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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Operation PBSuccess: That Time the CIA Deposed an Entire Government

Written by Matthew Copes



Corrupt officials.

Shady CIA operatives. 

Well-connected American business executives.

Downtrodden peasants.

Rebels, coups, and juntas.

And bananas…lots and lots of bananas.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Guatemala in the early ‘50s.

A place where with enough cash and the right connections, anything is possible. 

These days mid-20th century Guatemalan history isn’t exactly front page news, but back then Operation PBSuccess made headlines around the world – for all the wrong reasons.

Reading like a Graham Greene or John le Carré novel, the story actually began a half century earlier in 1899, when the United States’ three largest banana importers merged to form the United Fruit Company, or as it’s known now, Chiquita Brands International.

Brash, politically connected and flush with greenbacks, the conglomerate’s ambitious executives wasted little time establishing their dominance by paying off politicians both at home and abroad, and by stifling competition through a process euphemistically referred to as “vertical integration.”

In layman’s terms, United set out to dominate every aspect of banana production, marketing and distribution, all the way from plantations in Central America to markets and produce stands in North America.

Shrewdly positioning itself as a partner for modernization and democratization, thanks to unprecedented concessions and unscrupulous real estate deals, the company owned vital infrastructure like ports, railways, and telegraph lines, as well as tens of thousands of acres of the country’s most productive farmland.

Benefiting from their cozy relationship with dictator Jorge Ubico, profits soared, but corruption was rampant, the wealth disparity between the ruling class and indigenous people couldn’t have been more stark, and United’s labor practices were abysmal.

Hence, a number of populist politicians and revolutionaries emerged, all of whom were at least outwardly determined to rid Guatemala of the foriegn parasites who’d been profiting off the country’s natural resources and native peoples for decades.

In short, the stage was set for an epic David and Goliath-style showdown between competing ideologies, the ramifications of which are still felt in Latin America today.

Revolution in Guatemala

In 1931 military strongman Jorge Ubico became the president of Guatemala after an election in which he was the only candidate.

Ubico ruled with an iron hand for more than a decade, but his reign ended in the tumultuous early stages of the Guatemalan Revolution in the summer of 1944.

During the Ubico years United Fruit had gained control of more than 40% of the country’s land, and had been exempted from paying both taxes and import duties.

After Ubico was ousted, former college professor Juan Jose Arevalo became Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, after which he introduced a minimum wage and granted previously marginalized peasants the right to vote.

These progressive reforms were huge red flags to United’s wealthy executives, but it was Arevalo’s land reform policies that really kept them up at night.

Now with the stink of communism in the air and its profits and protected status at serious risk, the company launched an insidious lobbying campaign to persuade its cronies in the US government to overthrow Arevalo, albeit under the guise of – get this – promoting democracy. 

It was ironic to say the least, because as already stated, Arévalo had become president in a free and fair election.

Though the idea didn’t gain much traction initially, that changed when Jacobo Arbenz succeeded Arevalo as Guatemala’s 25th President in 1951.

Arbenz immediately began building on his predecessor’s successes, namely by enacting Decree 900. 

More commonly known as the Agrarian Reform Law, Decree 900 wrested idle and ill-gotten land from the hands of foreign corporations like United Fruit, and redistributed it to landless peasants who’d been trapped in a hopelessly predatory pseudo-feudalist system since the country was colonized by Spain in the early 16th century.

That said, the bigwigs at United Fruit didn’t appreciate having their vast real estate holdings yanked out from under them.

The Guatemalan government did propose to pay them for their land, but the sale price would be based on the value United Fruit had claimed in previous year’s regulatory filings.

And big shocker, they’d significantly understated the land’s value to obscure its true worth.

Now they were reaping what they’d sowed, and to make matters worse they were to be paid in government bonds, not cash.

Thanks to Decree 900, the real estate holdings of nearly 2,000 private estates and corporations were seized and redistributed, and as a result almost 500,000 indigenous Guatemalans became landowners almost overnight.

Thus, Decree 900 would ultimately lead to a CIA-led coup d’état in 1954 which successfully deposed Jacobo Arbenz, and resulted in a brutal decades long civil war.

Operation PBFortune


During the Cold War, Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower took particularly hard lines against communist expansion in South and Central America.

As consummate insiders and staunch conservatives, brothers Allen and John Foster Dulles constantly hyped up the extent to which communism had permeated the region.

One could be forgiven for doubting the sincerity of their motives however, because for years they’d worked for the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell which had negotiated land and tax concessions with the Guatemalan government on United Fruit’s behalf.

In fact, Sullivan & Cromwell had been on United Fruit’s payroll for nearly four decades, and each of the Dulles brothers owned stock and had served on the company’s board of trustees.

In addition, during the Eisenhower administration Allen Dulles had been head of the CIA and John Foster had been Secretary of State, all of which added up to glaring conflicts of interest by any standards. 

Either ignorant of or willing to overlook these inappropriate connections, in early 1952 Eisenhower buckled under the relentless pressure and authorized Operation PBFortune – the first CIA attempt to oust Arbenz.

To get its coup into high-gear, the CIA enlisted help from a corrupt, authoritarian and exiled former Guatemalan Army officer named Carlos Castillo Armas, and 225,000 USD (2.4 million USD today) was earmarked for the operation.  

The CIA also reached out to the dictators of Venezuela and Nicaragua, both of whom agreed to provide additional aid, funding and logistical support.

If successful, the CIA’s plan called for the assassination of nearly 60 Guatemalan military, political and social leaders, and the arrest of many more. 

PBFortune was officially approved in mid-September 1952, after which a freighter that’d been “borrowed” from United Fruit in New Orleans was loaded with weapons that were listed as agricultural machinery on the ship’s manifest.

The vessel then set sail for Nicaragua, but while en-route the secret operation was discovered and terminated by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, not only because it was illegal, but because Arbenz’ intelligence apparatus had supposedly become aware of the plot.  

However despite the setback, the CIA continued to pay Castillo Armas a monthly retainer of 3,000 USD (32,000 USD now) – just enough to maintain the rebel force he’d cobbled together, just in case it was needed in the future. 


72-2733-1 President Eisenhower addresses the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Negro publishers group. The meeting was held at the Presidential Arms Hotel in Washington, DC. May 12, 1958

Though Operation PBFortune had died on the vine, the CIA wasn’t done with Arbenz or Guatemala.

The second Operation – PBSuccess – would rely on tried and true CIA tactics including psychological warfare, political wrangling, and good old-fashioned military force to get the job done once and for all.

Authorized by President Eisenhower in the summer of 1953, PBSuccess employed more than 100 agents and had a budget of about 7 million USD (75 million USD today).

In addition, the CIA recruited hundreds of Guatemalan exiles and mercenaries in neighboring countries, published and distributed notorious “assassination manuals,” and enlisted help from staunch anti-communist US Ambassador John Peurifoy who acted as liaison between the CIA, its operatives and hired guns.

Peurifoy also stoked the embers of distrust and animosity that had always existed between the leftist government and traditionally right-wing military.

PBSuccess’ headquarters and communications centers were established in Opa-locka, Florida, and the operation was headed by the CIA’s Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner and former Army colonel turned intelligence operative Albert Haney.

No expense was spared, but in the early going the operation’s success was nearly derailed by a premature coup of mysterious origins.

Though quickly crushed, it put Arbenz on high-alert, and as a result the CIA was forced to rely more heavily on Guatemalan exile groups that were far more difficult to control in addition to having shady motives and loyalties. 

Various candidates were considered to lead the coup, but the job once again fell to Castillo Armas who’d been on the CIA’s payroll since the previous operation.

Again Armas was given money to recruit additional fighters that would later become known as the Army of Liberation.

The CIA established training camps in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador and supplied light and medium weapons and several aircraft. 

All told the CIA and Armas trained nearly 1,800 guerillas, plus thousands more who were to be kept along the border as reserves.

But though these preparations were purportedly secret, the CIA may have wanted Arbenz and the Guatemalan people to know about them from the get-go.

If so, both might have considered the overthrow a foregone conclusion, which may have led to a smoother transition, and perhaps even the rarest of all things, a bloodless coup. 

But sadly it wasn’t to be.

The CIA ratcheted up its efforts by persuading priests and pastors in rural areas to include fiery anti-government rhetoric in their sermons, while the United States officially denounced the Guatemalan government, claiming it had become a Soviet puppet state.

In response, Arbenz’ government issued statements implicating an unnamed “government of the North” that was plotting to illegally destabilize Guatemala and overthrow its rightful leader.

But though Guatemala’s official assessment was dead-on, Washington denied the allegations vehemently.

Meanwhile the planning and buildup continued, during which time the US State Department blocked a number of attempted arms purchases between Guatemala and Germany, Rhodesia and Canada.  

However the following year Arbenz was able to broker a secret weapons deal with Czechoslovakia, after which a relatively large shipment was delivered by the Swedish freighter MS Alfhem, which had somehow managed to slip through the American naval blockade.

This turn of events prompted some to theorize that the Americans had intentionally allowed the weapons to get through, for a number of reasons.

First, since the weapons were of Eastern Bloc origin, their presence in Guatemala would serve as so-called proof of Soviet interference.

In addition, they’d make it easier for the CIA to justify its actions, because even by American standards, violently overthrowing an ill-armed, democratically elected government to protect fruit company profits isn’t particularly tasteful.

In the end, many of the weapons from Czechoslovakia were broken, rusty, obsolete and/or missing parts, but none of that mattered, because most would ultimately be handed over to military units who weren’t particularly loyal to Arbenz in the first place.

Psychological Warfare

Even with US arms, training and aircraft, Castillo Armas’ force wasn’t large enough to defeat Guatemala’s army, but the CIA reckoned that psychological warfare could level the playing field, and as such, the propaganda machine hit its stride well ahead of the actual invasion.

The US Information Agency – yes Mr. Orwell, there was actually such a thing – commissioned hundreds of articles and leaflets detailing the country’s communist leanings, all of which were published and distributed in the United States and Latin America.

Meanwhile, the Department of State’s National Psychological Strategy Board set its sights on instilling fear and paranoia among Arbenz loyalists.

This abominable campaign included death threats, and sending pint-size coffins, inoperable bombs and hangman’s nooses to Arbenz’ friends, family members, political supporters and business associates.

During this pre-coup onslaught, the US enacted another naval blockade, during which all approaching vessels – even those from Britain and France – were stopped and searched in contradiction of international law.

The blockade was yet another visible and disconcerting sign of American involvement, and it had the effect of making many Guatemalans feel like they’d been cut off from the outside world.

However, the most effective method of disseminating propaganda and unsettling the populace was the CIA radio station known as the Voice of Liberation, which began broadcasting in the spring of 1954 less than two months before Operation PBSuccess got underway.

The station’s on-air personalities were mostly Guatemalan exiles, but though they claimed to be broadcasting from secret locations deep within the country’s jungles, they were actually in Miami, Florida, and their messages were being relayed across the Gulf of Mexico by powerful transmitters.

These radio broadcasts have been credited with severely aiding the coup, and they just so happened to coincide with a week-long outage of the government-run radio station that was down while a new antenna was being installed.



By mid-June of 1954 Armas’ forces had been split into four distinct units, left their training bases, and assembled in various towns along the border. 

Ahead of the actual invasion, saboteurs and demolition experts snuck into the country to cut telegraph lines and blow up strategic rail junctions to hinder the government’s ability to communicate and move troops efficiently. 

Then on the 18th, rebel forces swept across the border and attacked the frontier towns of Esquipulas, Jutiapa, and Zacapa.

However, they quickly ran into difficulties.

In one instance, 60 were captured and jailed by poorly armed Salvadoran policemen before they’d even made it into the country they were supposed to be invading.

Meanwhile in the capital Guatemala City amidst a large pro-government rally, American warbirds flown by “contract” aviators bombed military installations and key government buildings, while farther south a CIA-operated Lockheed P-38 Lightning dropped a napalm canister on a British cargo ship loading coffee and cotton in the Port of San Jose.

In both cases, John Foster Dulles claimed that the attacks had been carried out by Guatemala’s air force, and thus diplomatic blowback was largely avoided. 

The bombings caused panic in the city, but the bulk of Armas forces were still days away from the capital, and those that did make it to the outskirts of Guatemala City didn’t fare so well.

In one particularly lopsided engagement, 30 Guatemalan soldiers held off a force more than four times its size, killing or wounding nearly 90 mercenaries in the process.

Elsewhere, policemen, laborers, shop owners and indignant peasants beat back the invaders with everything from rakes and axes to antique shotguns and World War I pistols, and as a result many had little choice but to flee back across the border.

But though the bombs and isolated engagements had caused relatively little damage, to many Guatemalans the invasion force seemed far larger and more well-trained than it really was.

Ultimately most of the CIA’s aircraft were shot down in the early going, but nonetheless, Armas sent word to Arbenz demanding his immediate surrender.

Unsure of the Army’s loyalty, Arbenz’ briefly considered arming the citizens of Guatemala City, but he was told by chief of the armed forces Carlos Enrique Díaz that it would send the wrong message to loyalists and adversaries alike, and that the army would do its duty.

Arbenz was still confident that the CIA and Castillo Armas could be defeated, but he feared that doing so would provoke an all-out invasion by the United States.

Just days after the coup began Arbenz had dispatched troops to the Honduran border, but he also feared that this military buildup may be construed as an act of aggression, and that Honduras might declare war as a result.

With the situation in the capital and hinterlands becoming increasingly untenable, Arbenz continued to pursue diplomatic remedies, though requests for support from other Latin American countries and Mexico fell on deaf ears.

Guatemala’s foreign minister also petitioned the UN Security Council for an immediate cessation of the overt aggression being perpetrated by the United States in conjunction with an unnamed commercial interest he politely referred to as “foreign monopoly,” or more specifically, United Fruit.

The Security Council considered the issue, but in the end the only country that sided with Guatemala was the Soviet Union, which nearly everyone took as evidence that America’s unfounded claims of communist interference had been correct all along.

Guatemala appealed the Council’s ruling and requested a formal investigation, but though the proposal was supported by both Britain and France, the US used its veto power to stop it in its tracks, the first time this option had ever been used against allies.

Arbenz’ Resignation

Though the Guatemalan Army enjoyed early successes, in the end Arbenz’ confidence in his military had been misplaced.

Even after a number of early victories along the border, Guatemalan troops largely lost the will to fight, primarily because they feared the US military.

Unsure of whether the reports of malaise and widespread desertion were accurate, Arbenz dispatched a number of trusted advisors to gauge the army’s willingness to continue on, both of whom reached the same conclusion – the rumors were true, and the time had come for the president to resign. 

In addition, Arbenz was informed that if he did not, the Army would likely strike a deal with Armas and the Americans, after which they’d all march together to besiege the capital city.

During this time of great indecision air attacks intensified, and the psychological impact on civilians, soldiers and government officials reached epic proportions.

The ultimatum came on June 25th just after Arbenz had learned that yet another garrison had been routed by the invaders.

That evening he called a meeting with advisors and representatives from government and the labor unions.

Conspicuously absent were military officers, because as Arbenz informed his guests, they’d sold Guatemala out and weren’t welcome.

To those present, it seemed evident that in light of the situation, the only means of defending the country’s tenuous sovereignty lay in arming its citizens. 

Though it was admittedly a longshot, union officials vowed to assemble thousands of volunteers.

However by the following morning only a few hundred had materialized, because again, most were intimidated by the prospect of squaring off against the US Army, and they weren’t particularly keen on killing or being killed by their countrymen either. 

But while Arbenz and his cohorts were planning to regain control, Army Chief Carlos Enrique Diaz and other military officers were plotting to cut him off at the knees. 

Diaz’ military cabal informed US Ambassador Peurifoy of their plan, and asked him to halt the assault on Guatemala City to avoid needless destruction and loss of life.

Peurifoy ultimately agreed, and the plotters sent word to Arbenz that they were assuming control, with or without his consent.

Utterly exhausted and near breakdown, Arbenz agreed, if only to preserve some of the reforms that had been made in previous years.

On the evening of June 27th, Arbenz informed his cabinet of his decision to step down and recorded a scathing anti-American resignation speech that would be broadcast across the country shortly after he left the presidential palace for the last time.

Seeking asylum at the Mexican embassy, Arbenz remained in the country for nearly two more months, during which time his safe passage out of the country was negotiated.

More than 100 loyalists – some avowed communists – were allowed to leave the country as well, and though the CIA later stated that none of its assassination plans had been carried out, this was proven to be patently false.

Just days after Arbenz’ capitulation, the new government and its CIA counterparts embarked on a massive document destruction campaign to eliminate any evidence that the operation had ever taken place.

Shortly thereafter, fierce political infighting began that would eventually lead to the darkest chapter in Guatemala’s troubled history. 

Carlos Enrique Diaz announced on the radio that he was assuming the presidency, and that the Army was determined to crush Castillo Armas and his band of CIA-backed international mercenaries.

Of course this didn’t sit well with the CIA, and a few days later Ambassador Peurifoy met with Diaz to inform him that he too had to go, because he just didn’t fit in with America’s foreign policy objectives.

Diaz later claimed that at the meeting Peurifoy had presented him with a list of communists slated for assassination, but that when he’d refused to carry out the orders the American ambassador became indignant.

Whatever did or didn’t happen at the meeting, soon afterward Diaz was overthrown by another mini-coup, after which Guatemalan Army Colonel Elfego Hernán Monzón Aguirre became president.

In what was a particularly short term even by military junta standards, Aguirre was only in office  between June 29th and July 8th of 1954, and there was little doubt that Armas would assume the top position when the smoke cleared.

After all, he’d always been America’s “man” in Guatemala.

But though the outcome was essentially carved in stone, the US State Department hosted a show conference in San Salvador to give the appearance of democracy, diplomacy and earnest negotiations between rival factions vying for control of the country.

To avoid the appearance of US intervention, Ambassador Peurifoy didn’t attend the conference, but everyone knew who was pulling the strings, and America officially recognized the new government on the 13th of July.

The transition wasn’t without hiccups however, and soon after moving into the mansion that’d once been home to the country’s rightful president, Armas was faced with a coup orchestrated by young natioanlist army cadets who didn’t like taking orders from a hopelessly corrupt American puppet.

That said, the coup was crushed quickly and brutally, and though a presidential election was held the following October, candidates from other political parties were banned, and not surprisingly, Armas got more than 99% of the vote.

Now that’s democracy.



When the CIA-backed coup d’état became known internationally, a wave of anti-American and anti-imperialist sentiment swept across the globe.

Among others, news outlets in France, West Germany and the United Kingdom likened the American escapade to a particularly dastardly form of neocolonialism.

Things were even worse in Latin and South America, where the ugly details of Operation PBSuccess showcased America’s glaring hypocrisy, as well as its apparent disregard for the very ideals it claimed to champion.

But though British Prime Minister Clement Attlee characterized the operation as a plain act of aggression, Allen Dulles considered it a defeat for communism, and a resounding victory for democracy.

Then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld stated that America’s actions violated the very notion of human rights in addition to breaking a number of international laws, though no charges were ever filed in the Hague or elsewhere. 

Lacking popular support in the wake of the fraudulent election, Castillo Armas set about eliminating the opposition by outlawing labor unions, indigenous rights groups and competing political parties, and throughout his term as president his administration relied heavily on intimidation, kidnappings and torture to keep detractors in line.

The Armas administration also created the much hated and feared National Committee of Defense Against Communism, which granted itself unprecedented powers to deal with rabble rousers any way it saw fit.  

Of the thousands of opposition leaders who were arrested, many were never heard from again, while others lived out their days locked in overpopulated prisons in remote parts of the country where the conditions were nothing short of deplorable.  

In the end, nearly 80,000 Guatemalans were investigated, though as is often the case, many of those who were kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, raped and murdered weren’t guilty of the crimes they’d been accused of committing. 

Castillo Armas’ dependence on the CIA as well as the officers and mercenaries who’d put him in power led to endemic corruption that reached such epic levels, that the United States was forced to subsidize the government just to keep it afloat.

And of course, Armas reversed nearly all of the reforms that’d been instituted by Arbenz and his predecessor, and despite the shameful state of the country, United Fruit regained nearly all of the privileges it’d enjoyed before the coup. 

This madness led to a series of insurgencies that took root in the countryside in the early ‘60s, ultimately triggering a nearly four-decade long civil war between the US-backed military and left-wing groups like the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, which at its height had more than a quarter of a million members.

During the civil war atrocities were undoubtedly committed by both factions, but it’s commonly believed that the vast majority were carried out by American-backed and funded government forces that were particularly brutal toward indiginous peoples.

The civil war came to an end in 1996 with a controversial peace accord that included amnesty for participants on both sides.

All told, it’s estimated that 200,000 civilians lost their lives in the chaos.

Needless to say, the assertion that the coup of 1954 represented a victory over communism fell flat on its face in the face of such horrific violence.

In May of 2011 more than a decade after the civil war officially ended, President Alvaro Colom apologized for the country’s actions before teary onlookers and surviving members of the Arbenz family who’d gathered for the poignant and long overdue ceremony at the National Palace in Guatemala City.


No United Fruit employee was ever called to account for the mess they’d helped create in Guatemala.

United Fruit’s profits fell precipitously in the decades after the coup, and in 1970 the company merged with a competitor to form United Brands Company, and later in 1984 United Brands became Chiquita Brands International.

Over the years many historians have claimed that if the US hadn’t orchestrated the coup that the Army may have remained loyal to Arbenz, but then again, if not for US involvement, the coup may never have happened at all.

In early 1999, US President Bill Clinton formally apologized to Guatemala for the atrocities committed by the CIA and the mercenaries and military leaders that it had recruited, trained and funded.

Near the end of the prepared statement, Clinton added that America’s support for both military and intelligence forces that committed atrocities was wrong, and that the United States should take care not to repeat this mistake in the future.

But one can’t help but wonder if Clinton would have apologized at all had it not been for the release of a United States Institute of Peace Truth Commission report published in early 1997, which had concluded that the United States had at the very least participated in a genocide against the indigenous Mayan people.

Nearly a decade later in the spring of 2007, the CIA miraculously discovered a number of documents related to the coup that had originally been reported as “lost,” at least one of which was an assassination list.

Sadly however, the names had been redacted, so there was no way of telling what had happened to the poor souls who’d been targeted by the CIA’s death squads.

Regardless, throughout the developing world, particularly in the Middle East and Latin and South America, the CIA has garnered a nefarious and hard-earned reputation for being the means by which America deposes governments it doesn’t like.

On a side note, present during the coup in Guatemala City in 1954 was a 25-year-old Argentine national named Ernesto Che Guevara.

After a number of unsuccessful attempts to fight for Arbenz’ government, Guevara sought refuge at the Argentine Embassy before eventually being offered safe passage to Mexico, and from there he went on to play a significant role in the Cuban Revolution.

His experience in the Guatemalan coup convinced him that imperialism could only be overcome by armed struggle.

In October of 1967 while leading a group of guerillas through the wilds of Bolivia, Guevara and his men were ambushed by a regular army unit.

Though initially only wounded, Guevara was later executed after being beaten and interrogated, and perhaps in the height of all irony, the Bolivian soldiers who’d captured and killed him were accompanied by, drumroll please…CIA “advisers.”  

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