ed through a steepravine of the Andes Mountains in southern Bolivia. The guerrilla band led
by Ernesto “Che” Guevara – a chief lieutenant in the Sierra Maestra, author
of a book on guerilla tactics, one-time president of Cuba’s National Bank
and later Minister of Industries under Castro, and who renounced his Cuban
citizenship and set off to devote his services to the revolutionary cause
in other lands – was pinned down and surrounded by U.S.-trained Bolivian
Army Rangers. Less than a year earlier, Guevara and a team of cadres had
secretly traveled from Cuba to Bolivia to launch a guerrilla war, hoping to
topple Bolivia’s pro-U.S. military government. Guevara had gone up into the
mountains with about 50 supporters. Within months they were discovered by
Bolivian troops and an intense pursuit started. Trying to escape the
government forces, Guevara divided his supporters into two groups, and was
never able to reunite them. His diary records that, by late August, his
group was exhausted, demoralized and down to 22 men. On August 31 the other
group was ambushed and wiped out crossing a river. On September 26,
Bolivian army units ambushed Che’s remaining forces near the isolated
mountain huts of La Higuera. The guerrillas found no way out of the
encirclement. Several died in the shooting. Guevara himself was wounded in
the leg. He and two other fighters were captured on October 8 and taken to
an old one-room schoolhouse in La Higuera. The next day, October 9, a
helicopter flew in a man called “Felix Ramos” who wore the uniform of a
Bolivian officer. “Ramos” took charge of the prisoner. Two hours later, Che
Guevara and both other guerrillas were executed.

The weapons and equipment of the killers were American-made. The
Bolivian officer who took Guevara prisoner had been trained at Fort Bragg –
at a U.S. school for army coups, murder and counterinsurgency. And the man
in charge at the scene, “Captain Ramos,” was a veteran CIA field agent,
Felix Rodriguez. For years, the U.S. government had armed the Bolivian
military and riddled it with their paid agents. As soon as Guevara’s new
guerrilla force was discovered, Washington sent new teams of CIA and Green
Berets killers into Bolivia – including Rodriguez and his fellow Cuban-
American agent, Gustavo Villoldo – to assist the capture of Guevara and
destruction of his guerrilla band. U.S. transport planes arrived loaded
with more arms, radio equipment, and napalm. Rodriguez, who was
masquerading as a Bolivian army captain, had previously led a CIA death
squad in Vietnam (later, this same Felix Rodriguez would be personally
appointed by George Bush Sr. to be the key CIA operative at El Salvador’s
Ilopango Air Force base during the 1980s, where Rodriguez oversaw the CIA’s
notorious cocaine-for-arms air flights). Rodriguez and Villoldo became part
of a CIA task force in Bolivia that included the case officer for the
operation, “Jim”, another Cuban American, Mario Osiris Riveron, and two
agents in charge of communications in Santa Clara.

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Rodriguez emerged as the most important member of the group. After a
lengthy interrogation of one captured guerrilla, he was instrumental in
focusing the efforts of the 2nd Ranger Battalion on the Villagrande region
where he believed Guevara’s rebels were operating. Although he apparently
was under CIA instructions to “do everything possible to keep him alive,”
it was Rodriguez who transmitted the order to execute Guevara from the
Bolivian High Command to the soldiers at La Higueras – he also directed
them not to shoot Guevara in the face so that his execution wounds would
look like they were received in combat – and personally informed Che that
he would be killed. It was Rodriguez who pocketed Che Guevara’s wristwatch
as a souvenir (which he often proudly showed to reporters during the
ensuing years) and flew Guevara’s body to the nearby military base at
Vallegrande. Early on October 11, after cutting off Guevara’s hands as
evidence, the killers dumped his body in an unmarked grave near
Vallegrande’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 the
United States intended to send a bloody message to the people of South
America and the world. As a White House memorandum for President Johnson
put it, “The death of Guevara carries three significant implications.” The
first was that it marked the passing of another of the “aggressive,
romantic revolutionaries”, such as Sukarno, Nkrumah, and Ben Bella – and
reinforced this trend. Second, in the Latin American context, it would have
a strong impact in discouraging would-be guerrillas. Lastly, it showed the
soundness of “our preventive medicine” assistance to countries facing
“incipient insurgency” – it was the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion, trained
by U.S. Green Berets from June to September of 1967 that “cornered him and
got him.” Another assessment, an interpretive report for the Secretary of
State Dean Rusk that was written by Thomas Hughes, the Latin America
specialist at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research,
summarizes the importance of “the defeat of the foremost tactician of the
Cuban revolutionary strategy.” Hughes predicts that Guevara “will be
eulogized as the model revolutionary who met a heroic death.” The
circumstances of his failure in Bolivia, however, will strengthen the
position of “peaceful line” communist party groups in the hemisphere.

Castro, he argues, will be subject to “we told you so” criticism from older
leftist parties, but his “spell on the more youthful elements in the
hemisphere will not be broken.” This analysis, however, fails to
incorporate evidence of the disagreement between Castro and Guevara on the
prospects for revolution in Latin America or the Soviet pressure on Cuba to
reduce support for insurgent movements in the hemisphere.

The United States’ involvement in Bolivia dates back to World War II
when tin from Bolivia was vital to the Allied war effort. After the
Bolivian government of President Enrique Penaranda declared war on the Axis
powers in April of 1943, a group of dissident army officers lead by Colonel
Gaulberto Villaroel and supported by the MNR Nationalist Revolutionary
Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario), the Argentine
government, and German agents in Buenos Aires, staged a successful coup,
deposing Penaranda on December 21, 1943 and installing Villaroel as
president. Initially, the United States refused to recognize Villaroel’s
regime, but later granted it when Villaroel promised to cooperate with the
Allies. With the decline of mineral prices, inflation, and unemployment at
the end of the war, Bolivia suffered severe economic hardship, which helped
bring on a popular revolt against the government at La Paz on July 17-21,
1946. The army did nothing to check rebellious soldiers, workers, and
students; Villaroel was seized and hanged from a lamppost in front of the
presidential palace. A provisional liberal government was installed and
recognized by the United States and Argentina.

Although outlawed in Bolivia in 1946, the MNR continued to have many
thousands of Bolivian adherents who demanded land reform, control of the
rich tin-mining industry, and justice. In the Bolivian presidential
elections of 1951, the MNR won a plurality victory with its candidate
Victor Paz Estenssoro, founder and leader of the MNR and former professor
of economics, who was in exile in Argentina. The government claimed
Estenssoro did not have the required majority and the president must be
chosen by the congress. In order to prevent the MNR from coming to power,
Bolivia’s outgoing president resigned and turned the government over to a
10-man military junta, whose rule was an outrage to many. On April 8-11,
1952, a popular revolt occurred in La Paz, Bolivia’s administrative
capital, and elsewhere; the MNR, supported by armed workers, civilians, and
peasants and the national police, overthrew the military junta and recalled
Paz Estenssoro from exile to take the presidency. As president he did what
he said he would do: nationalized the tin-mining industry, raised miners’
wages, liquidated the vast holdings of powerful landholders, and
distributed acres to landless Indians. Universal suffrage was granted, but
Paz Estenssoro was ruthless to his political foes, many of whom he
imprisoned. 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 which
subsequent governments would have to recognize.

Historian Herbert S. Klein notes that a counterinsurgency policy to
combat “internal subversion” became a major theme of United States training
for the Bolivian army. In 1963 Argentine-trained Bolivian officers
established the Center of Instruction for Special Troops (Centro de
Instruccin para Tropas Especiales – CITE) under the Seventh Division in
Cochabamba. In addition, by the end of 1963 Bolivia had more graduates from
the United States Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina, than any other Latin American country. A total of 659 Bolivian
officers received training at the School of the Americas in 1962- 63, and
20 of the 23 senior Bolivian officers attended or visited the school during
1963-64. United States military aid increased from US$100,000 in 1958 to
US$3.2 million in 1964. This aid, which included weapons and training
outside Bolivia, enabled Paz Estenssoro to strengthen the army more
extensively than MNR leaders originally had intended. According to Klein,
Paz Estenssoro constantly justified rearming the military to the United
States “as a means of preventing communist subversion.”
In March 1967, Bolivia became a prime target of Cuban-supported
subversion when Ernesto Guevara and his tiny National Liberation Army
(Ejrcito de Liberacin Nacional – ELN) launched their aforementioned
guerrilla campaign. Despite its increased United States training, Bolivia’s
army still consisted mostly of untrained Indian conscripts and had fewer
than 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. With
counterinsurgency instructors from the United States Southern Command
headquarters in Panama, the army established a Ranger School in Santa Cruz
Department. By late July 1967, three well-trained and well-equipped
Bolivian Ranger battalions were ready for action. The army’s increased
capabilities and its decisive defeat of the legendary Cuban guerrilla
leader enhanced its prestige. The fact that Barrientos’ vice president,
Luis Adolfo Siles Salines, a conservative civilian, had to request
permission from the military high command to assume his mandate after
Barrientos’ death in April 1969 indicated how powerful the army had become
as an institution.