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.”
The White House memo also confirmed that the Bolivian government was covering up its role in Che’s execution by claiming his body had been cremated and could not be repatriated to his homeland of Argentina, or to Cuba. Che’s brother, Roberto, had traveled to Bolivia to ask that his corpse be turned over to the family; the socialist senator from Chile Salvador Allende had formally requested that the body be turned over to Chile, which Washington interpreted as an effort by Fidel Castro to recover Che’s remains. “The Bolivians do not want an independent autopsy to show that they executed ‘Che’ and they are intent on not permitting the remains to be exploited by the communist movement,” President Johnson was informed.