Opa-locka field was once the site of secret CIA base

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.”

It opened in Building 67 on Dec. 23, 1953, under the code name LINCOLN.

A telegram that day to station chiefs in Central America from then CIA Director Allen Dulles made it official.

The telegram also provided the name of the first LINCOLN chief, but it was only a pseudonym for the person whose real name was known only to the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division (WHD).

“Effective this date all addressee stations will constitute component elements of PBSUCCESS regional command with project headquarters at LINCOLN under Jerome C. Dunbar, special deputy, WHD for this project,” wrote Dulles in the telegram, which has since been declassified.

Dunbar was actually Albert Haney, a former U.S. Army colonel who was CIA station chief in Korea at the time Washington decided to open LINCOLN at Building 67 in Opa-locka.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.

One of Dunbar’s first cables to Central American station chiefs dealt with an early crisis in the PBSUCCESS operation.

A person who had access to the CIA’s project leaked coup plans to the Guatemalan government and in early 1954 the Arbenz government publicized the details.

The leak rocked the U.S. government, because it drew worldwide media attention, but Haney/Dunbar saw a silver lining in the episode.

“Desire to assure all concerned that recent exposé of alleged activities pertaining PBSUCCESS although unfortunate some respects fortunate in others,” wrote Dunbar from Opa-locka to the Central America CIA officers on Feb. 2, 1954. “Further this incident has not affected PBSUCCESS objective any way.”

PBSUCCESS, in some ways, served as the template for the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation.

Like Bay of Pigs, PBSUCCESS consisted of an exile force and aircraft assigned to attack Guatemalan targets during the invasion.

Though PBSUCCESS failed to spark a military uprising against Arbenz, he nonetheless resigned on June 27, 1954, when it became clear that top officers no longer backed him. Exile invaders, led by former Guatemalan military officer Carlos Castillo Armas, took over the country.

It has been widely reported that after Arbenz resigned, he obtained refuge at the Mexican Embassy, from where he safely made his way to Mexico.

But in his autobiography, Hunt says Arbenz and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who was in Guatemala at the time, were actually captured by the triumphant invaders and would have been executed had it not been for last-minute CIA intervention.

“Marching overland, the troops of Castillo Armas seized control of the capital and captured Arbenz and all his followers — including an asthmatic Argentine medical student and Communist camp follower named Ernesto “Che” Guevara,” Hunt wrote.

Arbenz and Guevara were spared only because a “CIA man on the spot” dissuaded Castillo Armas from having them shot, he added.

There is no independent verification of Hunt’s claim.

All available accounts indicate that Guevara took shelter at the Argentine consulate after Arbenz resigned and then made his way to Mexico, where he joined Fidel Castro to launch his revolution in Cuba. Guevera was summarily executed in Bolivia in 1967 after his capture there.

Arbenz died in Mexico in 1971.

Hunt died in Miami in 2007.

As for the abandoned CIA base at Opa-locka, it served other significant purposes, including as one of the facilities used for Operation Pedro Pan, the airlift that brought unaccompanied Cuban children to the United States after the 1959 triumph of the revolution that Castro and Guevara launched from Mexico.

Carnonell said that after the Pedro Pan program moved out in 1966, the Catholic church occasionally rented one of the barracks for spiritual retreats. In 1968, the church used Building 67 as a retreat house for the Cursillos de Cristiandad religious movement.

In 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, Building 67 was used to shelter some unaccompanied refugee children, Carbonell said.

Later in the 1980s, Building 67 — by then infested with termites — came to an ignominious end. Firefighters burned it down as part of a training drill.

The empty grassy field where the barracks once stood eventually may be used to build hangars, aircraft repair sites or other aviation-related businesses, Abreu said.