Guatemala City looked like a ghost town.
The capital’s 450,000 residents hid in panicked self-quarantine, waiting for the first wave to arrive. World War I–style military planes periodically flew overhead, firing warning shots and dropping leaflets telling people to either flee or stay indoors.
A civil war was moving toward them.
All week, Guatemalan radio had been blasting the news of gruesome battles around the country. The newspapers were going crazy. Two Americans in a tourist plane had been shot down by Guatemala’s Communist army. Refugees were fleeing to Mexico while 400 injured Communist troops were retreating to the capital for medical treatment.
Now, on Saturday morning — June 26, 1954 — radio news broadcasts reported that two columns of anti-Communist patriots calling themselves the “Liberation Army” were 60 kilometers from the capital. And marching fast.
All vehicles were now military targets, the radio warned, so citizens should stay out of their cars. Trains had been stopped due to the intense air battle raging in the northeast. And a sabotage unit of the Liberation Army had just received orders to blow up a bridge in “Sector H-21.”
Soldiers from the Communist government’s own military were now defecting in droves, newscasters reported. Five hundred and thirty-eight civilians had joined the Liberation Army just yesterday.
In response, the government had suspended the constitution. The president had ordered all anti-Communists found on the streets to be rounded up.
The whole world was watching this catastrophe unfold, the radiomen reported.
At 11 p.m., the broadcasters read aloud a message issued by the Guatemalan chief of police:
To all Department Governors in the Republic. Capture immediately all mayors and other anti-Communist city officials currently affiliated with parties of the revolution. … Keep them in prison, and at the first shot fired when you are attacked, shoot them immediately.
All weekend long, the radio newscasters implored government soldiers to stand down. Remaining at one’s post would only result in needless bloodshed, the newscasters warned. The only way to end the carnage was to abandon the president, who “preferred suicide to surrender.”
Guatemala’s 41-year-old president, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, was not known for his sense of humor. But if there was anything that had the chance of making him smile that day, it might have been this last claim. Anyone who knew Jacobo Árbenz knew he would never say something like that.
But he was not laughing, because what he knew was more infuriating than humorous.
There was, in fact, no real “Liberation Army.” Just a few dozen pissed-off exiles hiding out 6 miles in from the border of Honduras, staging strategic photos for the press, like a bunch of 1950s-era Instagram influencers holding donated rifles. The “invasion” was more smoke than bombs.
No refugees or injured soldiers had fled anywhere. The chief of police had not issued orders to round up anti-Communists. The two Americans in that “tourist” plane were actually the ones dropping leaflets, contract pilots. They hadn’t been shot down; they’d run out of gas and been captured by authorities in Mexico.
There was no civil war about to engulf the capital, and most ironic of all: Guatemala was not a Communist state. President Árbenz was a political independent, having run as a moderate — and certainly was not a Communist. And though the country did have a small Communist Party and four representatives in Guatemala’s 56-member congress, not one Communist held a cabinet position in Árbenz’s administration. The president considered himself friends with two Communist Party leaders, but he was also friends with right-wing leaders. His own chief of armed forces and handpicked presidential successor was a conservative. Árbenz was a cool-headed military man like his counterpart President Eisenhower. True, in his ideal world, Árbenz would have Guatemala look like the USA under FDR. But he was a pragmatist. In the United States today, his policies would have been closer to those of Bill Clinton than Bernie Sanders.
And that radio station everyone was reacting to? It wasn’t even in Guatemala. The disc jockeys aired their “reports” from a shack in Nicaragua. Many of their broadcasts had actually been prerecorded earlier in the year.
In an office belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency.
The radio station that had all of Guatemala in such a frenzy was part of a secret CIA “terror program based on Orson Welles,” declassified documents now show. It was overseen by an American actor and spy novelist whose salary was paid by U.S. tax dollars. The whole operation was, to use today’s parlance, “fake news.”
By the following evening, President Árbenz’s colonels were refusing to leave their barracks. The president’s ambassador brought him word that the U.S. would end the charade if Árbenz stepped down. The radio, meanwhile, told civilians that all they needed for the war to be over was to stop supporting Árbenz.
So they did. The Guatemalan people and military who had once overwhelmingly backed their elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, gave up their power. And now he had to.
President Árbenz walked across the street into the Mexican Embassy, and the U.S. walked their man into his office.
Árbenz was eventually strip-searched by U.S. agents and put on a plane, never to set foot in his home country again.
Under Árbenz and his predecessor, President Juan Arevalo, the newly democratic Guatemala had been rapidly becoming a bright spot of stability and middle-class prosperity in Latin America. But the fall of Árbenz and subsequent collapse of democracy ushered in a string of brutal dictators who slaughtered countless innocents. It reversed Guatemala’s promising economic rise and led to the takeover of organized crime and mass immigration to Mexico and the United States.
What if the U.S. had not intervened in Guatemala’s democratic process? When we posed this question to Martín Pellecer, founder of the investigative journalism outfit Nómada, in an interview in Guatemala City, he replied without hesitating: “We would have been Costa Rica.” In a series of reforms beginning a few years after Guatemala’s democratic revolution, Costa Rica abolished its army and redirected funds into a robust civil police force, infrastructure, health care and education — creating decades of peace, an enormous tourist draw and a booming economy for the region.
Instead, the overthrowing of Árbenz — which CIA Director Allen Dulles and his deputies in a secret telegram immediately called “a great victory” and “an inspiration and a challenge to all of us” — closed the book on Guatemala’s 10 years of democracy and kicked off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people died.
Sylvia Brindis — one of the authors of this story — was born in Guatemala City during that war. Her family were campesinos (country folk) and coffee plantation workers from the eastern city of Zacapa. To this day her relatives regularly lament the fall of Árbenz. She grew up with a constant stream of “what ifs”: What if the people had known the Liberation Army was fake? What if Árbenz had come back and staged a revolution instead of staying in exile? What if the democratic reforms hadn’t been undermined and reversed?
The other author of this story, Shane Snow, has spent much of his journalistic career focused on human behavior and how media affects it. In 2014, he wrote a book chapter about Che Guevara’s use of pirate radio to help win the Cuban Revolution. When Sylvia learned about this, her immediate reaction was, “Oh yeah, like the CIA did in Guatemala.”
Shane was surprised to hear this. Most in Guatemala know that media manipulation brought down their most popular president and changed the course of their nation’s history. But until 2016, most Americans had barely ever even heard of “fake news.”
Our conversation about Che’s radio station led us to take a deep look at the Guatemalan radio story. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. government declassified a trove of secret documents about the overthrow. Unfortunately the CIA told us that they did not have any of the tapes that broadcast Radio Liberación. And the former CIA historian who wrote the agency’s “official” history on Árbenz told us that he’d never looked into the radio campaign because he thought it hadn’t been very important. This made us want to dig even more.
So we spent a year poring through unorganized troves of declassified CIA and State Department documents, exploring Guatemalan police archives, and photographing boxes of correspondence. We interviewed historians who’d written books about various aspects of the saga, and tracked how key parts of their official histories were based on government misinformation. And we hunted down crumbly old Central American newspapers, half-written manuscripts left behind by deceased government agents, and documents the government claimed to have lost.
And in that digging, we discovered something shocking.
Not only did Che Guevara get the idea for his Cuban guerilla radio station from the CIA’s operation in Guatemala — the 26-year-old Argentine was on the ground in Guatemala City witnessing the overthrow — but our investigation also revealed a story about fake news that even the best Árbenz historians had never had primary access to, much less explored:
In 1954, the CIA didn’t just use media manipulation to turn a country upside down and install the president that the U.S. wanted. The agency wrote a six-stage, step-by-step playbook for exactly how to do it.
And the most unsettling part is this: It’s the same playbook that the Kremlin used in 2016 and is using against the United States again right now.
Oh, and we also found The Tapes.
The “revolution” had started two months earlier, on May 1, 1954, as Guatemalans amassed for their annual May Day parade, and a new radio station aired its maiden broadcast.
The broadcast began with trumpet blasts and an orchestra rendition of the Guatemalan national anthem. Then, the voice of an experienced DJ announced (in Spanish):
“This is Radio Liberación, operating from a secret location inside the Republic! … The soul of our people speaks through our mouth.”
The station declared that it was the news media arm of a coalition of exiles, university students, honorable military officers, and working Guatemalans who opposed their president. “We will announce the hour of your redemption,” the DJ declared, “[from] the presidency of the Communist traitor Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán!”
He and a co-host explained that the radio broadcast would be airing twice a day with news of the rebellion against Árbenz. Each installment would begin with popular music and jokes, and then proceed to serious segments exposing the Árbenz government and the evils of Communism, which they said he had succumbed to. Several times, the DJs encouraged fellow “patriots” to join them and their leader, an exiled colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas, in their resistance movement.
The broadcast ended with one of the many catchphrases that the station would soon repeat countless times: “The symbols of our fight: God, Fatherland and Liberty. And our aspirations: Truth, Justice and Work.”
President Árbenz and his advisers — the closest of which were his politically savvy wife, María Vilanova, and his loyal foreign affairs minister, Guillermo Toriello — were surely frustrated to hear this. Castillo Armas had already tried to foment one of several failed coups in Guatemala’s short democratic history. He’d been caught and jailed in 1949 after trying to violently overthrow Árbenz’s predecessor, but he had since escaped into exile. Árbenz’s intelligence apparatus had documents proving that the rebel group had only a handful of men and a shoestring budget. They knew Castillo Armas was hiding in Honduras — not inside Guatemala — and was operating with support from a U.S. corporation known as the United Fruit Company.
What could this radio station be up to, the Guatemalan president and his advisers wondered. Halfway through his six-year term, Árbenz remained overwhelmingly popular with the Guatemalan people. As a colonel himself, he had the support of his military. He knew that Castillo Armas posed no real threat, had few supporters and supplies.
But what he didn’t know is that by the time Radio Liberación launched, replacing Árbenz with Castillo Armas had become the CIA’s number one priority. Nor did Árbenz know that President Eisenhower had authorized his overthrow so long ago that the agency was already on Stage 3 of its plan by the time the mysterious radio station had aired the Guatemalan national anthem for the first time.
The United States was not at war with Guatemala in 1954. But the Boston-based conglomerate known as the United Fruit Company was at war with President Árbenz.
United Fruit (also known as UFCO) had been cheating on its taxes for years, lying to the Guatemalan government about the value of its banana plantations and the hundreds of thousands of acres of unused land the company was sitting on. Now that Árbenz had passed an agrarian reform bill (similar to those that had in decades past allowed countries like Ireland, Colombia and Canada to break agricultural monopolies and create more competition), Guatemala was buying back untilled land for the value that companies like UFCO had reported on its tax bill. UFCO was being forced to sleep in the bed they’d made, and they were pissed.
If only someone could get rid of Árbenz.
The most powerful pair of brothers in the United States, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, were not legally allowed to do that sort of thing. But they wanted to. Both were UFCO shareholders and advocates, having worked for the firm for many years. But in a time of peace, well, doing anything more aggressive than writing angry letters would be illegal.
The U.S. was, however, at symbolic “war” with Communism. Eisenhower had won the U.S. presidency on a campaign promise to stop its spread. And the Dulles brothers were particularly eager to help him do that. They held a deep religious belief that Jesus Christ had called on them to use their influence to spread American business interests across the world, while simultaneously beating back the Soviets. For decades, the United States had thrown its weight around Latin America when it suited the U.S. financially — such as seizing Puerto Rico from Spain and secretly helping Panama secede from Colombia. And in 1953, the U.S. successfully overthrew the Shah of Iran after he tried to nationalize oil. The success of that operation confirmed for the Dulleses that Communist prevention and American business interests were indeed a winning combination.
So, even though the U.S. State Department knew that Jacobo Árbenz was not a Communist, the Dulles brothers decided it was God’s plan to get rid of him.
This is not, strictly speaking, a legal justification for overthrowing a democratically elected leader of a nation. So the Dulleses decided to do so without anyone knowing about it.
According to declassified documents, Allen Dulles had as far back as July 1952 proposed putting together a private “syndicate” to fund Árbenz’s ouster. But after over a year of plotting, he and his brother got the official green light from Eisenhower to use U.S. tax funds to make Árbenz go away. As the U.S. diplomat over Central American affairs later put it, “There is 100 percent determination here, from the top down, to get rid of this stinker.”
Excited, they put an org chart together, where, as Harvard history professor John Coatsworth wrote in 2005 in the new introduction to the book Bitter Fruit, a journalistic investigation of the overthrow that was published in 1982 and revealed a number of details before the U.S. declassified them, “every policymaking official involved in the decision to overthrow the Guatemalan government, except for President Eisenhower himself, had a family or business connection to UFCO.”
The covert operation would be officially run by the CIA, but the State Department would provide its Central American ambassadors as spies and operatives, and the U.S. Information Agency would also lend support. The United Fruit Company would not “officially” be involved, but it would provide transport, communications equipment and PR services.
And in an example of positive affirmation that would make Oprah proud — if she were a mobster — the scheme was dubbed, Operation Success. Allen Dulles told his lieutenants that the operation, also called PBSuccess (PB was CIA code for Guatemala), was the agency’s “number one priority.”
Allen Dulles’s number two man, Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner, spelled out the objectives in a memorandum on September 11, 1953:
The operational overview officially included a $2.7 million budget breakdown, and falsely described the Guatemalan government as “Moscow influenced” and “thoroughly controlled by a Communist dominated bureaucracy.” It called the Central American nation “primitive,” with a “touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex.”
Thus the official record that U.S. agents would rely on in conducting the anti-Árbenz campaign was prepopulated with biased and false information.
This was fitting, because, in addition to ceasing aid to Guatemala and pressuring its allies to abandon it, the central component of the plan revolved around fake news. As Allen Dulles would spell out to Eisenhower: “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength.”
The Dulleses tapped the United States’ top “psychological warfare” experts to help CIA planners develop a six-stage playbook for making an information-centric overthrow happen. A secret document dated November 12, 1953, spelled this playbook out, step-by-step.
What did this plan consist of?
“It is difficult to explain without the wall map and charts,” Deputy Director Wisner explained in a coordination meeting between CIA and State Department planners in the spring of 1954.
But, he said, it most certainly included, “ghost voicing, deception, mines, bazookas, and fire power.” Everything they needed for a fake war.
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