Che Guevara and the CIA in the Mountains of Bolivia (2022)

Washington, DC, October 9, 2020 – Fifty-three years ago, at 1:15 p.m. on October9, 1967, Argentine-born revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was executed in the hills of Bolivia after being captured by a U.S.-trained Bolivian military battalion. A CIA operative, Felix Rodriguez, was present. U.S. officials had been tracking Guevara’s whereabouts ever since he disappeared from public view in Cuba in 1965. The highest White House officials were intensely interested in confirming his death, then using it to undermine leftist revolutionary movements in Latin America, as a selection of White House and CIA documents posted today by the National Security Archive describes.

President Lyndon Johnson himself received regular updates on Guevara’s whereabouts, the record shows, reflecting continuing, deep concerns over Cuban-inspired revolutionary activity in the region. Today’s posting features National Security Council memos, CIA field reports, and other documents that followseveral strands of the story, from Guevara’s ill-fated campaign in Bolivia, to La Paz’s request for U.S. help in creating a “hunter-killer” team to “ferret out guerrillas,” to reports of Che’s last conversation and execution (provided by an under-cover CIA officer at the scene), to the intensive efforts of the United States to mount a posthumous propaganda campaign based on Guevara’s diary and other captured records. In a number of cases the documents have previously been released but are now available with fewer security redactions.

The materials are selections from the recent digitized documentary compilation, “CIA Covert Operations III: From Kennedy to Nixon, 1961-1974,” part of the Digital National Security Archive series published by ProQuest. It is the third in an ongoing series edited by John Prados and focuses on CIA decision making and operations in the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Iraq, Indonesia, and elsewhere. The records relating to Cuba build on the previous work of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Project, directed by Peter Kornbluh, which has produced many groundbreaking publications on Guevara, Fidel Castro, and U.S.-Cuba relations.

* * * * *

Che Guevara and the CIA in the Mountains of Bolivia

By John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi

The Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara de la Serna had been Fidel Castro’s right-hand man in the Cuban Revolution, had developed theories of mass action, and for a decade kept himself where the action was. Che helped Castro defeat the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion, stood with him at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and felt out of place when the day’s work lay in simply administering government. Che left Cuba in 1964 for a tour of Africa, until the Congolese fight against Joseph Kasavubu drew him there. That rebellion proved to be a bust. By 1966 Che was ready for fresh ventures and he wanted them to be in Latin America.[1]

Aides visited Latin American countries to help Guevara select his field of action. Che would have preferred to fight in Argentina, his home country, but conditions there were not suitable. In fact, conditions were not perfect anywhere, but they were better in Bolivia, with a leftist tradition and an actual communist party, where striking miners had been brutally suppressed in 1965 at the hands of a recently-minted military dictator.[2] Guevara decided to try his gambit there. Che felt the United States, laser-focused on the Caribbean and Central America, might not pay much attention to a small landlocked country in the high Andes. He entered Bolivia from Brazil on a Uruguayan passport in November 1966. Thus, 54 years ago, for one last time, Guevara began to foment guerrilla warfare in Bolivia.

Those familiar with the history of the Bolivian campaign will know that Guevara began the Bolivian insurgency with an absurdly small guerrilla band, only about sixty fighters, not all of them even Bolivian nationals. Some senior lieutenants were imports from Cuba, including ones who had been with Che in Africa. This was no coincidence. Che had experienced the Cuban Revolution, which had sprung from equally shallow roots. By the middle 1960s there was political theory to underpin such an approach. The French intellectual Régis Debray, drawn to revolution like a moth to light, had come to Cuba in 1961, returned in 1965 and studied the template. Articles he published starting then were gathered in the book Revolution in the Revolution? published in early 1967. Debray took the Leninist concept of a “vanguard” and applied it to modern practice, arguing that “it is necessary to proceed from the small to the large: to attempt to proceed in the opposite way is pointless. The smallest is the guerrilla foco, the nucleus of the popular army.” A national revolutionary front, in Debray’s vision, coalesces around something that exists, not simply a political program—and he also argued the primacy of a guerrilla movement asserting political leadership, over claims on the part of a party.[3] Che’s Bolivian adventure sought to implant a revolutionary foco, from which he hoped political transformation would spread across Latin America in order to “unite the total strength of the Latin American nations in a decisive confrontation against the United States” (See Document 10 for a description of Guevara’s strategy according to Debray).

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had had a fixation about Castro’s Cuba. The United States government remained frightened that revolutionary Cuba would infect Latin America with the communist virus. CIA reports are replete with periodic estimates of how many persons from countries south of the Rio Grande were being trained in Cuba and how many had returned to their homes. It is fair to say the agency extended that fixation to Che. Ernesto Guevara actually gave a speech at the United Nations in December 1964. He toured Africa for several months, then returned to Cuba and disappeared from view. The notion set in among U.S. intelligence officers that he had gone to the Dominican Republic and died there during the political troubles of 1965. Desmond FitzGerald, director of CIA clandestine operations, repeated this tale shortly before his own death in the summer of 1967. Agency operatives in the Congo, including station chief Lawrence Devlin, could not make headquarters believe that they were facing Guevara there. Che “sightings” were reported from Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Vietnam. That made it difficult to believe Che was in Bolivia. When an American diplomat in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, expressed his opinion Guevara might actually be in that country in September 1967, he was rebuffed. Columnist Cyrus L. Sulzberger asserted instead that CIA Director Richard Helms had personally denied it.[4]

After last minute preparations in Prague in July 1966, Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara embarked on his new adventure. He stopped in Havana for a reunion with Fidel Castro. Then Guevara traveled to Brazil under an assumed name with a false passport. He apparently used another name and passport to fly from Sao Paulo to La Paz, capital of Bolivia, in early November.

Guevara spent some days at La Paz. He and his escorts then went through Cochabamba, a southeastern city on the edge of the jungle region, and from there into the interior, to a base camp at Ñancahuaszú, another 200 miles to the southeast. There for several months, Che trained his band, mixing book readings with instructions on weapons and tactics. He selected members for an advance guard, a main body, and a rearguard. On New Years’ Eve, Che conferred with Mario Monje, secretary general of the Bolivian Communist Party. Monje met the crucial issue of relations between the city and the insurgents by saying he would resign the party leadership, bring new recruits, and essentially take over the guerrilla band. Che responded, as he wrote in his diary, “I would be the military chief and would not accept ambiguities regarding this.” Guevara would not object to Monje’s other ideas but thought them erroneous or doomed to failure.[5] The two argued then parted ways. This sparked a break between city and countryside for the Bolivian foco, one of several weaknesses that beset Che’s insurgency. The failure to forge those links would be compounded by Che’s selection of the sparsely-settled countryside as his battleground, a place where there were few people to recruit, and those were often afraid to commit to revolutionary activity. Finally, he left the most militant of Bolivians, the miners and unionists, beyond his reach. Guevara also made tactical errors—he knew much less about the Bolivian wilderness than required by his own revolutionary theories (for example, the group had notes for learning the wrong indigenous language). Guevara was also over-optimistic. When team members made these points, he dismissed the criticisms.

Bolivian authorities discovered some of the guerrillas’ facilities in January 1967, but another two months passed before issues were joined. Come mid-March, one of Che’s men drowned in a river. A couple of Bolivian recruits deserted and another guerrilla was taken prisoner. The Bolivian army sent a patrol to investigate. On March 23 one of Che’s detachments ambushed the troops, who suffered seven killed, four wounded and fourteen captured. A machine gun and a couple of mortars were lost. Released, the former prisoners told Bolivian commanders of the rebels, but the deserters went further, identifying Che Guevara as leader of the band. Around this time in Camiri, were the Bolivian army troops were based, police investigated a derelict jeep and found four notebooks that belonged to Tamara (“Tania”) Bunke that listed a network of Bolivian contacts, bank accounts and communists in other lands. Papers in the jeep mentioned guerrilla camps in the wilderness. Che’s diary for March 19 mentions Tania at his base. Also known as Laura Gutiérrez Bauer, the mysterious Tania has been variously seen as a Soviet, East German, or Cuban spy, who had also visited Che in Prague, and is often identified as his lover. Another visitor to the guerrilla camp would be Régis Debray. Attempting to leave, Debray would be detained on April 20 and charged with aiding a guerrilla movement. By the end of the month Guevara summarized the action so far by noting that not a single Bolivian peasant had joined his movement. More often, village officials met with him and Bolivian troops or planes appeared soon afterwards.[6]

Bolivian dictator General René Barrientos had the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats in to see him on April 18. He related the basic events of the first armed clash (Document 1). There was still uncertainty as to what all this meant. The questioning of Régis Debray and his companion, Argentinian artist Ciro Roberto Bustos, helped clear that up. On May 10 a CIA cable (Document 3) reported that Debray had not only identified Che Guevara as the guerrilla leader but gave details (such as mentioning Che’s expedition to the Congo) which only Guevara could have known. The next day National Security Adviser Walt W. Rostow forwarded the field report to President Lyndon B. Johnson with the comment that the CIA had been thinking Che was dead. More evidence would be needed to nail down his presence (Document 4). Ambassador Douglas Henderson also reported the claim about Che, adding that “Guevara” was confusing, since there were Bolivian “Guevaras” who were also leftists. (In fact, Moisés Guevara, a mining union leader, worked with Che and brought him a few recruits.)[7] In another field report (Document 5), the agency added that Che had displayed his political manifesto for Bolivians to Debray.

General Barrientos asked Washington for military equipment. Ambassador Henderson cautioned the Bolivian leader that mere equipment would not solve their problem (Document 1). At the White House, National Security Council (NSC) staffer William G. Bowdler sent Rostow a report (Document 2) that detailed the primitive state of the Bolivian army. Rostow’s staff were so concerned—and they generalized the situation—they kept records under the heading of the “Guerrilla Problem in Latin America.”[8] Bowdler assured Rostow that the U.S. military had already sent a “Mobile Training Team” (MTT), a Special Forces detachment with a training mission, to help the Bolivians. The MTT, under Major Ralph (“Pappy”) Shelton, became the key element in the arrangement the U.S. made to train the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion.

Washington continued to be highly agitated. On June 14 the CIA issued an analytical report (Document 6) which held events in Bolivia to be Cuban-inspired or even backed and pointed to the possible presence of Che Guevara as a rebel leader. The report inflated the power of the guerrillas and discounted the ability of the Bolivian government and military to cope with them. Some days later Walt Rostow updated President Johnson on the state of play. He observed that the guerrillas seemed to have been flushed out while still making their preparations but had still proved formidable. Rostow put Bolivian government losses at nearly thirty, against two or three rebels, tabulated guerrilla strength at forty or fifty men, and confined himself to saying Che “may” have been with the insurgents (Document 7). A State Department (INR) intelligence report the same day put the guerrilla movement in a broader context, including discussion of unrest among miners and political movements in the cities. Like Che himself, INR found no evidence the guerrillas had been able to recruit new fighters (Document 8).

The national security adviser had noted that CIA was increasing its activities. That was accurate. On June 29 Bolivian Ambassador to Washington Julio Sanjines-Goytia asked NSC staffer Bowdler to his home and made another appeal for assistance, this time for help with a “hunter-killer team” to ferret out the guerrillas. Sanjines averred the idea was not his, but came from “friends of his in the CIA” (Document 9). Around this time CIA Western Hemisphere Division officer Larry Sternfield recruited two agency contract officers, Felix Rodriguez (aka “Felix Ramos,” “Benton Mizones”) and Gustavo Villoldo (aka “Eduardo González”) for a special mission.[9] After reading into the files and some refresher training, the two left New York aboard a Branniff Airlines plane on July 30.[10] A CIA officer met them at the La Paz airport, and station chief John Tilton took them to meet President Barrientos on August 2. The field team would work with the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion and were given cover identities as captains in the Bolivian army. To improve communications the CIA also set up a center staffed by two officers at Santa Cruz, the city and Bolivian command center closest to the Ranger camp.

While these things were progressing, the guerrilla campaign in Bolivia ratcheted up. On July 7 Che’s band captured an entire village. Guevara now missed the links with La Paz that had been severed with the failure to agree on guerrilla-communist party cooperation. By August Che realized he had no hope of restoring that link. Recruits were still not joining him. The village raid turned out to be a high point. On August 8 the CIA produced an assessment of the Bolivian guerrilla movement (Document 11) that represented the views of the Office of Current Intelligence. It reported that the partisans were using methods like those advocated by Guevara (and Castro and Debray) but stopped short of asserting Che was present with the fighters. The CIA went on, “most of the insurgents’ success to date results from the fact that the Bolivian armed forces are almost totally inept in counterinsurgency operations” (p. 7). Barrientos was mainly concerned with obtaining some sort of spectacular success, but CIA anticipated that “nothing on the horizon would indicate that the guerrilla problem will ease soon” (p. 10). The CIA analysis proved to be mistaken.

Che Guevara’s chances suffered major blows in August. On the 6th, Bolivian troops found Che’s original base camp, where papers had been left behind. They gave them to the Americans for analysis. The CIA had a field day. Just as bad for Guevara, troops surprised the guerrillas’ rear guard as they were crossing a river on August 31. Nine were killed, including Tania, plus one of Che’s top lieutenants and some of his best fighters. The prisoner talked to CIA operative Felix Rodriguez.

Washington’s key actions through much of September concerned the captured documents and how to make use of them. The material included photographs, passports, identity cards, a portion of a diary kept by “Braulio” (Israel Reyes Zayas), a Cuban compatriot of Guevara’s; decoded messages from Cuba, the codes themselves, lists of contacts in Bolivia, and even a cigar butt (Che liked to smoke cigars). Two of 21 passports looked like Guevara in disguise, and they bore fingerprints that matched ones Argentina had furnished the CIA in 1954 and 1965. The passports showed their owner had flown from Madrid to Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the end of October 1966, and on to La Paz on November 3. This was powerful evidence for Che’s presence (Documents 12-17).[11]

At this point the Bolivians had Régis Debray on trial. They requested conclusions on the captured materials from the CIA in time to introduce them as evidence against Debray. They wished to know if Che was in Bolivia, and whether proof existed of Cuban participation in the guerrilla operations. Beyond the Debray trial there was also a meeting of Organization of American States (OAS) foreign ministers coming up, and the Bolivians wanted to use the captured documents there too. Officials in Washington met to consider how to handle the request on the first day of September. They worried about the U.S. being dragged into the Debray trial, about how much assistance to provide, and about how much the Bolivians should disclose. Officials coalesced around the recommendation that Bolivia should announce publicly that materials had been captured and ask several countries including the U.S. to help interpret them (Document 12). CIA Director Helms supported that approach (Document 14). On September 6 the covert operations management unit, the 303 Committee, considered how to proceed. On the 8th it agreed to the option that had been proposed. As Walt Rostow told the president, “it is not in our interest, or the Bolivians’, to have the U.S. appear as the sole authenticating agent” (Document 13). By September 14 opinions had hardened that the documents had to become public knowledge before being used at the OAS, and that the Debray trial was the best venue to reveal them despite the fact they contained no direct evidence against the defendant (Document 17). By September 19 Washington was preparing “unclassified props with a brief narrative statement” for the Bolivians, who were expected to rewrite the material before using it so the charges would appear to have come from La Paz (Document 18).

The OAS ministerial meeting had been scheduled for September 22. The captured document issue came to a head in Washington, at the 303 Committee. The State Department memo for that unit, on September 21, conceded the U.S. had been unable to convince the Bolivians to build cover by seeking more analyses of the captured documents from other governments. Now the 303 Committee accepted the risk of being revealed as the interpreter of the Bolivians’ find as the price of employing the documents to charge Cuba with interference in Latin America (Document 19). Senator Howard Baker (R-TN) later confirmed the Bolivians had made their demarche before the Organization of American States.[12]

In the Andes, meanwhile, Che’s troubles mounted. He’d already recorded August as his worst month, but summarizing September for his diary, Guevara wrote, “it should have been a month of recuperation,” but another ambush had “put us in a dangerous position.” By now, “the most important tasks are to escape and look for more propitious zones and to reestablish contacts, despite the fact that the whole apparatus is badly disjointed in La Paz, where they have also given us hard blows.”[13] He did not know that the Bolivians’ 2nd Ranger Battalion had taken the field on September 26, or that the CIA operatives Rodriguez and Villoldo were working with them. Interrogating a rebel captive, Rodriguez produced a template for Guevara’s operations that he felt made Bolivian success possible (Document 29). In the field on October 1, Guevara could see Bolivian soldiers trailing him. A few days later he heard on the radio that Bolivian army units were competing to nab him. If one army division captured him, he would be tried at its headquarters town, at another if it were a different Bolivian division. The guerrillas’ poor knowledge of the country is underlined by the fact that, on October 7 they had to rely upon a shepherdess to tell them how close they were to a trio of villages, La Higuera among them, about a league (three miles) away, where they had already had a skirmish. The next day Che’s band encountered Captain Gary Prado Salmón’s Rangers, dug in behind a stream. When this occurred, Felix Rodriguez was at Ranger battalion headquarters in Vallegrande, and Gustavo Villoldo at the Ranger base in La Esperanza.

A Ranger element probing the valley where Che’s band had hunkered down learned that seventeen rebels were there. Captain Prado summoned extra troops with mortars. About 1 PM on October 8 they encountered the guerrillas, beginning a four-hour battle (Document 21). Three rebels were killed and two, including Che, captured. Guevara had divided his small force into several groups, then split his own unit further. With two of his men Che covered the retreat of his wounded. His M-2 carbine jammed or was hit by gunfire, his pistol had no bullets. One of his fighters helped Che climb a side of a ridge, where a bullet hit Guevara in the calf. Halfway up, Bolivian Rangers confronted Che and demanded his surrender. Less than an hour into the battle the object of all the Bolivian efforts had fallen into their hands.[14]

In Washington the news was electrifying. Bill Bowdler notified Walt Rostow immediately—Bolivia’s Barrientos was saying Che had been captured. Bowdler told Rostow the CIA wanted to verify the identity (Document 20).

CIA operative Rodriguez flew over La Higuera village, where Che had been taken, speaking to the Rangers over a short-range radio, confirming it was really Guevara. A Bolivian officer flew to the village by helicopter to interrogate the prisoner. Rodriguez got a ride the next morning with the Ranger commander. The CIA operative told the agency’s Inspector General in 1975 (Document 29) that he did not believe he would be able to safeguard Che, and composed a message to station chief Tilton that the embassy should intercede with the Bolivians to keep Guevara alive. The message would be late in transmission. Before it went out senior Bolivian officers decided that Guevara should be executed. Director Helms reported to NSC members on October 13 the code the Bolivians had used to send the order to kill Che and his fellow prisoners (Document 27).[15] At La Higuera on October 9 it was Rodriguez, in his cover capacity as a Bolivian army officer, who received the kill order.

Che would be shot about 1:15 pm on October 9. Before that CIA operative Rodriguez conversed with him for about two hours. Director Helms circulated a summary of the conversation on October 13 (Document 27). Guevara discussed the Cuban economy, Castro—Che affirmed that Fidel had not been a communist before the success of the Cuban Revolution—his campaign in the Congo, prisoners in Cuba, and the guerrilla movement in Bolivia, which he predicted would resurge after his death.[16]

For all the evidence, including the presence of its own officers at La Higuera and the capture of Che’s diary, the CIA remained uncertain that Guevara was dead. On October 11 Rostow informed President Johnson he was 99% sure that Che was dead (Document 25), but that “CIA will not give us a categorical answer.” The same day Director Helms circulated a memo contrasting Bolivian government statements at a press conference (that Che had died from battle wounds) with data from agency field officers that Bolivian army headquarters had issued a direct order to kill him just before noon on October 9 (Document 24). As already recounted, by the 13th Helms had details of Che’s last conversation, with Rodriguez. The next day Rostow told LBJ that the agency now had decrypts of January-February 1967 messages showing a direct link between Cuba and the Guevara operation in Bolivia. By October 21 CIA field reports had summarized Che’s diary (Document 28), information that Rostow also passed along to the president.

So ended a revolutionary venture both bold and desperate. Che Guevara had returned to South America convinced he could set the continent alight, starting with a modest beginning in Bolivia. Overconfident, and tired after years of pursuing the revolution, Che neglected tenets of his own and others’ revolutionary theories. His band in Bolivia were pulled into action prematurely as a result of an early encounter with army troops. Despite a string of early successes, Che’s days were numbered, prescribed by the dearth of Bolivian recruits to his cause, and the assistance which the United States gave to Bolivian authorities. But even at the end, even in death, Che remained confident that his spirit would one day re-ignite the revolution in Latin America.

THE DOCUMENTS

Notes

[1] Good biographies of Che Guevara include Jorge G. Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara. New York: Knopf, 1998; and, Paco Ignacio Taibo, Guevara, Also Known as Che (tns Michael M. Roberts). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

[2] CIA Set III, which this electronic briefing book helps to illustrate, contains 147 documents on Bolivia, including substantial documentation on the coup in which General René Barrientos seized power, the political situation in the country, and the U.S. attitude towards both.

[3] Régis Debray, Revolution in the Revolution? Armed Struggle and Political Struggle in Latin America (tns Bobbye Ortiz). New York: Grove Press, 1967, pp. 83-85, 87, 89-90, 104-110.

[4] Henry B. Ryan, The Fall of Che Guevara: A Story of Soldiers, Spies, and Diplomats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 36-37. Technically, Sulzberger was correct—in September—but Guevara was about to leave for Bolivia at that very moment. On Devlin’s failure to convince Langley of Che’s presence in the Congo, see Castañeda, p. 313.

[5] Robert Sheer, ed. The Diary of Che Guevara: Bolivia, November 7, 1966-October 7, 1967. New York: Bantam Books, 1968, p. 43-44. The diary was originally published in Ramparts magazine in July 1968.

[6] Ibid., p. 105-106.

[7] Ryan, The Fall of Che Guevara, p. 44.

[8] This file is located in Lyndon B. Johnson’s papers at the Johnson presidential library (National Security File: Intelligence File, box 2).

[9] In the 1980s, Rodriguez would become involved in White House covert operations in Central America tied to the Iran-Contra affair. Felix I. Rodriguez and John Weisman, Shadow Warrior. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, p. 127-128.

[10] Rodriguez (ibid., p. 137) gives the date July 31. However, the CIA Inspector General, in a June 3, 1975 memorandum (Document 29) records that a case officer met the two at the La Paz airport at 7 AM on July 31, and I take the date from that source.

[11] Ryan, The Fall of Che Guevara, p. 115-118. Henry Ryan puts the deliberations over the captured documents in late September, but as amply demonstrated here, the bulk of the interagency action took place early that month, with the 303 Committee meeting on September 8 as a sort of end point.

[12] Congressional Record, October 16, 1967, p. S14789.

[13] The Diary of Che Guevara, op. cit, p. 185-186.

[14] Probably the best narrative of the capture is in Taibo, Guevara, Also Known as Che, pp. 549-553.

[15] There is a discrepancy in the Bolivian codes reported in Document 24, Director Helms’s report in the moment, versus Document 30, Felix Rodriguez’s 1975 statement on these events, as to whether the numbers “600” and “700” referred to keeping Che alive or killing him. The meanings in the two documents are reversed. Rodriguez uses the same meanings for the numbers in his 1989 memoir (p. 163).

[16] There are significant differences between this contemporary record and the version Rodriguez gives in his memoir (pp. 166-169).

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