Soviet officers, led by the Moscow Politburo, have landed in Puerto Barrios.
  • The government has devalued the currency, so “Use your money immediately to buy food and durable goods.”
  • Communist Party leader Manuel Fortuny is about to take over as president of Guatemala.
  • Árbenz is issuing a decree that teen boys and girls be sent to labor camps for political indoctrination.
  • Árbenz has left the country, and a Soviet double is currently pretending to be him.
  • Freedom of religion is being suspended, and mandatory instruction in atheism will now take place in schools.

These instructions ended, helpfully, with, “Add rumors of your own, following the day-by-day changes in the situation.”

Now that the “invasion” had begun, Radio Liberación began broadcasting every hour, on the hour, for 15-minute news announcements.

In addition to the typical station broadcasts, Mario and Pepe started mixing in “coded” messages intended for Liberation Army units — codes like “Measurement. Rafael. Factory. Forty days. Artist should arrive. Olga” and “My house has six doors. All are green except for one, which is red.” The radio also relayed orders to various units of the rebel army: “Attention 12th brigade: Congratulations. Today at 1,800 we will get together with you at the appointed place.” “Attention Group 17 of the Liberation Army in Sector 045: Advance to the northeast 12 kilometers; the area is clear. Await Patrol 8 from the Arcadia Group. Good luck.”

An effigy of President Árbenz is propped against a vehicle as several members of the “Liberation Army” point guns at it. The sign on the effigy reads, “Russia is calling me, I’m joining Aravelo.” (Photo by Bettmann, via Getty Images)

As time went on, the brigades got bigger numbers and more ammo. “Hello, Brigade 62. Final details for Operation Magda are ready. Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator. You will have strong air support.” “We advise Carmelo that the 50,000 rounds requested are on the way and may be arriving right now for a full attack on Sector R1-6. Proceed per plan, and good luck!”

The radio “tracked” the deployment of thousands of rebel soldiers, and reported on the number of “volunteers” who were joining Castillo Armas each day. It kept the public up to date on gruesome battles and bridges being blown up. (According to declassified documents, several targets around the country were being detonated to back up the assertions in these broadcasts; this was being done by a CIA field agent named William “Rip” Robertson, not Liberation Army sabotage teams.) The radio also called out and harassed individual supporters of Árbenz by name, calling them traitors and hinting that citizens might take them out if they encountered them. (These names may have been chosen from CIA-prepared dossiers for the purpose of “character assassination” of known Árbenz supporters and Communists.)

The radio also used reverse psychology to foment rumors. “Rumors have reached us that a yellow fever epidemic has broken out,” Radio Liberación reported on June 20. “Other rumors have it that the capital’s water supply has been poisoned. We categorically deny these rumors, there is no yellow fever, and no poison in the water. These rumors are from a desperate government.”

As the “invasion” ramped up, the radio reported bombings and victories in various “sectors,” which the DJs said they couldn’t reveal details about for secret planning reasons. But the news reports made clear that the battle was closing in on Guatemala City. Meantime, the barrage of fake news was endless.

Árbenz has ordered the Catholic Archbishop Arellano assassinated!

The Kremlin has ordered Árbenz to devalue the national currency, the quetzal — so take your money out of the banks!

A brigade of Communist peasants has been captured, and they’ve been using some of the Alfhem arms, which, by the way, when you shoot them often backfire and permanently blind you!

There was even a fake story that Árbenz had “declined to repudiate the statement” that Guatemala “needs no concentration camps since we will chop off heads of all anti-Commies,” and had therefore adopted the quote as his own. CIA instructions for that one “suggested that attribution above can be based on wire service stories or ‘overheard on shortwave.’” Long before social media, the CIA learned that by saying, “many people are saying X,” an influential broadcaster can make sure that many people will say X.

To top things off, Radio Liberación began reporting “news” from foreign newspapers, claiming that Árbenz had been censoring international papers. For days, the station reported what The New York Times and other publications were allegedly saying — hoping that people would spread the “news” and attribute it to established outlets, not the rebel radio.

With our modern ability to record and study audio, we can hear, in retrospect, that Radio Liberación gave away plenty of clues that they were making things up. Why, for example, would the public radio station broadcast orders for army units, especially when, as at least one broadcast gives away, the rebel brigades had the ability to receive radio orders directly? “Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator.”

In another broadcast, the DJs pretend that the government is trying to interfere with their radio signal; static and choppiness interrupt the music throughout the broadcast — even as the DJs’ voices come through perfectly clearly. At one point, the DJs gave a report of the sectors that had been “captured” and accidentally said “Sector Y” when they were supposed to read “y” as in the Spanish word for “and.” And in one broadcast the announcer relayed a message for the Liberation Army brigade to attack at 10,000 hours — instead of 1,000 hours, military time for 10 p.m. But the DJs talked quickly and cleverly, making it nearly impossible for a mere listener to fact-check them — similar to how the 2016 barrage of Kremlin-produced fake news stories about electoral fraud and Clinton conspiracies traveled across social media faster than it could be debunked.

To corroborate the radio’s news of these “war” proceedings, the CIA hired several American mercenary pilots to terrorize Guatemalan towns with crude bombs and machine gun strafing runs. Though there were only two or three planes in the air at any given time, they gave the impression of a larger army and produced the desired effect: terror.

On June 19, President Árbenz addressed the nation over the radio, declaring in no uncertain terms that “it is completely untrue that Communists are taking over the government,” and that Castillo Armas’s attacks were an “expeditionary force” backed by the United Fruit Company. “Ever since we received arms for our defense [from Czechoslovakia], officials in Washington and the U.S. press have redoubled their attacks on Guatemala in a strident campaign meant to bewilder the American people.”

Artwork from a government magazine in which President Árbenz defended himself against the “communist” attacks. The artwork reads “the revolution rejects interventionism.” (Image courtesy the authors)

“Our crime is having enacted an agrarian reform which affected the interests of the United Fruit Company,” Árbenz continued. “Our crime is wanting to have our own route to the Atlantic, our own electric power and our own docks and ports. Our crime is our patriotic wish to advance, to progress, to win economic independence to match our political independence.”

Though Árbenz had spelled out exactly what was happening, no international press outlet reported his side of the story. After his speech, Radio Liberación took to the air to call each of Árbenz’s talking points lies.

Ambassador Toriello repeatedly petitioned the U.S. via Peurifoy to help stop the terror attacks. Peurifoy said that there were “no reliable reports” of such attacks. When Toriello brought up that the planes that had been attacking were U.S. aircraft, Peurifoy countered that he hadn’t seen any planes attacking.

Toriello also sought help from the United Nations, but it was the U.S.’s turn to run the schedule for the U.N. Security Council meetings, so Toriello got no audience and no hearing. (The U.N. Secretary General Hammarskjold later allegedly considered resigning over the U.S.’s manipulation here.)

Some of the strafing runs and sabotage activities had caused fires to break out — or at least, that’s what the Guatemalan government’s TGW radio reported, and Ambassador Toriello repeated in his plea to the U.N. On June 23, the CIA propaganda team was instructed to spread word that Toriello’s reports of these attacks in Guatemala were false, and that the Guatemalan government itself “had been caught setting fires to houses.” Radio Liberación obliged.

While foreign press and diplomats idled, Guatemalan newspapers reported the same stories that Radio Liberación reported — to the point that not only did the public believe a real war was happening but many in Árbenz’s own military also began to become convinced that the rebel army was more than the charade the government had told them it was. After Radio Liberación reported that the rebel army had placed mines along the highway from Zacapa to the capital in order to slow government forces, a National Army garrison commander named Bernardo Ordoñez, who was based in Zacapa, sent a message warning government trucks to be careful on that road because the enemy had planted mines.

Meanwhile, reports that the U.S. Navy was intercepting Guatemalan ships off the coast (true, and illegal), along with Árbenz’s speeches implicating the U.S., were starting to make his own colonels think that fighting Castillo Armas was asking for the worst.

Also, around this time, the CIA had amped up its infiltration of the military. The agency had earlier tried and failed to bribe Árbenz’s chief of the armed forces, Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz, with $200,000 to turn on the president. Cables show that the CIA now dangled offers for jobs in the new regime, among other pressure tactics, to get key Guatemalan military leaders to spread the word that fighting Castillo Armas would be suicide.

As Allen Dulles wrote to President Eisenhower on June 20, “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength … the use of a small number of airplanes and the massive use of radio broadcasting are designed to build up and give main support to the impression of Castillo Armas’ strength.”

In preparation for the CIA’s final move, Castillo Armas sent several dozen men to “seize” the towns of Puerto Barrios, Chiquimula and Zacapa. A couple of real takeovers could seal the deception and pave the way for Árbenz’s fall.

By June 26 — eight weeks after the launch of the pirate radio station — residents of Guatemala City were hiding in their homes, waiting for war to arrive on their doorsteps. As far as the public knew, two heavily armed columns of rebel soldiers would arrive in the capital any minute.



While the Guatemalan public panicked over the “invasion,” Árbenz ordered his troops to stop Castillo Armas in the two places where real fighting was actually happening: Zacapa and Puerto Barrios.

In Guatemala City, a 26-year-old Argentine named Ernesto “Che” Guevara who’d arrived in the country in January, shortly after receiving his medical degree, had volunteered to join the front lines, floored by the injustice of what he saw happening. But Árbenz had given strict orders that only full-time military personnel would be allowed to fight. He did not want to arm civilians, for fear that it would be construed as a sign of Communism — a Bolshevik-style arming of the proletariat.

Even though the actual rebel attacks were “half hearted” and a “farce” according to the CIA’s own report, by this point Árbenz’s military had given up (much like the would-be Clinton voters of 2016 who decided not to cast ballots after being barraged with divisive and fake news). Scared, confused and demoralized, commanders were refusing to deploy — or even answer Árbenz’s calls.

With the army refusing to fight, Guevara tried to organize a coalition of amateur fighters to guard the capital. The most he was able to do was transport some weapons to a resistance brigade and wait — and watch. The watching turned out to be useful to him when, five years later, he would help lead a revolution in Cuba using the same guerrilla radio tactics he’d witnessed in Guatemala.

Without military reinforcements to help them, the residents of Puerto Barrios defeated Castillo Armas’s men using broomsticks and shovels. A garrison of 30 soldiers stationed in Zacapa killed or captured around 90 of Castillo Armas’s main group of attackers. But reinforcements never arrived. Árbenz’s commanders in Guatemala City were refusing to mobilize. Defenders in Zacapa and Puerto Barrios wondered if the next rebel attack would overwhelm them. They had no idea that they’d just mopped up a huge portion of Castillo Armas’s fighting force.

With the military refusing to act, Guatemala had effectively given up its power to stop the foreign government that was bent on installing its preferred man as president. In the middle of the night, members of Árbenz’s administration began kissing up to Peurifoy and jockeying each other for positions in the new government — rather than trying to stop it. The final days of the “invasion” were filled with exhausting power battles — not actual ones. (The New York Times would later report that Peurifoy played a key role in negotiating a “truce” — which is certainly one way to look at it.)

Árbenz himself could have continued to fight. His wife, Maria Vilanova, supported him in gathering the political party leaders who still supported him and maintaining their resistance. But by the time the chief of the armed forces, Colonel Diaz, had delivered the news that the U.S. would put a stop to the aggression only if Árbenz resigned, Árbenz no longer had it in him to keep exercising his power either.

On Sunday, June 27, 1954, Jacobo Árbenz stepped down as Guatemala’s second and final democratically elected president.

And when he broadcast his resignation speech to the stunned nation, some Guatemalans only heard static. The CIA was jamming the signal.