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The Clandestine Grandaddy of Central America

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the April, 1989 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.


To DXers, the 1980s have been the era of the Central American clandestines: Radio Veneremos, Radio Quince de Septiembre, Radio Farabundo Marti, Radio Liberacion, the list seems endless. The political situation never seems to really change, and the stations are there month after month to be logged. Optimally, a political clandestine station gets its job done fast, and then leaves the air, victorious. For that type of success, today's stations have a role model in Central America's first political clandestine. In 1954, the granddaddy of them all came on the air, overthrew a government almost single-handed, and then left the air just two months later. Its story is not well known. But perhaps at night, on the mountainsides and in the jungles of Central America, the announcers at Radio Venceremos or Radio Quince de Septiembre sit around the fire and talk about La Voz de la Liberacion.

Guatemala, Central America's most important and populous nation, has an unfortunate history of sometimes cruel, sometimes odd, dictators. In 1931, the country was taken over by General Jorge Ubico. One of Ubico's favorite pastimes was to ride around the country on a motorcycle, with a machinegun strapped around his back. In other ways, he was the stereotype of banana republic dictators: anyone who crossed him or violated even the most minor of his laws might just be pushed against an adobe wall and shot. Thousands were. Still, Ubico had his good points: one of his hobbies was shortwave radio, and he prefered using shortwave, instead of the telephone or telegraph, whenever sending messages to officials around the country.

Assumedly it was Ubico's violent one-man rule, not his shortwave hobby that led to his overthrow in 1944. Following massive protests by schoolteachers and students, Ubico was forced to resign and hand over the government to several left-wing army officers, headed by Colonel Jacabo Arbenz. In 1945, elections were held and rule of the country was turned over to a civilian government. During the next elections, in 1950 Arbenz, just 37 years old, ran for the presidency and won handily. His role in the coup of 1944 had not been forgotten.

In the 1950s, most of the countries of Latin America were controled by right-wing military dictatorships. Many liberal civilian politicians were not allowed to live freely in their own countries. One of Arbenz's first acts was to open Guatemala's doors to political exiles from all over Latin America. However, not only were liberal politicians allowed in, but so were hundreds of exiled Communists and revolutionaries. Although Arbenz said that this was because he believed all men had the right to live freely, regardless of their beliefs, not everyone believed him.

Meanwhile, in the Guatemalan congress, Arbenz was supported by a fifty-one member coaltion which included the four Communist Party representatives. As part of the coaltion, Guatemalan communists were given several minor posts in the Arbenz government, mainly in the Agriculture Department. With McCarthyism at its height in the United States, Washington began to keep a watchful eye on Guatemala.

Taking on a Fruit Company

Now Arbenz did something no Guatemalan president before him had ever done; he decided to take on the United Fruit Company. The largest investor in Guatemala, the company was so powerful, that few dared to tangle with it. United Fruit was more than just banana plantations. The only transportation between the interior of the country and the Caribbean coast was United Fruit's railroad line between Guatemala City and Puerto Barrios. The railroad charged the highest rates in the world. United Fruit also owned the only port facilities on Guatemala's Caribbean coast. Arbenz angered United Fruit when he announced that he would give their monopolies some competition, by building a road alongside the railway and constructing a new Caribbean port. Then,in another move, Arbenz forced the company to give severance pay to hundreds of laidoff workers.

Arbenz's disagreements with United Fruit did not stop there. A priority of his government was to give land to Guatemala's hundreds of thousands of landless peasants. There was no question where much of that land would come from: the country's biggest landowner was the United Fruit Company. The company held over a half a million acres, 85% of it was uncultivated. In mid-1952, Arbenz issued a decree that all uncultivated land in the country was subject to government seizure, so that it could be given to landless peasants. In early 1953, about 200,000 acres of uncultivated United Fruit land was confiscated. Arbenz did plan to pay for the land. Showing that he had a sense of humour, he offered to pay United Fruit exactly what the company said the land was worth - according to the value that the company declared on its tax reports. Arbenz was well aware that the company had been cheating on its taxes for years by declaring the land at only about four percent of its true value. United Fruit was furious.

The U.S. Steps In

The United Fruit Company had its contacts in Washington. John Foster Dulles was Secretary of State, and his brother Allen Dulles was head of the CIA. The Dulles family had extensive business contacts with the United Fruit Company, so the brothers were aware of what was happening in Guatemala. Assisstant Secretary of State for Interamerican Affairs, John Moors Cabot was a stock holder in United Fruit. That watchful eye on Guatemala began to look even closer. In August, 1953 the decision was made: Arbenz must go. Allen Dulles brought in some of his best covert action specialists for the task ahead. "Operation Success" had begun.

The CIA had quite a job ahead of it; very few Guatemalans were actually trying to overthrow Arbenz. Because of his land reform program and support for trade unions, the peasants and workers were generally behind him. The middle class, which had neither gained nor lost under Arbenz, was at least willing to tolerate the president until the 1955 elections. Following the 1944 coup, the army had gradually been purged of conservative officers, so that those who remained either supported Arbenz, or were neutral. Those Guatemalans who did oppose Arbenz were generally free to do so within the established political system. They saw no reason for violence.

Considering all these factors, it's a wonder that "Operation Success" wasn't named "Operation Failure" instead. But then the CIA had a deep bag of tricks to reach into, and out of it they pulled a World War II propaganda technique called "The Big Lie". Radio would play an important part in this battle.

The key to the plan was psychological warfare. The Guatemalan people had to be convinced that Arbenz no longer controled the country. This would be accomplished by clandestine radio broadcasts and propaganda leaflet airdrops. Meanwhile, a small military force would be raised to invade Guatemala from a neighboring country. Propaganda would be used to convince the country that this invasion was only a small part of a much larger force of exiled Guatemalans opposed to Arbenz. Other dirty tricks would be used to further confuse and demoralize the population.

It was no secret that the US government was unhappy with Arbenz. For example, the United States Information Agency planted over 200 anti-Arbenz articles in the Latin American press during this time. But Operation Success had to be done covertly, without any apparent connection to the US government. Not only would such a connection be politically embarassing to the US, but the Guatemalans might realize what was happening, and not buy the propaganda. The operation had to take place outside of the United States, and as discreetly as possible.

By early 1954, Operation Success was well underway. Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, a staunch enemy of Arbenz, readily agreed to let his country be used as a training base. Guatemalan Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was brought in to head a rebel "Army of Liberation". Castillo Armas had been exiled after organizing an unsuccessful military coup in 1950. Since then, he had been making a living as a furniture salesman in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. His "army" consisted of about 150 men, a mixture of Guatemalans opposed to Arbenz, and Hondurans, Nicarguans, and American soldiers of fortune, in it for the excitement and the money. Americans and Nationalist Chinese pilots were recruited for the rebel air force.

La Voz de Liberacion

Before any invasion could take place, the country had to be psychologically softened up. Therefore it was important to put the rebel radio station on the air as soon as possible. CIA technicians set up a complete radio base camp on a remote Nicaraguan farm. Additional transmitters were located in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and even in the US embassy in Guatemala City. Although it was never used, a reserve transmitter was set up on Swan Island (which seven years later would be the site of the CIA's famous anti-Castro clandestine, Radio Swan). Not all these transmitters were for La Voz de Liberacion. Other uses included fake military command stations and jamming Radio Nacional de Guatemala (TGW) and other Guatemalan radio stations.

Covert action specialist E. Howard Hunt (now well-known for his involvement in the Watergate scandal) was brought in to head the propaganda campaign. David Atlee Philips was appointed his deputy, and made head of the radio station. For actual on-air announcing, five Guatemalan men and two Guatemalan women were recruited. The Guatemalans were lead by announcers Mario Lopez Otero and Jos´┐Ż "Pepe" Toron Barrios.

In early April, 1954, the group was brought together in Florida for technical training at the U.S. military base in Opa Locka. To keep the announcers happy, the men's girlfriends were even flown in for a weekend visit from Guatemala. Their end of training was celebrated with a night on the town in Miami, courtesy of Howard Hunt's expense account. In mid-April, they flew to Managua and a few days later they were out at the radio camp - a barn for the transmitters and studio, and an old "shack" to live-in. They had two weeks to finish setting up the station, begin to record programs, and to get ready for the hard two month's work ahead of them.

Programs were designed to appeal to patriotism and the base values of the society. The slogan "Trabajo, Pan, y Libertad", or "Work, Bread, and Country" was adopted, to identify with these values. To appeal to all sectors of society, special programs were produced for women, youth, workers, soldiers, army officers, and the elite. The last two groups were especially important. Without insuring that they would at least be neutral and inactive, the invasion would be doomed to failure.

Advertising Clandestine Radio

The first day of broadcast was scheduled for May 1st, International Labor Day. With everybody taking the day off from work, there would be a huge potential audience - if only people knew about the station. Certainly letting its potential listeners know that it is on the air is a problem for any clandestine radio station. After all, an underground radio station can't advertise in the local newspapers. Well, on second thought, maybe it can advertise in the local papers - because Mario and Pepe did just that for La Voz de Liberacion!

A few days before the broadcast, half-page ads were placed in each of Guatemala's daily newspapers. The ads were for a special holiday broadcast from Mexico on shortwave. The program would feature some popular Mexican singers, a famous actress, and well- known Mexican comedian Cantinflas. Of course, the program's time and frequency were included.

When the listeners tuned in, they found the program to be not quite what was advertised. The famous stars were there all right, but on record. Mario and Pepe apologized and explained that the lie was their only way of letting the public know about the initial broadcast. The listeners didn't mind; political intrigue can be a lot more fun than Mexican singers. Here was a station that not only denounced the president, but it claimed that he would soon be overthrown by rebels.

Of course, after just one broadcast, very few people took La Voz de Liberacion seriously. Still, the following day Arbenz made a speech on Radio Nacional, TGW, denouncing the station. Any doubts people had as to the seriousness of the rebels were dismissed when the CIA jammers turned on and drowned out Arbenz's speech. Starting day two, La Voz de Liberacion had a regular audience. Even Arbenz, himself, tuned in daily!

The Big Lie Begins

The role of La Voz de Liberacion was quite clear. First, the station had to mobilize those Guatemalans who were opposed to Arbenz into action. Then it had to persuade those who were neutral, that opposing Arbenz would not be such a bad idea, if they wanted to be on the winner's side. When a revolution is in the air, everybody wants to go with the winner. Finally, La Voz de la Liberacion had to persuade those Guatemalans who supported Arbenz that all was already lost, and that there was no reason to continue the fight.

To carry this out La Voz de la Liberacion had to convince the Guatemalan people that Arbenz could not effectively control the country. One way La Voz de Liberacion did this (and also covered up their true identity) was by announcing that the station was broadcasting from the mountains outside Guatemala City. After all, as Mario and Pepe pointed out to the listeners, if Arbenz's army can't find and close down a little clandestine radio station, how can they stop Castillo Armas when he invades the country?

To validate this claim, one night gunshots and screams, interrupted the broadcast. The announcers shouted "They've found us," and took off out of the studio, just as soldiers burst through the door yelling "Hands up!". Of course, since the station was in Nicaragua, the Guatemalan army was nowhere near it. But the ruse worked so well that Guatemalan officials monitoring La Voz de Liberacion believed it. Later that evening, the government radio station, TGW, announced the army had found and closed down La Voz de Liberacion. Now there was no question, either in the eyes of the populace, or the foreign press, that La Voz de Liberacion had really been broadcasting from the Guatemalan mountains. Afterall, the government radio station itself had said so.

The next day the station returned to the airwaves. Mario and Pepe said thanks to the bungling of Arbenz's soldiers and the bravery of the rebels guarding the station, they had narrowly escaped the trap. Now the station was broadcasting from a new and more secure site. However, because of the imminent danger that they might be caught again, the women announcers would no longer be working at the station.

Radio Grounds the Air Force

Although air support is the key to most modern military operations, the CIA could only supply a few obsolete bombers to the "Army of Liberation". For them to have anything more modern would be like putting a "Made in the USA" banner on the invasion. Yet, there was no way these planes could face up in combat against the Guatemalan Air Force's up-to-date fighters. The Guatemalan Air Force was the biggest factor standing in the way of a succesful invasion, since it would control the skies. Not only would government planes be able to freely bomb and strafe the rebels, but, more important, by simply flying over them, the air force could report back on how small and insignificant the invasion really was. If modern planes could not be sent to take care of the Guatemalan air force, something else would have to do it. That something was La Voz de Liberacion.

The station started airing programs praising and telling about courageous Soviet pilots who defected by flying their planes to the west. No direct (pleas - appeals?) were made to Guatemalan pilots, but it worked. On June 5th, Air Force Colonel Rodolfo Mendoza Azurdia defected, flying his plane to nearby Nicaragua.

Soon after, Mendoza was brought out to the station for a visit. He was asked to do a special broadcast and call for his fellow pilots to defect. Not wanting to cause any hardships to his family, which was still in Guatemala, he refused. Mario and Pepe told him that was OK, they understood, and invited him to share dinner and a bottle of scotch with them that evening.

Mario and Pepe made sure that Mendoza drank more than his share of the scotch. Soon the pilot was drunk. Praising his bravery, the two announcers said it was a shame he couldn't give a speech on their station. But if he did, what would he say, how would he say it? With the persuasion of the bottle to support him, the intoxicated aviator launched into a impassioned speech, putting Arbenz down & and telling his fellow pilots how and why they should defect. Each time he started to falter and lose interest, Mario and Pepe asked him more questions, so that he continued in his heated discourse. Finally though, Mendoza was talked out. The scotch took over and he began snoozing on the floor. Mario and Pepe went over to an old sofa and took out the tape recorder they had hidden under the cushions. Back in the studio, it just took a little work to cut out their questions and splice the pilot's comments into a coherent, but lively, speech, ready for broadcast the next morning.

It worked perfectly. Arbenz was convinced that given the chance, more of his pilots would defect with their planes. He ordered the Air Force grounded - and not a single Air Force plane was permitted to take off for the duration of the crisis.

The Air War Starts

Now the skies were safe, and Castillo Armas' air force could go to work. From Tegucigalpa, Honduras, cargo planes took off regularly to drop propaganda leaflets over the capital and principal towns. La Voz de Liberacion played its part in the air war, each night airing announcements instructing the planes where to drop supplies for nonexistant rebels in the mountains. Pleas were made for listeners to help the rebels by locating potential drop sites. Occasional drops were even made, so that local people would find the supplies and report them to the government. This created still more uncertainity as to Arbenz's ability to control the countryside.

Even more tension was created when Arbenz decreed a nightly blackout in Guatemala City. The official reason for the blackout was to prevent rebels from bombing the city, had been threatened on La Voz de la Liberacion. Some thought Arbenz was really trying to make it harder for people to listen to La Voz de Liberacion. If so, it wasn't a very well thought-out plan, since many Guatemalans had either battery radios, or their own electrical generators.

Regardless of Arbenz's reasoning, Mario and Pepe found ways to use the blackout to their advantage. Listeners were requested to place lighted candles on their patios, to help the rebel air force find Guatemala City at night. It was explained that this was necessary if the pilots were to be able to orient themselves in their supply drops to the rebels in the hills. Many listeners believed this, and thousands of candles were placed on patios.

The following day, the Arbenz government announced that lighting candles was prohibited. Mario and Pepe still weren't finished, however. The next night they were on the air, thanking listeners for helping the rebels by lighting candles. This would make the pilots' job very easy, they explained, when the rebels decided to bomb the military bases. Since their supporters were everywhere, the military bases were the only places without candles. All the pilots would have to do would be to look for the dark areas and bomb those. The next night candles blazed all over the city - including the army camps!

Taking Care of the Army

Even with the air force grounded, the CIA's little rebel force was no match for the 6,000 man Guatemalan army. Something had to be done to make sure it never came down to a real battle. The break came when CIA agents learned that Arbenz was considering arming the peasants and trade unions who supported him. Arbenz did not totally trust his army, and he wasn't sure how many rebels he was facing. The extra troops could be useful.

However, what might have been a good idea to start with, turned into a disaster when Howard Hunt and David Atlee Philips found out. The rebel air force was called on to drop leaflets over Guatemala City and other large towns, saying that this was an insult to the army, and that it was just the first step of Arbenz's plan to destroy the army and replace it with a civilian militia. Fearing for their future, army officers began to wonder what Arbenz was really planning, and Arbenz started to distrust his officers even more. He would keep the army in the barracks until it was all over.

The Invasion

On June 18th, 1954, Castillo Armas and his rebel army crossed the border between Honduras and Guatemala, right on schedule. Castillo Armas lead the invasion, riding in an old station wagon, while his 150 soldiers followed behind in several rundown cattle trucks. They drove a few miles to the border town of Esquilpulas, then set up camp. Noone opposed them. That night La Voz de Liberacion announced that the vanguard of Castillo Armas' army had crossed the border, and captured Esquipulas after a fierce battle. Mario and Pepe went on to say that, from their location near Guatemala City, they were unable to confirm the rumor that Castillo Armas had five thousand men.

Now the CIA began launching occasional bombing and strafing raids from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. Bombs were dropped on military bases around the country, and on the port at Puerto Barrios, but none yet on the captial city. Sometimes, when bombs ran low, the pilots would drop empty soda bottles. The noise they made when hitting the pavement sounded just like a bomb going off. Guatemalans began refering to the bombings as sulfatos (laxatives) because of the effect they supposedly had on government officials. Actually the bombings probably had that effect on anyone nearby!

The war was at a standstill. Castillo Armas and his men settled down in Esquipulas; they were too few to continue the invasion and, for the moment, their work was done. Meanhwile the Arbenz government was confused. There was no reliable communication with the border area, and Arbenz refused to let the army go to fight the rebels. Sometimes it seemed the only real news the government could get was from the rebel radio station - and none of it was good. Arbenz sat tight, and kept his army in Guatemala City.

Mario and Pepe continued their tricks. One favorite ploy was to use dis-information to start rumors, such as announcing that there was no truth to the rumor that the water of Lake Atitlan had been poisoned. Other times they would go on the air on a frequency very close to that of the government station, TGW, and mimic the station and put out false announcements to confuse the listeners. La Voz de la Liberacion also broadcast messages to fake rebel camps, and reports of fierce battles that never happened.

For weeks, the CIA had been monitoring and noting frequencies used for Guatemalan army radio communications. Now they put this knowledge to use by broadcasting false commands and announcements on these frequencies, thoroughly confusing the army and government. Even the US Embassy helped in starting rumors, as embassy staff called up Guatemalan friends and asked them questions such as "Is it true that Zacapa has fallen to the rebels?" Still, though, the stalemate continued.

The Final Countdown

Now it was time to get serious. On Friday, June 25, for the first time, bombs were dropped on the army base outside Guatemala City. The noise and smoke convinced inhabitants of the nearby city that the end was near. Thousands began to flee, blocking all the roads leaving town. On Sunday morning, June 27, La Voz de la Liberacion was on the air, announcing that two large columns of rebels were approaching Guatemala City. Appeals were broadcast, asking the refugees to get off the roads and let the rebel trucks pass. Mario and Pepe spent the day broadcasting news of troop movements, redeploying hundreds of fictitious rebel soldiers. Guatemala City was totally in panic. Meanwhile, Castillo Armas and his 150 rebels were still relaxing in Esquipulas. Their only chance for success was if La Voz de Liberacion's propaganda broadcasts over the past two months had done their job, so that everyone would believe this final big lie.

Sunday night, at 9:15 pm, Arbenz went on Radio Nacional, TGW, to address the country. More Guatemalans were probably listening to La Voz de la Liberacion than to TGW, and those who were listening to TGW had to put up with the jamming. Arbenz summed up the situation the country was in, and blamed the United States for backing the rebels who had invaded the country. He then said that he had decided the only way to restore peace to the country was for him to resign from the presidency. He was going into exile in Mexico, and would turn the government over to his friend, and Army chief of staff, Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz.

For the next few days, the scene of action was Guatemala City. Diaz and other officers formed and dissolved juntas daily, trying to find one that would suit the US ambassador, and be recognized by the United States. The only solution was to allow Castillo Armas a position in the government. Castillo Armas and his troops flew into Guatemala City. After seeing how insignificant the rebel army really was, and realizing how easily he could have defeated it, Diaz went home and cried for several days. Meanwhile, with a few more days of political maneuvering, guided by the US ambassador, Castillo Armas became sole president of Guatemala.

The war was over, La Voz de la Liberacion had won. And, it was much easier than anyone had believed possible. David Atlee Philips, the CIA head of the clandestine station was listening when Arbenz made his speech. Philips said he fully expected Arbenz to tell the people about how the invasion was a farce, and to announce that everything was under control. That's all he would have had to do, and the invasion would have been crushed. Philips couldn't believe that Arbenz (and all the Guatemalan government) had been so taken in by the station's propaganda, and he was shocked by Arbenz's resignation. This was the man who ran the radio station that had brought the resignation about.


It's work a success, La Voz de la Liberacion shut off its transmitters forever. The transmitters probably found their ways to other battlegrounds around the world. But for most of the people involved, there was no happy ending.

Arbenz spent the next ten years moving around Europe and Latin America, before being granted permanent residency in Mexico in 1965. He died there in 1970, by drowning in his bathtub. Howard Hunt, of course, went on to become a household name in the United States, after Watergate. David Atlee Philips stayed with the CIA until 1974, when he resigned, critical of the agency's workings. Since then he has written books on the CIA. Castillo Armas proved to be a corrupt ruler, and in 1957 was assassinated by one of his own body guards. His was the first in a long string of military governments in Guatemala, finally ending in 1986. Mario and Pepe became victims of the political violence that began in Guatemala in the 1960s, and continues to today. Going to work one morning, Pepe was shot down in front of his family. Not long afterwards, Mario was machinegunned in a supermarket parking lot. (More on this.)

For the CIA and the US government, success in Guatemala probably came too easy. Seven years later David Atlee Philips was brought in to run Radio Swan, in preparation for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Many other agents who had worked with the Guatemala operation also were also brought in to help out. The Bays of Pigs, though, was as big a failure, as Guatemala was a success.

There are numerous theories as to why the Bay of Pigs was a disaster. Perhaps part of the reason was one of the exiled Latin American communists living in Guatemala in 1954, a young Argentine doctor named Che Guevara. He watched what happened, learned, and when the end came, took off for Mexico. There he he met and became friends with Fidel Castro. A fews later Castro was the leader of Cuba, and Guevara his second in command. When Radio Swan came on the air, Guevara knew what was happening. He had been through it all before.


(The following short article was a sidebar to the main feature.)


When CIA planes went on bombing runs in Guatemala, their targets were usually military bases. But sometimes a radio station can be worth an army, so the CIA decided they had to put the government station, Radio Nacional, off the air. Bombs loaded and machine guns ready, a plane took off to do the job. But what happened next might have come out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. Because it wasn't TGW that was bombed and strafed, but a peaceful American missionary station, TGN.

According to a tale told by the pilot and copilot, they lost their bearings, but thought they bombed the right station. TGN chief engineer, Wayne Berger heard another story. TGW's equipment and transmitters were located right next to a military base. When the plane got there, the pilots saw that the base's anti-aircraft guns were armed and waiting. They decided that bombing TGW wasn't such a good idea after all. So they turned around and bombed and strafed the next station they came to, which just happened to be TGN. After arriving back in Nicaragua, the airmen made up the story about getting lost.

Evidence of the attack was found years later. Wayne Berger began working at TGN the mid-sixties. One day, while doing routine maintainance work, he noticed a hidden bullet hole on one side of a transformer, without a corresponding hole on the opposite side to show where it came out. Wayne decided to investigate, so he took the transformer apart. Inside was was a fifty-caliber machine gun bullet. Upon entering the transformer it apparently ricocheted around inside without damaging a single wire, so that the transformer continued functioning for many years. As for the bullet, Wayne keeps it on his desk, and tells its story when he gets the chance.


This article is copyright 1989 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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