Icon of Cuba’s revolution. Symbol of youthful rebellion. The face on trendy T-shirts. Those are some of the public perceptions of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine doctor who helped Fidel Castro topple Fulgencio Batista on New Year’s Day of 1959 and to execute hundreds of Cubans at the La Cabaña prison in Havana.
But he looked like a hobo when he was captured and executed in Bolivia in 1967, his wild hair and beard matted with dirt and wearing a shirt with no buttons, at the end of a long hunt by U.S.-trained Bolivian troops and Cuban-born CIA agents.
That hunt is described in the new book by two journalists, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mitch Weiss and The New York Times’ Kevin Maurer, co-author of No Easy Day, a bestseller about the Navy Seal mission that killed Osama Bin Laden.
Even those who have read the many previous works on Guevara will find new material in Hunting Che. There’s the tale of the 16 U.S. Green Berets who trained the 640-man Second Ranger Battalion of the Bolivian army specifically to track and battle Guevara and his guerrillas, a mixture of veteran Cuban fighters and Bolivian supporters. There’s the role of the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Douglas Henderson, who allegedly downplayed the communist threat to Bolivia and seemed to throw roadblocks in front of the Green Berets’ efforts.
And there’s the CIA and Department of State bureaucracy back in Washington, still unsure that Che was dead even days after one of the intelligence agency’s Cuban assets had heard the gunshots that killed him and another had buried his body.
The details that Maurer and Weiss dug up add a more clear and readable understanding of the hunt for Che than previous accounts, most of them highly personal tales written by key participants who lacked the authors’ access to multiple players and U.S. archives.
The authors pay special homage to Maj. Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, the about-to retire Green Beret who took on one last job, the politically and military risky task of training the Bolivian Ranger units in 1967.
In a year when 400,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam were straining to fight an essentially guerrilla war, Shelton was showing how a small group of U.S. Special Forces could train local forces to successfully fight local guerrillas. Shelton picked a bright Bolivian army captain, Gary Prado, to advise the trainers from the ground up on how the 19-week program was progressing. He stalled when La Paz wanted to cut short the training and rush the Rangers into the fray after Che’s presence in the Nancahuazú area was confirmed.
But the Mississippi native also insisted on building a school in the village of La Esperanza, home base for the Rangers’ training. He also played his guitar at night in the bar where Green Berets, Rangers and locals gathered over a few beers.
Che had disappeared from public eye in 1965, after vowing that the Cuban revolution would spark “two, three, or many Vietnams,” and trying his hand at a guerrilla war in the Congo before landing in La Paz on Nov. 3 1966.
Bolivia seemed perfect for his “oppressed of the world rise up” campaign. It was poor, politically unstable, with porous borders with five countries and a woefully inept military made up of 6,200 conscripts and 1,500 career soldiers. But in the end, the country’s peasants did not answer his call to revolution, nor did the Bolivian Communist Party come through with its promised aid. Castro also abandoned him to his own fate, and the Rangers performed well — if at times brutally.
And while the Green Berets were not allowed to follow their trainees into the battle zone, Felix Rodriguez and Gustavo Villoldo, the two Cuban exiles sent by the CIA to advise the Bolivians in the hunt, were right in there.
Two weeks after the Rangers finished their training and deployed to the Nancahuazú area on its very first mission, most of Guevara’s men had been captured or killed. Only three managed to escape through the border with Chile.
Che was captured by Prado’s company B and executed on the spot Oct. 9 1967, on the orders of President René Barrientos. Rodriguez was one of the last people to speak with him, and Villoldo buried his body in secret. The remains were recovered 30 years later.
Juan Tamayo is a El Nuevo staff writer.