The best books about covert ops in Latin America

Tom Gething Author Of Under a False Flag
By Tom Gething

Who am I?

I’m always delighted when a reader asks, “Did you work for the CIA?” It tells me I achieved the verisimilitude I was striving for in Under a False Flag. I’m also proud that my novel has been included in a university-level Latin American history curriculum. That tells me I got the history right. No aspect of modern history is more intriguing or controversial than the role covert action played, for better or worse, in the Cold War. With the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which took us to the brink of nuclear disaster, the Cold War in Latin America was mostly fought in the shadows with markedly ambivalent achievements.

I wrote...

Under a False Flag

By Tom Gething,

Book cover of Under a False Flag

What is my book about?

October 1972. Will Porter joins the CIA’s secret war against Chile’s Marxist president, Salvador Allende. Working undercover, Will’s job is to manage the dirty money being used to disrupt the Chilean economy and to fund the growing opposition. A budding friendship with university student Ernesto Manning and his freethinking sister Gabriela complicates Will’s job and threatens to blow his cover. In a turbulent world of deceivers and deceived, Will must choose between friendship and betrayal, truth and lies, love and duty. Based on historical events, this compelling novel brings to life a tragic moment that changed the course of a nation.

The books I picked & why

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Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

By Stephen Schlesinger, Stephen Kinzer,

Book cover of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

Why this book?

This riveting account of the CIA’s first large-scale covert operation in Latin America opened my eyes to what can happen when business interests outweigh political ideals. In 1954 the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, proposed agrarian land reforms to benefit the poor indigenous population of the country. United Fruit Company, which owned most of the land under threat of expropriation, used its influence with the Eisenhower administration to raise a red flag. Literally. Grossly exaggerating the specter of Soviet meddling, CIA Director Allen Dulles authorized a false-flag operation to remove Árbenz. Read this book to see how things turned out. 

The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service

By David Atlee Phillips,

Book cover of The Night Watch: 25 Years of Peculiar Service

Why this book?

David Atlee Phillips played such a major role in covert ops in Latin America I had to make sure he appeared in my novel. After a long and successful CIA career, Phillips wrote this memoir of undercover derring-do. It reads like recruiting propaganda for the agency but what fascinated me was his frankness about the missions he ran and the methods he used. He was publisher of an English-language newspaper in Chile when the CIA recruited him in 1950. A natural storyteller, Phillips describes his undercover shenanigans in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Brazil. By the 1970s he was at Langley HQ, in charge of all Western Hemisphere covert ops, including the actions (discreetly omitted in his memoir) leading to the coup in Chile.

Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

By Jon Lee Anderson,

Book cover of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

Why this book?

A young Argentine doctor who had traveled to Guatemala to support the Árbenz reforms fled to Mexico after the coup. His name was Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In Mexico City he befriended two Cuban dissidents, Fidel and Raúl Castro. This book got me wondering: Did witnessing the coup in Guatemala drive Che toward the Marxist zealotry he later espoused? In other words, did the CIA help create its own most-wanted enemy in Latin America? Anderson’s splendid biography traces Che’s ideological development from his youthful travels in South America to his final, desperate days when a U.S.-coordinated manhunt tracked him down and trapped him in the Bolivian highlands.

Inside the Company: CIA Diary

By Philip Agee,

Book cover of Inside the Company: CIA Diary

Why this book?

Long before Edward Snowden there was Phillip Agee. A former CIA officer, Agee turned whistleblower, publishing this unauthorized account of his life undercover and exposing many of the “Company’s” operations in the process. Agee worked for the CIA in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. He claimed the turning point came in Uruguay where he listened to the beating of a political prisoner (whose name he had provided to the police) while the police chief turned up the volume of a soccer game on the radio. His matter-of-fact diary included a controversial appendix of agent and officer names and cryptonyms. Incensed at the endangerment of its assets, the CIA sued and pursued Agee, who fled the country and spent the rest of his life denouncing the tactics of his former employer.

The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability

By Peter Kornbluh,

Book cover of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability

Why this book?

The 1973 coup in Chile violently destroyed the freely elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende and installed the brutal 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. For years afterward suspicions swirled that the U.S. was behind the event. But evidence was largely anecdotal. What is so impressive about this book is Kornbluh’s persistence deploying the Freedom of Information Act to obtain thousands of classified documents related to the coup. Kornbluh connects the dots and reveals the smoking guns. Through facsimiles of actual cables, telexes, and phone memos (many still highly redacted) this dossier allows you to draw your own conclusions about what really happened in Chile.

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