-trained BolivianArmy Rangers. Less than a year earlier, Guevara and a team of cadres hadsecretly traveled from Cuba to Bolivia to launch a guerrilla war, hoping totopple Bolivia’s pro-U. S. military government.
Guevara had gone up into themountains with about 50 supporters. Within months they were discovered byBolivian troops and an intense pursuit started. Trying to escape thegovernment forces, Guevara divided his supporters into two groups, and wasnever able to reunite them. His diary records that, by late August, hisgroup was exhausted, demoralized and down to 22 men. On August 31 the othergroup was ambushed and wiped out crossing a river.
On September 26,Bolivian army units ambushed Che’s remaining forces near the isolatedmountain huts of La Higuera. The guerrillas found no way out of theencirclement. Several died in the shooting. Guevara himself was wounded inthe leg.
He and two other fighters were captured on October 8 and taken toan old one-room schoolhouse in La Higuera. The next day, October 9, ahelicopter flew in a man called “Felix Ramos” who wore the uniform of aBolivian officer. “Ramos” took charge of the prisoner. Two hours later, CheGuevara and both other guerrillas were executed. The weapons and equipment of the killers were American-made. TheBolivian officer who took Guevara prisoner had been trained at Fort Bragg -at a U.
S. school for army coups, murder and counterinsurgency. And the manin charge at the scene, “Captain Ramos,” was a veteran CIA field agent,Felix Rodriguez. For years, the U. S.
government had armed the Bolivianmilitary and riddled it with their paid agents. As soon as Guevara’s newguerrilla force was discovered, Washington sent new teams of CIA and GreenBerets killers into Bolivia – including Rodriguez and his fellow Cuban-American agent, Gustavo Villoldo – to assist the capture of Guevara anddestruction of his guerrilla band. U. S. transport planes arrived loadedwith more arms, radio equipment, and napalm. Rodriguez, who wasmasquerading as a Bolivian army captain, had previously led a CIA deathsquad in Vietnam (later, this same Felix Rodriguez would be personallyappointed by George Bush Sr.
to be the key CIA operative at El Salvador’sIlopango Air Force base during the 1980s, where Rodriguez oversaw the CIA’snotorious cocaine-for-arms air flights). Rodriguez and Villoldo became partof a CIA task force in Bolivia that included the case officer for theoperation, “Jim”, another Cuban American, Mario Osiris Riveron, and twoagents in charge of communications in Santa Clara. Rodriguez emerged as the most important member of the group. After alengthy interrogation of one captured guerrilla, he was instrumental infocusing the efforts of the 2nd Ranger Battalion on the Villagrande regionwhere he believed Guevara’s rebels were operating.
Although he apparentlywas under CIA instructions to “do everything possible to keep him alive,”it was Rodriguez who transmitted the order to execute Guevara from theBolivian High Command to the soldiers at La Higueras – he also directedthem not to shoot Guevara in the face so that his execution wounds wouldlook like they were received in combat – and personally informed Che thathe would be killed. It was Rodriguez who pocketed Che Guevara’s wristwatchas a souvenir (which he often proudly showed to reporters during theensuing years) and flew Guevara’s body to the nearby military base atVallegrande. Early on October 11, after cutting off Guevara’s hands asevidence, the killers dumped his body in an unmarked grave nearVallegrande’s airstrip where it was not discovered until June 1997. Publicly, the Bolivian government insisted his body had been burned. By killing Che Guevara and his fellow guerrillas, the leaders of theUnited States intended to send a bloody message to the people of SouthAmerica and the world.
As a White House memorandum for President Johnsonput it, “The death of Guevara carries three significant implications. ” Thefirst was that it marked the passing of another of the “aggressive,romantic revolutionaries”, such as Sukarno, Nkrumah, and Ben Bella – andreinforced this trend. Second, in the Latin American context, it would havea strong impact in discouraging would-be guerrillas. Lastly, it showed thesoundness of “our preventive medicine” assistance to countries facing”incipient insurgency” – it was the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion, trainedby U. S.
Green Berets from June to September of 1967 that “cornered him andgot him. ” Another assessment, an interpretive report for the Secretary ofState Dean Rusk that was written by Thomas Hughes, the Latin Americaspecialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research,summarizes the importance of “the defeat of the foremost tactician of theCuban revolutionary strategy. ” Hughes predicts that Guevara “will beeulogized as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death. ” Thecircumstances of his failure in Bolivia, however, will strengthen theposition of “peaceful line” communist party groups in the hemisphere.
Castro, he argues, will be subject to “we told you so” criticism from olderleftist parties, but his “spell on the more youthful elements in thehemisphere will not be broken. ” This analysis, however, fails toincorporate evidence of the disagreement between Castro and Guevara on theprospects for revolution in Latin America or the Soviet pressure on Cuba toreduce support for insurgent movements in the hemisphere. The United States’ involvement in Bolivia dates back to World War IIwhen tin from Bolivia was vital to the Allied war effort. After theBolivian government of President Enrique Penaranda declared war on the Axispowers in April of 1943, a group of dissident army officers lead by ColonelGaulberto Villaroel and supported by the MNR Nationalist RevolutionaryMovement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario), the Argentinegovernment, and German agents in Buenos Aires, staged a successful coup,deposing Penaranda on December 21, 1943 and installing Villaroel aspresident. Initially, the United States refused to recognize Villaroel’sregime, but later granted it when Villaroel promised to cooperate with theAllies.
With the decline of mineral prices, inflation, and unemployment atthe end of the war, Bolivia suffered severe economic hardship, which helpedbring on a popular revolt against the government at La Paz on July 17-21,1946. The army did nothing to check rebellious soldiers, workers, andstudents; Villaroel was seized and hanged from a lamppost in front of thepresidential palace. A provisional liberal government was installed andrecognized by the United States and Argentina. Although outlawed in Bolivia in 1946, the MNR continued to have manythousands of Bolivian adherents who demanded land reform, control of therich tin-mining industry, and justice.
In the Bolivian presidentialelections of 1951, the MNR won a plurality victory with its candidateVictor Paz Estenssoro, founder and leader of the MNR and former professorof economics, who was in exile in Argentina. The government claimedEstenssoro did not have the required majority and the president must bechosen by the congress. In order to prevent the MNR from coming to power,Bolivia’s outgoing president resigned and turned the government over to a10-man military junta, whose rule was an outrage to many. On April 8-11,1952, a popular revolt occurred in La Paz, Bolivia’s administrativecapital, and elsewhere; the MNR, supported by armed workers, civilians, andpeasants and the national police, overthrew the military junta and recalledPaz Estenssoro from exile to take the presidency. As president he did whathe said he would do: nationalized the tin-mining industry, raised miners’wages, liquidated the vast holdings of powerful landholders, anddistributed acres to landless Indians.
Universal suffrage was granted, butPaz Estenssoro was ruthless to his political foes, many of whom heimprisoned. In one of Latin America’s major revolutions, Bolivia had”suddenly broken loose from the chains of serfdom,” and its people,especially the Indians, had gained civil and political rights whichsubsequent governments would have to recognize. Historian Herbert S. Klein notes that a counterinsurgency policy tocombat “internal subversion” became a major theme of United States trainingfor the Bolivian army.
In 1963 Argentine-trained Bolivian officersestablished the Center of Instruction for Special Troops (Centro deInstruccin para Tropas Especiales – CITE) under the Seventh Division inCochabamba. In addition, by the end of 1963 Bolivia had more graduates fromthe United States Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, NorthCarolina, than any other Latin American country. A total of 659 Bolivianofficers received training at the School of the Americas in 1962- 63, and20 of the 23 senior Bolivian officers attended or visited the school during1963-64. United States military aid increased from US$100,000 in 1958 toUS$3. 2 million in 1964. This aid, which included weapons and trainingoutside Bolivia, enabled Paz Estenssoro to strengthen the army moreextensively than MNR leaders originally had intended.
According to Klein,Paz Estenssoro constantly justified rearming the military to the UnitedStates “as a means of preventing communist subversion. “In March 1967, Bolivia became a prime target of Cuban-supportedsubversion when Ernesto Guevara and his tiny National Liberation Army(Ejrcito de Liberacin Nacional – ELN) launched their aforementionedguerrilla campaign. Despite its increased United States training, Bolivia’sarmy still consisted mostly of untrained Indian conscripts and had fewerthan 2,000 troops ready for combat. Therefore, while the army kept the 40-man guerrilla group contained in a southwestern area of the country, an 800-man Ranger force began training in counterinsurgency methods. Withcounterinsurgency instructors from the United States Southern Commandheadquarters in Panama, the army established a Ranger School in Santa CruzDepartment. By late July 1967, three well-trained and well-equippedBolivian Ranger battalions were ready for action.
The army’s increasedcapabilities and its decisive defeat of the legendary Cuban guerrillaleader enhanced its prestige. The fact that Barrientos’ vice president,Luis Adolfo Siles Salines, a conservative civilian, had to requestpermission from the military high command to assume his mandate afterBarrientos’ death in April 1969 indicated how powerful the army had becomeas an institution.