All that remains of the secret CIA base is a grassy field on the northeastern corner of Opa-locka Airport.
But 60 years ago on that very spot was Building 67, a two-story barracks, that in 1953 and 1954 served as CIA field headquarters for the covert operation that overthrew leftist Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz.
It was there that several senior CIA officers labored for months organizing the intricate logistical details of PBSUCCESS, the code name for the anti-Arbenz operation. Among the officers who worked at Building 67 was E. Howard Hunt, who later went on to help engineer the 1972 Watergate burglary as one of the White House plumbers.
What happened at Building 67 was known at the time only to a very small circle of people, but the impact of the 1953-54 operation dramatically altered the history of South Florida and the United States.
The Guatemala operation set in motion a series of events whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day.
Arbenz’s overthrow emboldened the CIA’s clandestine service to try a similar operation, though on a larger scale, at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs.
But the 1961 exile invasion, which ended in defeat, caused Fidel Castro a year later to accept Soviet nuclear missiles as a deterrent against future U.S.-backed invasions. Castro’s subsequent consolidation of power led to a stream of refugees that continues to this day.
Among early Cuban refugees were people like José Abreu, who gave a photographer and a reporter from El Nuevo Herald a tour of Opa-locka Airport on March 28, the day before he retired from his post as Miami-Dade aviation director.
The tour included a briefing by Antolin Garcia Carbonell, a former aviation department official, who is also a Cuban refugee and has done extensive research into the history of Building 67 and Opa-locka.
“It was one of a group of buildings that were built in 1943, in the middle of World War II, as barracks for the U.S. Navy,” Carbonell said. “This was a naval air station.”
By the time the CIA took it over, Building 67 was part of a Marine barracks complex. Hunt, in his 1974 autobiography, Undercover, described the structure.
“Our field headquarters occupied a two-story barracks on the partly closed-down Marine air base at Opa-locka, Florida,” Hunt wrote. “We slept and worked in the same building and ate at the base mess hall not far away. Several project officers with military reserve status wore uniforms in order to lessen interest in our building.”
While it has been known that the CIA’s Guatemala operation headquarters was at Opa-locka, Carbonell has discovered details during his years-long investigation that were not known before.
For example, Carbonell was the first to identify the precise building the CIA occupied. He believes the agency picked the building because it had a day-care center and used that as a cover to divert attention from secret activities.
While U.S. concern about Arbenz began in Washington as early as 1951, planning for his overthrow did not begin in earnest until after the Guatemalan government in February 1953 seized 234,000 acres owned by the U.S. banana importer United Fruit under a land reform decree Arbenz had signed the year before.
After the White House authorized the Arbenz overthrow, the CIA began looking for a place to base its Guatemala “war room.”