April 23, 2000

Guatemalan plantation was base for doomed Cuban invasion

                   EL HELVETIA, Guatemala (AP) -- The first batch of 20 Cuban exiles came in
                   the summer of 1960 to train for a CIA-sponsored invasion intended to topple
                   Fidel Castro's communist regime. All they could do was snicker.

                   "They all wanted to know where the 'base' was," said Micaella Maritas, now 78,
                   who served as one of the secret outpost's three cooks. "They said, 'This can't be
                   all there is here."'

                   The Cubans' new home, which would soon become known as Fort Trax, was
                   an abandoned coffee plantation.

                   Aside from the administrator's office, which was quickly occupied by a pair of
                   officials from the U.S. Embassy, there was nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat,
                   nowhere to bathe and nowhere to train.

                   The owner, Roberto Alejos Arzu, an old business associate of then-Guatemalan
                   President Miguel Ydiqoras Fuentes, had offered the plantation to the Central
                   Intelligence Agency with the understanding it would temporarily house four
                   paramilitary spies training for a mission in Cuba.

                   Instead, this picturesque settlement -- surrounded by rolling hills and perfumed
                   by the sticky smell of coffee -- became home to as many as 1,500 men over the
                   next 10 months and served as the main training site for the Bay of Pigs invasion
                   of April 1961.

                   "The only thing I had to offer them in terms of accommodations were a few
                   refrigerators," Alejos Arzu was quoted as saying in the 1979 book "Bay of Pigs:
                   The Untold Story."

                   In a February 1962 internal assessment of the invasion, CIA Inspector General
                   Lyman B. Kirkpatrick was less kind.

                   "A worse training site could hardly have been chosen than the one in Guatemala,"
                   he wrote. "But conditions there actually got worse. In September the training
                   camp was plagued by torrential rains, shortages of food, plus trouble with

                   If El Helvetia, 80 miles northwest of Guatemala City, was bleak, it came with no
                   strings attached.

                   The invasion's original base was set up in rural Panama in May 1960, just three
                   months after the U.S. State Department approved a budget of $4.4 million for the
                   mission to rid Cuba of Castro. That base was abandoned within months because
                   Washington officials thought a camp in Mexico would be easier to keep track of.

                   After only a few months, however, the notion of training Cuban exiles in Mexico
                   was scrapped because of opposition from the Mexican government.

                   According to Kirkpatrick's report, Guatemala was then chosen as the base site
                   because of contacts within Guatemala established by the U.S. Embassy during its
                   successful effort to overthrow leftist President Jacob Arbenez in 1954.

                   But as hundreds of Cuban expatriates arrived at El Helvetia, problems at the
                   camp mounted -- not the least of which was keeping the base a secret.

                   "The use of Guatemala for a training base was, in terms of security,
                   unfortunate," Kirkpatrick wrote. "The base was not easily hidden and not well

                   The camp and its training operations were in plain view of a cobblestone road
                   that for months during coffee-growing season became jammed with trucks
                   carrying coffee beans and workers from nearby plantations. A busy railway
                   passed by the rear of the settlement.

                   "It didn't seem to make much sense. They scouted all of Latin America and
                   decided to hide troops in this area that was so full of coffee plantations and
                   coffee workers," said Aresino Palma, the current manager of the 1,000-employee

                   Further security breaches were on the horizon. In "Bay of Pigs: The Untold
                   Story," author Peter Wyden recounted tales of trainees wowing prostitutes from
                   nearby cities with tales of their mission to oust Castro and even carting
                   truckloads of call girls back to the base for days or weeks at a time.

                   Guatemala's link to the Bay of Pigs invasion went one step beyond the training
                   base. It was the CIA's success in fomenting the 1954 Guatemala revolution that
                   led the agency to believe Castro's government in Cuba was vulnerable.

                   Beginning on April 10, 1961, the 1,511 Cubans participating in the invasion were
                   transported by boat to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, where authorities had agreed
                   to let the exiles use an airstrip and docks to begin their air and sea attack on

                   U.S. officials knew the tiny brigade of Castro foes would likely be facing an
                   army of nearly 15,000 soldiers. It was the State Department's hope, however,
                   that the invasion would touch off a broad-based revolution against Castro.

                   "Guatemala was the model," Michael Warner wrote in the CIA's historical
                   analysis of the invasion. "In Guatemala in 1954 headquarters all but lost hope that
                   the CIA-trained invading force could overthrow the leftist government of Jacob
                   Arbenez, when suddenly the Guatemalan army turned on Arbenez who stepped
                   down and fled."

                   The Bay of Pigs was not Guatemala.

                   "It's our own little piece of history," said Dora Guadalupe Villatoro, who runs a
                   school for the children of the two dozen workers who now call El Helvetia
                   home. "It would be hard to imagine how famous it'd be for us if the invasion had
                   been successful."