30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Che Guevara and the CIA in the Mountains of Bolivia

 Che Guevara after his execution on October 9, 1967

Che Guevara after his execution on October 9, 1967, surrounded by Bolivian soldiers. (Source: unknown)

Published: Oct 9, 2020
Briefing Book #725

Edited by John Prados and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi

For more information, contact
John Prados: 202-994-7000
or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Argentine-born Revolutionary Executed 53 Years Ago

Declassified Records Describe Intense U.S. Tracking of Guevara’s Movements, Initial Doubts about His Death, and Hopes that His Violent Demise Would Discourage Revolutionaries in Latin America

Washington, DC, October 9, 2020 – Fifty-three years ago, at 1:15 p.m. on October 9, 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 follow several 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

 

Document 01

State Department Cable, La Paz 2697, “Guerrilla Situation – Bolivia,” April 22, 1967 (declassified August 12, 1991).

Source: Lyndon Baines Johnson Library: Lyndon B. Johnson Papers: National Security File (hereafter LBJL: LBJP: NSF) : Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68).

After visiting Bolivia and meeting President Barrientos, U.S. General William Tope assesses the guerrilla situation in the Andes, warning of major challenges ahead. Barrientos informs the Americans that the Bolivian Army is investigating reports of “a group of bearded armed men…” spotted around Chuquisaca. Barrientos says the guerrillas are a “well organized, highly trained and well supplied group… and are at present maintaining contact with Salta, Argentina; Venezuela; and even Cuba.” Concerned about the broader security implications of the guerrilleros, Barrientos stresses that “the army must come up with some kind of a quick success.” Yet, General Tope counsels that “unfortunately, all of their quick fixes are unsound, would waste precious resources and probably would get them in worse trouble than they already have.” Tope further laments that “Since we have not yet figured out how to pull a rabbit out of the hat for them either, they are very difficult to divert from this line of thinking.” He recommends that Barrientos use “individuals who have received counterinsurgency training from us in the past,” to which the Bolivian responds that they had already done so. Fearing Bolivian incompetence, Tope concludes the telegram by highlighting the need for a significant U.S. role, “It is obvious we must take a practical, pragmatcw [sic] approach, building on what they now have, forcing improvements toward sound objectives, assisting all we can when there is the goal, and preventing the waste of either US or Bolivian resources when it is not.”

 

Document 02

NSC Memorandum, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, April 25, 1967 (declassified April 23, 1991).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 1 of 3.”

In this sobering memo on the counter-insurgency capabilities of the Bolivian government, staffer William G. Bowdler forwards to National Security Adviser Rostow the Embassy’s April 22 cable (see Document 1), which he calls a “grim report,” and warns that “The problem is not only adequacy of the troops in the field, but the attitude of those at the top, including Barrientos.” Bowdler explains that supplies have been sent to support U.S. troops already in the field and “We are concentrating on the training and equipping of a new Ranger battalion.”

 

Document 03

CIA Intelligence Information Cable, “The Presence of Ernesto “Che” Guevara with the Bolivian Guerrillas...,” May 10, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

This is the first CIA field report of “persons who claimed to have seen and talked with ‘Che’ Guevara since he disappeared in March 1965.” Based in large part on the interrogations of several captured persons, including Régis Debray, the CIA explains that Guevara “was present with the main group of Bolivian guerrillas in Southeast Bolivia from late March until at least 20 April 1967.”

 

Document 04

NSC Memorandum, Walt Rostow to President Johnson, , May 11, 1967 (declassified November 28, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

In this memo, National Security Adviser Walt Rostow explains to the President that there is a credible report (Document 3) that Guevara is “alive and operating in South America” (highlight in original). Rostow concludes by noting that “we need more evidence before concluding that Guevara is operational – and not dead, as the intelligence community, with the passage of time, has been more and more inclined to believe.” A previous release of this document redacted the source for this report – “interrogation of guerrillas captured in Bolivia, among them Jules Debray, the young French Marxist who has been close to Castro.”

 

Document 05

CIA Intelligence Information Cable, “Statements by Jules Régis Debray...,” May 17, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.”

This intelligence summary based on the interrogation of Régis Debray describes three meetings the French intellectual had with Guevara. Debray explains that Guevara is trying to create a movement and funding source outside of Cuba as, “Guevara and Fidel Castro were not in total agreement, and that Guevara was trying to build mechanisms independent of Cuba, to support his personal revolutionary efforts.” The support was to come mainly from Europe, according to Debray, as the movement, “was to be organized and backed by Bertrand Russell of England, Jean Paul Sartre of France and Alberto Moravia of Italy, and was to support ‘Che’ Guevara and his guerrilla movement in Latin America … the moral and financial support was to come from individuals in Europe.”

 

Document 06

CIA Memorandum, “Cuban-Inspired Guerrilla Activity in Bolivia,” June 14, 1967 (declassified October 23, 2013).

Source: NSF: Intelligence file, b. 2, f.: “Guerrilla Problem in Latin America.”

This dire CIA intelligence assessment warns that there are currently seven distinct guerrilla groups in Bolivia and “Their presence poses a grave threat to Bolivian stability.” The analysts highlight the role played by Cuba and worry that the USSR could also intervene, “It has been evident from the outset that Cuba has played a key role in the initiation, implementation and execution of guerrilla activity in Bolivia.” The report explains that “Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara according to several reports from different sources, is personally directing Bolivian guerrilla activities and has been physically present with the guerrillas in Bolivia.” Consistent with past intelligence assessments, the CIA sees the government of President Barrientos as incompetent, having “repeatedly demonstrated its total inability to cope with the guerrillas.” The analysts think it is possible that the guerrilla situation could create a climate for a left-wing coup in Bolivia and broader regional instability, “This could lead to a government composed of a loose coalition of leftist parties. Both President Juan Carlos Ongania, of Argentina and President Eduardo Frei, of Chile agreed at a summit conference in Uruguay in April 1967, that if Barrientos is overthrown and replaced with a left-wing leader like Juan Lechin Oquendo, they will intervene with their armed forces.”

 

Document 07

NSC Memorandum, Walt Rostow to President Johnson, no heading [suspecting “Che” is in Bolivia], June 23, 1967 (declassified November 25, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.”

This memo to the president from his national security adviser presents an update on the Bolivian guerrilla situation and highlights the “interrogation of several deserters and prisoners, including a young [sic] French communist – Jules Régis Debray – closely associated with Fidel Castro and suspected of serving as a Cuban courier.” The interrogation of these individuals “strongly suggests that the guerrillas are Cuban-sponsored, although this is hard to document. There is some evidence that ‘Che’ Guevara may have been with the group. Debray reports seeing him.” Rostow then explains U.S. efforts: “Soon after the presence of guerrillas had been established we sent a special team and some equipment to help organize another Ranger-type Battalion. On the military side, we are helping about as fast as the Bolivians are able to absorb our assistance” and “CIA has increased its operations.” Rostow concludes by noting that “while the outlook is not clear,” U.S. efforts should make a positive difference.

 

Document 08

State Department, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Note 521, “Crisis Management in Bolivia: Government Flounders but Keeps its Footing,” June 23, 1967 (declassified May 26, 1992).

Source: LBJL: NSF: Intelligence File, b. 2, f.: “Guerrilla Problem in Latin America.”

This intelligence assessment from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) downplays some of CIA’s more dire conclusions. On the threat posed by guerrilla movements, it notes, “There have been rumors of possible new guerrilla ‘fronts’, but such reports seem somewhat overdrawn and unrealistic in view of the small size of the guerrilla movement, estimated to number about 60 members. We have seen no evidence of successful recruiting efforts by the guerrillas … The present guerrilla movement can probably evade and harass the counterinsurgent forces for an indefinite period, but it does not in itself and at its present size constitute a serious threat to the government.” Ultimately, the analysts at State conclude that the stability of Bolivia is dependent on whether Barrientos makes concessions with disaffected groups or uses repression. “The greatest danger in the short term would lie in the coalescence of groups or movements capable of violence. If the government should take harshly repressive measures against the miners, that coalescence [sic] might occur. However, Barrientos has not authorized such measures thus far and his chances of avoiding drastic action seem somewhat better than even.”

 

Document 09

NSC Memorandum of Conversation, William Bowdler and Bolivian Ambassador Sanjines-Goytia, [mentions CIA “hunter-killer” squad], June 29, 1967 (declassified January 4, 2018).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

This startling memcon by Bowdler summarizes his discussion with Bolivian Ambassador Julio Sanjines-Goytia, who requests U.S. assistance for the establishment of “what he called a ‘hunter killer’ team to ferret out guerrillas.” The ambassador explained that “this idea was not original with him, but came from friends of his in CIA.” Bowdler then asks if “the Ranger Battalion now in training were not sufficient,” to which Ambassador Sanjines-Coytia replies that what he had in mind are, “50 or 60 young army officers, with sufficient intelligence, motivation and drive, who could be trained quickly and could be counted on to search out the guerrillas with tenacity and courage.” Bowdler tells the ambassador that “his idea may have merit, but needs further careful examination.”

 

Document 10

NSC Note, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, enclosing CIA Intelligence Information Cable, “Guerrilla Band in Southeast Bolivia under the Command of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara,” July 28, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v.4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.”

This brief cover note from Bowdler refers to its lengthy CIA attachment: “This does not constitute proof that Che Guevara is alive and operating in Bolivia but it certainly heightens the possibility. I think the President night like to read this one.” The report is based on the written statement by captured Argentine revolutionary Ciro Roverto Bustos, who explained that when he arrived at the Bolivian guerrilla camp, one guerrillero with a Cuban accent told him that the commander, “Ramon,” was none other than Guevara. Guevara did not want his presence known because, “the struggle should be a Bolivian movement, and only when it was well developed and his participation, along with his Cubans, was a simple fact of proletarian-revolutionary internationalism, should his presence be made known.” The report explains in detail Guevara’s strategic objective which places the U.S. at the center of the revolutionary struggle: “the underlying political basis for this is that the struggle against imperialism is the factor common to all Latin American nations. Imperialism is the real enemy, not the oligarchies, which are enemies of form rather than substance. Because the real enemy is a common one for all of Latin America, a new strategy is necessary. This strategy must start from the premise that in Latin America no single country can now or in the future carry out the revolution alone, not even a government supported by its own army and by its people. It would merely produce palliatives and imitations of change, but it would not make revolution. One country alone is quickly surrounded, strangled, and subjugated by the imperialists because revolution is a socio-economic fact and not a romantic, patriotic event. Economic underdevelopment in Latin America is caused by imperialism and its total control. Change will be possible only when there is total opposition. It is necessary, therefore, to unite the total strength of the Latin American nations in a decisive confrontation against the United States” [underlining in the original].

 

Document 11

NSC Memorandum, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, covering CIA Intelligence Memorandum, “The Bolivian Guerrilla Movement: An Interim Assessment,” September 1, 1967 (declassified March 22, 1996).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

In this intelligence assessment, the CIA concludes that, the success of the guerrilla movement in Bolivia “is due largely to the ineptitude of the Bolivian military.” Conversely, Bowdler in his cover note to Rostow, describes the report as “the next thing to a whitewash and is being rewritten. Autocriticism is sometimes hard to take. A great deal of the fault lies with the Bolivians. But there are areas where we clearly fall down.” In the report, CIA analysts highlight the unique strengths of the Bolivian guerrillas: “one major point is clear. The Bolivian guerrillas are a well trained and disciplined group. The insurgents are better led and better equipped than the untrained, poorly organized Bolivian military forces” [underlining in original]. On the leadership of the guerrillas, the CIA carefully qualifies the intelligence on Guevara: “A few known Bolivian Communists have been identified as leaders of the insurgents. Other reports from within Bolivia and elsewhere allege that one of the leaders is Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who was a key figure in the Castro government in Cuba until he dropped out of sight in March 1965. These reports, which come from sources of varying credibility, are in essential agreement on the details of where and when Guevara is supposed to have been with the guerrillas, but conclusive evidence of Che’s direct participation has not been obtained. Whether Guevara is a participant, or indeed whether he is even alive, it is plain in any case that the guerrilla leaders are well-schooled in the insurgency techniques and doctrines previously espoused by Guevara” [underlining in original]. The agency concludes by suggesting that this case might have broader repercussions: “because worldwide publicity has been given both to the alleged presence of Che Guevara with the guerrillas and to the capture of [Régis] Debray, this insurgency movement will be kept in the public eye. It could become a focus for the continuing polemical debate in the Communist world over the wisdom of political versus militant revolutionary action.”

 

Document 12

State Department Memorandum, Covey T. Oliver to Foy D. Kohler, “Handling of Documents Relating to Cuban Intervention Captured in Bolivia,” September 2, 1967 (declassified May 26, 1992).

Source: LBJL: NSF: Intelligence File, b. 2, f.: “Guerrilla Problem in Latin America.”

This memorandum presents several proposals for handling captured documents taken from Che Guevara’s camp by Bolivian troops in early August and turned over to the Americans. The concern is that the revelation of the U.S. as the sole authentication source of the documents might carry some risks. The strategic value of the documents is assessed. Recommendations are that Bolivia only make public some documents and that La Paz should seek public assistance from the U.S. and other countries simultaneously in order to minimize U.S. exposure. Option 3, in which Bolivia announces possession of captured documents and publicly asks the U.S. for help analyzing them, and Option 4, in which Bolivia would expand the circle to include all OAS members, garner the most support. American officials are aware of the Bolivian desire that the documents be used as evidence in the Régis Debray trial. The U.S. role should be protected given that, “The Communists, for example, may assert we fabricated the documents. The French press may charge we are out to get Debray, etc.”

 

Document 13

NSC Memorandum, Walt Rostow to President Johnson, “Insurgency in Bolivia,” September 5, 1967 (declassified November 25, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

In this memorandum for the president, Rostow explains two major developments concerning the Bolivian situation. First, after the capture of several guerrilla documents, “The preliminary reading from CIA shows rather conclusively that ‘Che’ Guevara travelled to Bolivia via Spain and Brazil in late 1966 using false documents.” Second, “Bolivian armed forces on August 30 finally scored their first victory and it seems to have been a big one. An army unit caught up with the rearguard of the guerrillas and killed 10 and captured one … two of the dead guerrillas are Bolivians and the rest either Cubans or Argentines.” Rostow recommends that “it is not in our interest, or the Bolivians’, to have the U.S. appear as the sole authenticating agent for the documents.”

 

Document 14

NSC Memorandum, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, “Captured Documents in Bolivia,” September 6, 1967 (declassified June 27, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Intelligence File, b. 2, f.: “Guerrilla Problem in Latin America.”

This memo shows that after further analysis of the captured guerrilla documents in Bolivia, “two of the passports bearing different names carry the same photograph and fingerprints.” The Agency has concluded that, “the fingerprints are identical to examples of prints of Guevara furnished to CIA [REDACTED] in 1954 and [REDACTED] in 1965.” The photographs, the CIA assesses are “most probably” of Guevara “in disguise.”

 

Document 15

NSC Memorandum, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, [conveying CIA battle accounts], September 6, 1967 (declassified October 4, 1990).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.

Bowdler makes no comment in forwarding these field reports of rebel activities in Bolivia to National Security Adviser Rostow, but the attached CIA intelligence cables reveal the dire straits into which Che Guevara’s band had fallen. One tells the story of the battle with Bolivian army troops which effectively destroyed Guevara’s rearguard. The other, reporting information from the interrogation of one of the guerrillas, gives an inside account of developments within the rebel band. Che Guevara is discussed under his nom de guerre “Ramon.” He is reported to be angry and upset at various developments in the movement.

 

Document 16

NSC Memoorandum, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, “Captured Documents in Bolivia,” September 6, 1967 (declassified November 25, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

Bowdler sends Rostow a copy of the CIA’s preliminary analysis of the documents that were captured from Che Guevara’s rebel band in Bolivia. The agency focuses on evidence related to the question of whether Che is actually in that country, which has been one of the major mysteries from the beginning. The evidence includes two passports, identity cards, health certificates and photographs. The passports show a correspondence to fingerprints Argentine authorities gave CIA in 1954 and 1965, and indicate that Che most likely went from Brazil to Bolivia in November 1966. “These findings lead to a strong presumption . . . but they are still short of conclusive proof. The CIA report does not draw conclusions at this stage.” Bowdler also tells Rostow the Bolivians want to use the captured documents in the trial of Régis Debray. The staffer worries the documents may be tarred as a CIA hoax, and recommends that Rostow approve a course of action under which countries other than the U.S. authenticate the material, as in an option approved by the 303 Committee by telephone the previous day.

 

Document 17

State Department Cable, Deptel 37691, “Bolivian Documents,” September 14, 1967 (declassified February 5, 2010).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 1 of 3.”

This State Department cable to Ambassador Henderson in La Paz makes clear Washington’s determination to get maximum use out of Che’s captured documents. State Department officials deem it essential that the documents be publicized before they are brought into the Organization of American States (OAS). To this end the Department wants to make use of President Barrientos’s and General Ovando’s desire to put the documents into evidence at the trial of Régis Debray. While U.S. officials admit the documents have no direct evidence against Debray, “the trial would be [the] most convenient setting for making [the] documents public.” Henderson is to see Bolivian officials and urge them to surface the documents in the Debray trial, and take the occasion to advise the Bolivians to inform other OAS member states that they intend to bring these materials before the regional group as proof of Cuban subversion in the hemisphere.

 

Document 18

State Department Cable, Deptel 39669, “Bolivian Documents,” September 19, 1967 (declassified February 5, 2010).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File, Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 1 of 3.”

State Department instructions to Embassy La Paz inform Ambassador Henderson that Bolivian Foreign Minister Guevara-Arce is being given a “narrative” and “props” he can use at the Organization of American States (OAS) conference. The narrative is to account for where the materials being presented came from, how the Bolivian government dealt with them, and what they show. The Bolivians are supposed to rewrite this exposition so it appears to come from them. The props are versions of the captured documents. Ambassador Henderson is ordered to present copies of the same material to Bolivian leader Barrientos and military strongman General Ovando, and to obtain from them a clear understanding that Bolivia will take complete responsibility and make no attribution whatever to the United States.

 

Document 19

State Department Memorandum, William C. Trueheart to Mr. Jessup of the 303 Committee, “Handling of Documents Relating to Cuban Intervention Captured in Bolivia,” September 21, 1967 (declassified June 20, 2002”).

Source: Gerald R. Ford Library, Gerald R. Ford Papers, President’s Handwriting File, b. 31, f.: National Security, Intelligence (8).”

At the State Department, INR officers responsible for the Department’s dealings with the 303 Committee prepare a memorandum reminding committee members of the proposals made for the documents captured in Bolivia (Document 16), affirming that 303 had made a telephonic decision, confirmed at a September 8 meeting, and now noting actions taken on that basis that will enable the Bolivian government to unveil the documents at the Organization of American States meeting the next day. INR specifies that the Bolivian government will take complete responsibility for the documents but calls it an acceptable risk if circumstances oblige the United States to admit it has given Bolivia an opinion interpreting the material.

 

Document 20

NSC Note, William Bowdler to Walt Rostow, [regarding capture of Guevara], October 9, 1967.

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

In a brief note forwarding copies of field reports, NSC staffer William Bowdler informs Rostow that Bolivian leader René Barrientos is claiming Che’s capture in a battle with Bolivian troops in the mountains. Bowdler affirms that the unit which engaged the guerrillas is the same Ranger battalion the United States had helped train. He reports that, before confirming the presence of Che Guevara among the wounded, the CIA wants to verify his fingerprints.

 

Document 21

CIA Intelligence Information Cable, Field Report, “Capture of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna by Bolivian Second Rangers,” October 9, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.”

In a brief field report the CIA in Bolivia confirms a battle action in the highlands east of La Paz on October 8. The battle lasted through the afternoon and resulted in several guerrillas killed and two captured. “One of those captured may be Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara de la Serna, who is either seriously wounded or very ill and may die.” The rebel remnants appeared to be trapped and were expected to be wiped out the next day.

 

Document 22

NSC Memorandum, Walt Rostow to President Johnson, October 9, 1967 (declassified April 23, 1991).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

Here National Security Advisor Rostow reports the tentative information that Guevara had been taken by the Bolivian military and was dead, attributed to President Barrientos’s private contacts with journalists in La Paz the morning of the 9th. The note correctly identifies several members of Che’s guerrilla band, including the man who had been with him when he was captured. Nightfall, according to this report, prevented the Bolivians from evacuating the prisoners and wounded from the highlands. (In reality, the Rangers were awaiting instructions on whether to kill the rebels.)

 

Document 23

Foreign Broadcast Information Service, transcripts of press reports on Che’s death.

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivie, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

The CIA monitoring service known as the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) typically listens in to radio broadcasts from many different sources. This compendium on Guevara’s death included material from La Paz radio (La Cruz del Sur), the French press agency AFP, and the Argentinian agency ANSA. Bolivian military officers holding a press conference not only claimed Guevara had died of battle wounds, they revealed that his diary had been captured. A French reporter recorded that the diary book was colored red and had been manufactured in Germany. Another report noted the diary contained daily entries that had detailed events in his Bolivian guerrilla campaign.

 

Document 24

CIA Memorandum, Richard Helms to Dean Rusk et al., “Capture and Execution of ‘Che’ Guevara,” October 11, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011)

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

In this memo, CIA Director Helms calls attention to the fact that published accounts of Che’s death have been based on a Bolivian army press conference the previous day, which attributed his death to battle wounds and claimed Guevara had been in a coma when captured. Helms noted the agency had received contrary information from its officer, Felix Rodriguez, who was with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. Helms now reported Che had been taken with a leg wound “but was otherwise in fair condition.” The CIA added that orders had come through from Bolivian Army Headquarters to kill the Argentine revolutionary and that they had been carried out the same day “with a burst of fire from an M-2 automatic rifle.”

 

Document 25

NSC Memo, Rostow-LBJ, “Death of ‘Che’ Guevara,” October 11, 1967 (declassified November 28, 2013).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 3 of 3.”

Walt Rostow reports to President Johnson that “CIA will not give us a categorical answer” as to whether Che is dead. Rostow is “99 percent sure,” but that is deemed not good enough. CIA reported that Che was taken alive, questioned for a short time to establish his identity, and then killed on the orders of Bolivian chief General Ovando. “I regard this as stupid,” Rostow adds, “but it is understandable from a Bolivian standpoint.” He notes that this “marks the passing of another of the aggressive, romantic revolutionaries” and that “it will have a strong impact in discouraging would-be guerrillas.”

 

Document 26

State Department, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Note 814, “Che’s Death—The Meaning for Latin America,” October 12, 1967 (declassified May 21, 1991).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File, Latin America, b. 8., f.: “Bolivia, v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 2 of 3.”

“‘Che’ Guevara’s death was a crippling—perhaps fatal—blow to the Bolivian guerrilla movement and may prove a serious setback for Fidel Castro’s hopes to foment violent revolution” in Latin America, proclaimed this State Department wrap-up analysis. INR observes that Bolivia has been a testing ground for the foco theory of revolution. While Castro would not escape the “I told you so” criticisms of Latin communists, INR predicts, he would still hold the esteem of Latino youth. Guevara’s demise would set up a test, however. “If the Bolivian guerrilla movement is soon eliminated as a serious subversive threat, the death of Guevara will have even more important repercussions among Latin American communists. The dominant peaceful line groups, who were either in total disagreement with Castro or paid only lip service to the guerrilla struggle, will be able to argue with more authority against the Castro-Guevara-Debray thesis.”

 

Document 27

CIA Memorandum, Richard Helms to Dean Rusk et al., “Statements by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara Prior to his Execution in Bolivia,” October 13, 1967 (declassified August 26, 2007).

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: RAC: CREST.

Here the CIA director recounts for senior administration officials some of what Che Guevara said at La Higuera while he lay wounded on October 9. Helms affirms that Guevara refused to be interrogated but did not mind a conversation reflecting on recent history. Che talked about the Cuban economy, the relationship between Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos (whom some thought Castro had had executed, but Guevara insisted had died in a plane crash), and Castro himself, whom Che said had not been a communist until after the success of the revolution, breaking another frequently-held belief in the U.S. Guevara spoke of his campaign in the Congo, the treatment of prisoners in Cuba, and the future of the guerrilla movement in Bolivia—“he predicted a resurgence in the future.” Helms also details the telegraphic code the Bolivians used to decree life or death for Che.

 

Document 28

NSC Note, Walt Rostow to President Johnson, [attaching CIA Intelligence Information Cable, subject: “highlights of ‘Che’ Guevara’s Diary”], October 21, 1967 (declassified January 10, 2011)

Source: LBJL: LBJP: NSF: Country File: Latin America, b. 8, f.: “Bolivia v. 4 (1/66-12/68) 1 of 3.”

Che Guevara’s diary, among his effects taken at La Higuera, would be published widely, including by Cuba, in the U.S. by the magazine Ramparts, in book form by Ramparts editors, and by others. Before any of those publications, however, the U.S. Government already knew what was in the diary, because the CIA made a copy and summarized it for Washington officials. In this field report, which Walt Rostow forwarded to President Johnson, there are highlights of the Guevara diary. The account began by putting a date on Che’s arrival in Bolivia and focused on details such as who had accompanied him, Che’s account of his break with the Bolivian communists, and the precarious situation at the end of September. Another, more extensive, summary appeared in a CIA report on November 9 (also part of the Digital National Security Archive’s CIA Set III) as the full diary was still being translated. Comparison of these summaries with the diary readily confirms the CIA was working from the actual diary materials.

 

Document 29

CIA Memorandum, Latin America Division, to the Deputy Inspector General, “Statement by Benton H. Mizones concerning his assignment in Bolivia in 1967...,” June 3, 1975 (declassified Apr 26, 2018)

Source: Assassination Records Review Board release, NARA.

In 1975, the “Year of Intelligence” (see Digital National Security Archive CIA Set II), both the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission investigated assassination plots attributed to the CIA. At this time Felix Rodriguez (“Benton H. Mizones”) was interviewed on his Bolivia assignment by colleagues at the Latin America Division, for the Inspector General’s office to compile a record of his time fighting Che. Rodriguez was of interest because it was he who had passed along instructions from the Bolivian high command that Guevara be killed. The Rodriguez interview record provides a straightforward chronology of his work in Bolivia, commencing with his recruitment by CIA, his trip to La Paz, meeting with President Barrientos, and his work with the 2nd Ranger Battalion. In the account which the CIA Inspector General passed along to the Church committee, Rodriguez takes credit for saving the life of one guerrilla prisoner, from whom he recounts obtaining information critical to catching Che, and for the suggestion to put the Rangers into action, which led to the gun battle in which Che Guevara would be wounded and captured. Rodriguez would be the only American to see Che alive, and the only one to speak with him before his death. In these interviews the CIA contract officer says little about what he and Che discussed, but a fuller account of that conversation was reported by Director Helms in Document 27. This release of the Rodriguez statement goes further than previous versions of the document in revealing the name of CIA colleague Villoldo, and mentioning the Deputy Chief of Station in La Paz.

[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).