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Playa Girón and the uprising in Guatemala

Playa Giron GuatemalaFive months before the invasion at Playa Girón, November 13, 1960, Cuban pilots being trained in Guatemala by the CIA to attack the island, bombed Guatemalan military forces leading an uprising against the government of General Miguel Idígoras.

The political and military support provided by the Eisenhower administration and the CIA to Idígoras, saved the dictatorial regime which had approved the use of an estate – the Helvetia owned by Roberto Alejos, brother of the country’s ambassador in the U.S. – for the purpose of training troops to invade Cuba. This attack did eventually take place at the Bay of Pigs, in April of 1961.

The arrogance of CIA officials and their Cuban agents provoked the uprising in Guatemala by a group of officers who were able to take the Matamoros Garrison with the goal of assuming government power. The insurgents demanded the closing of the Retalhuleu base, in the country’s southwestern region, and the removal of corrupt officers collaborating with Idígoras, who had taken the place of puppet Carlos Castillo de Armas, installed as head of state in 1954 by the CIA, after the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the elected President of Guatemala. Castillo was dealt justice by a soldier within the government’s own headquarters.

Among the 1960 insurgents were the Lieutenant Colonels Ricardo Sesam Pereira and Augusto Vicente Loarca (considered leaders of the revolt), and Major José G. Chicas Lemús, Captain Arturo Chur del Cid and Lieutenant Francisco Orellana. The rebels took the garrison in an operation in which

Colonel Lizandro Ortiz and Captain Ernesto Juárez Mayen were killed. Part of the troops there joined the rebellion and confiscated a large number of weapons. From Matamoros they marched to Zacapa where the majority of officers supported the uprising, meeting up there with Lieutenants Marco Antonio Yon Sosa, Luis Turcios Lima and Luis Trejo Esquivel.

Upon hearing of the insurrection, the CIA office in Guatemala City sent a message to J.C. King, head of the agency’s Western Hemisphere Division in Washinton, at 3:00am, November 13, 1960, reporting that “unidentified forces” had carried out a military attack. Another urgent message refers to the Secretary of Defense who was asking for information about ships in position to attack Guatemala.


Shortly thereafter, the CIA command recommended analyzing the possibility of canceling the GS-46-007 project (the Helvetia estate training camp) and reported that preparations were being made to use the U.S. personnel there and Cubans recruited for an invasion of the island, against the Guatemalan insurgents. CIA officials also reported supporting Idígoras’ forces, transporting troops on C-46 and B-52 planes as requested.

King responded that all of the Cuban recruits should be put on alert – if that had not already been done – and directed the CIA staff to be ready for any contingency. He asked that he be advised if the situation deteriorated any further, and shortly thereafter ordered the suspension of the GS-46-007 plan, and the evacuation of all forces to a secret location, to support the Idígoras government.

At 3:00pm that afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter was informed that the command post in Zacapa, as well as the military base and airport in Puerto Barrios were in the hands of unidentified rebels, with comments indicating that it was not known if the attack was solely to secure to weapons, ammunition and vehicles, or whether the assault was part of a bigger plan.

An embassy functionary called from Puerto Barrios and reported that the governor of the department had been arrested, and that the rebels were making radio broadcasts without mentioning any names of persons or parties involved.

Mid-morning reports indicated that bombings were taking place on Zacapa and the Puerto Barrios base, with missiles and 50 caliber machine gun fire. The army attempted to retake Puerto Barrios with troops transported from the capital and aerial support. Counterrevolutionary Cuban pilots bombed, while Idígoras ordered a state of siege and Congress met.


The U.S. ambassador requested that aerial and maritime space between Cuba and Guatemala be monitored, and told the Guatemalan Air Force not to interfere if activity were noted. The morning of the 14th, aerial patrols of airspace over the Gulf of Honduras began, where a destroyer was also sent as requested by the Idígoras government’s Minister of Defense. A decision was also made to send 200 Cuban recruits, training at the Helvetia estate, to fight the rebels in Zacapa and Puerto Barrios, and participate in the defense of the main camp there.

The U.S. command noted that the insurgents are not linked to the Cuban government, but suspected that ties did exist with Communists in the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT), which was promptly denied.

Ydígoras named Colonel Ricardo Peralta Méndez as head of operations and ordered troops sent to repress the rebels.

With the CIA’s B-26 aircraft, later used against Cuba, counterrevolutionary Cuban pilots machine gunned and bombed facilities taken by rebels in Zacapa and Puerto Barrios.

The U.S. participation was kept secret to protect the CIA’s plans to bomb Cuba on April 15, sacrificing Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, who had been a Presidential candidate in the previous elections. The CIA official David Attlee Philips pressured Stevenson to present false testimony in the UN, to state that the attacks on Cuban airports had been carried out by Cuban pilots who had deserted that very day, taking off in Cuba, not from Nicaragua which was actually the case,

Years later Philips participated in the CIA’s assassination of General René Schneider in Chile, and was identified by the Congressional Select Committee investigating the shooting of President Kennedy , as the agent who ‘managed’ Lee Harvey Oswald.


November 13, the Guatemalan people had awakened in a tense environment, with news of the armed uprising. On the 14th, the Foreign Ministry released a note sent to the Organization of American States, describing the events as “an invasion coming from Cuba,” an accusation which was denied by the CIA itself. The Guatemalan government and press reported that the rebels had been immediately neutralized, while admitting that high ranking officers had been killed at the Matamoros Garrison, where troops had joined the uprising and ammunition captured.

Insurgents there decided to openly rebel against the regime given “its incapacity, and responsibility for the chaos reigning in the country’s politics and economy,” adding that they wanted to cooperate with the people to overthrow a government which did not respond to the desires of Guatemalans.

They then marched in the direction of Zacapa, to join the larger group of rebel officers, and called for a struggle to save Guatemala and install a government to establish social justice, in which wealth would benefit those who work and not the exploiters of the people.

The government’s air forces launched continual attacks on rebel positions to force them out. The majority of its troops, infantry and aerial, converged on key points where the rebels were strong, and bombing by U.S. B-26 planes, stationed at the Helvetia, was decisive.

The government announced that the insurrection had been ended with a balance sheet of 13 dead and 60 wounded. Military and political leaders of the rebellion sought asylum in the Mexican embassy, including 52 Army officers who departed for Honduras.

Nevertheless, the 1960 uprising led to the formation of a strong revolutionary current in the country, and continued resistance in the mountains by the November 13 Movement, led by Marco Antonio Yon Sosa and Luis Augusto Turcios Lima.

Armed conflict persisted until the creation of the National Reconciliation Commission to resolve and end the confrontation, which culminated its work with the establishment of peace accords, in 1996.

The 1960 uprising had sought such an outcome, but was frustrated principally by U.S. support for the regime, and the intervention of the CIA and its Cuban mercenaries.


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