The Death of Che Guevara Declassified

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tags: CIA, Che Guevara



Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project and the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, and is co-author, with William M. LeoGrande, of "Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana." Kornbluh is also the author of "The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability."

About 10 years ago, I traveled with the producers of the Hollywood film on Che Guevara—starring the actor Benicio del Toro and directed by Steven Soderbergh—to Miami to obtain further information for the movie about the circumstances of Che’s execution. At a restaurant in Little Havana, the stronghold of the anti-Castro exile community in the United States, we met with Gustavo Villoldo, who had been the senior Cuban-American CIA operative assigned to Bolivia in 1967 to assist in tracking down and capturing the iconic revolutionary. Villoldo arrived carrying a thick white binder, filled with memorabilia of Che’s execution on October 9, 1967—original photographs, secret telexes, news clips, and even the official fingerprints taken from Che’s dead hands. The scrapbook recorded the historic results of the CIA’s covert efforts to train and assist the Bolivian special forces in eliminating Che and his small band of guerrilla fighters.

In macabre detail, the retired covert agent described his discussions with Bolivian military officers when Guevara’s body arrived, via helicopter, from the pueblo of La Higuera, where he had been captured and shot, to the Bolivian town of Villegrande. The Bolivians wanted to cut off Che’s head, he said, and preserve it as proof that Guevara was dead and gone. According to Villoldo, he convinced them instead that they could create a “death mask” of plaster, and that cutting off and preserving Che’s hands would be sufficient evidence. Villoldo explained how he arranged to secretly bury the body where it would never be found. Indeed, for 30 years Che’s remains were “disappeared”; in July 1997, his bones, minus hands, were located in a makeshift grave alongside an airstrip on the outskirts of Villegrande.

At one point during the conversation, Villoldo opened the binder and pulled out a white envelope. Inside was a clump of brown hair. As the ultimate souvenir of this Cold War victory, Villoldo proudly stated, he had cut off strands of Che’s hair before disposing of his body. “I basically took it because the symbol of the revolution was this bearded, long-haired guy coming down the mountain,” Villoldo later explained. “To me, I was cutting off the very symbol of the Cuban revolution.”

Fifty years ago, US officials shared that sentiment. They considered the capture and execution of Che Guevara as arguably the most important victory of the United States over Cuba and Latin America’s militant left during the era of US intervention and counterinsurgency warfare in the 1960s. Top CIA and White House officials drafted numerous secret documents analyzing the significance of Che’s demise—for Fidel Castro and Cuba, and for US interests in blocking the spread of revolution in Latin America.

This memorandum—classified SECRET-SENSITIVE/Eyes Only—was prepared for President Lyndon Johnson five days after Che’s death. It transmitted a short summary from CIA director Richard Helms confirming the details of Che’s final hours. Helms’s attached report, “Capture and Execution of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara,” confirmed that Guevara had not died from “battle wounds” during a clash with the Bolivian army, as the press had reported from Bolivia, but rather had been executed “at 1315 hours…with a burst of fire from an M-2 automatic rifle.” ...




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