What goes around...
The CIA in Guatemala
by retired Marine Colonel and ex-CIA operative Philip Roettinger
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
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
"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
"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
and Third World