What goes around...

The CIA in Guatemala
by retired Marine Colonel and ex-CIA operative Philip Roettinger

June 1995

Something has been missing from the recent press coverage of the ClA's support for a Guatemalan military that has tortured and killed more than 150,000 people.

The more enlightened pundits have mentioned that the CIA sponsored coup in 1954 destroyed Guatemala's emerging democracy and initiated a series of brutal military dictatorships. But few reporters have pointed out that U.S. acquiescence to the bloodletting that followed has been the rule, not a policy aberration. Since the '54 coup, the Guatemalan military and the US government have worked in tandem-from the '60s when the Green Berets conducted a Vietnam-style war in Guatemala, to the '80s and early '90s, when the death squads operated with tacit U.S. encouragement.

One man who believes that this historical perspective should be filled in is Philip Roettinger, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel. Roettinger was among the handful of CIA operatives who in 1954 planned and executed the Guatemalan coup. In a remote ClA-built base along the Honduran border with Guatemala, Roettinger organized and trained a group of rebels, who as he has put it, were "driven by the prospect of power and wealth, not ideology.''

"It was a classic operation that went off beautifully," says the 80-year old Roettinger. "There's never been another one like it, and I'm glad."

As one of the opening salvos of the Cold War, the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Jacabo Arbenz was not, as President Dwight Eisenhower insisted, aimed at "preventing the establishment of a communist beachhead in the Western Hemisphere." It was a cynical manipulation of anti communist hysteria to maintain the domination of a U.S. multinational, United Fruit, over the Guatemalan government.

But Roettinger "never got caught in the communism thing" during his time with the agency. "It was just an interesting job," he says. "Only later on I realized we weren't fighting communism at all, we were fighting the people."

Roettinger, the son of a distinguished Cincinnati judge, graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University. He joined the Marines during World War II and fought in the Pacific Theater. An accomplished marksman, he was a member of the U.S. shooting team in the 1948 Olympics in London. For a time he ran a photography studio, which he abandoned when he was recruited by the CIA. For his good work in Guatemala, the CIA rewarded Roettinger with an assignment in Mexico City. But by the early '60s, disgusted with the agency's intervention in Mexican politics, he quit the CIA and settled in the central Mexican town of San Miguel Allende to devote his time to painting portraits and landscapes and raising his family.

The spry, clear-eyed Roettinger, who still jogs daily, would have remained in obscurity as a moderately successful painter, if news of Nicaragua's contra war had not caught his attention. Reading about the Reagan administration's covert actions, he was struck by the similarities with his experience in Guatemala. In 1985, he decided to go down to Nicaragua to check out the situation for himself. On a trip alone into contra territory, he arrived at a cooperative near Esteli that had been attacked and burned the day before by the U.S.-backed rebels. Roettinger was horrified that the contras had killed several civilians, including a small boy.

"I was so outraged," he recalls, "that I went right back to Managua, got a plane to Washington, and I hit that town like a ton of bricks."

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece Roettinger warned that the United States was repeating the same mistake it had made in Guatemala. "As a CIA case officer, I trained Guatemalan exiles in Honduras to invade their own country and unseat the elected president," he wrote. "The coup that I helped engineer in 1954 inaugurated an unprecedented era of intransigent military rule in Central America. Generals and colonels acted with impunity to wipe out dissent and garner wealth for themselves and their cronies." Working with Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Roettinger sought to make amends by lobbying against contra aid.

"That's when I came out, by God," he says. Roettinger, believing the CIA needed to be confronted, helped found the Association of National Security Alumni. Roettinger sees his work with the association as an obligation to set the record straight. It does this in part through a quarterly magazine, Unclassified. "We have credibility. They have to believe us," says Roettinger.

The group, comprised of veterans of the national security establishment, helped Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) prepare a bill to abolish the CIA. And Roettinger is hopeful that Americans, in light of the latest Guatemalan scandal, will begin to re-evaluate the role of the agency. But he worries that people will fall for the tale that the ClA's involvement with Guatemala's death squads was an isolated incident. The blame, he says, must be placed where it belongs.

"What people have to understand is that the CIA works for the U.S. government. It doesn't set policy. It executes the policy of the government." -Jacob Bernsteln

from In These Times magazine, June 12, 1995


CIA and Third World