DC, October 25, 2007 - As a lock of Che Guevara's hair along with photos, captured documents, intelligence intercepts, and original fingerprints relating to the capture, execution and secret burial of the Argentine-born revolutionary sold at auction for $100,000, the National Security Archive posted declassified U.S. documents relating to his death 40 years ago this month. (Censored versions of some of the documents were first posted on the 30th anniversary of Guevara's execution, which took place on October 9, 1967 in Bolivia.)
The macabre collection of memorabilia purchased yesterday by a lone bidder was compiled by a Cuban exile CIA operative named Gustavo Villoldo, who was tasked to help capture Guevara and, after his execution by the Bolivian military, secretly bury him in the middle of the night. Before Guevara's hands were cut off, Villoldo helped fingerprint his corpse, and a "death mask"--a plaster cast of his face--was made as proof that the real Che had been captured and killed. The covert operative also clipped a portion of Che's beard as a memento of the CIA's triumph over Latin America's most famous revolutionary.
"This collection of memorabilia records one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of revolution and counterrevolution during the Cold War," said Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Archive's Cuba Documentation Project. "The documents and photos are of high value to current and future students of Latin America and U.S. policy toward the region."
The documents posted today by the Archive include secret memos to President Lyndon Johnson on Che's capture and death and a declassified debriefing with another CIA operative, Félix Rodríguez, who was present when Che was executed.
The government of Venezuela had reportedly expressed interest in bidding on the collection, but the hair and original documents and photos were purchased by a Houston boosktore owner, Bill Butler. Kornbluh said he hoped the new owner would make the documents and scrapbook available for public study or donate them to a museum.
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CIA Debriefing of Félix Rodríguez [aka Benton Mizones], June 3, 1975
When Che Guevara was executed in La Higuera, one CIA operative was present--a Cuban-American operative named Félix Rodríguez. Rodríguez, who used the codename "Félix Ramos" in Bolivia and posed as a Bolivian military officer, was secretly debriefed on his role by the CIA's office of the Inspector General in June, 1975. (At the time, he was identified as Benton H. Mizones; the name of the second operative, Gustavo Villoldo, is deleted in the document in the spaces marked [ 06 ].) Rodríguez recounts the details of his mission to Bolivia, where the CIA sent him and Villoldo to assist in the capture of Guevara and destruction of his guerrilla band. Rodríguez and Villoldo became part of a CIA task force in Bolivia that included the case officer for the operation, "Jim", another Cuban American, Mario Osiris Riveron, and two agents in charge of communications in Santa Clara. Rodríguez emerged as the most important member of the group; after a lengthy interrogation of one captured guerrilla, he was instrumental in focusing the efforts of the 2nd Ranger Battalion on the Vallegrande region, where he believed Guevara's rebels were operating. Although he apparently was under CIA instructions to "do everything possible to keep him alive," Rodríguez claims to have transmitted the order to execute Guevara from the Bolivian High Command to the soldiers at La Higueras--he also directed them not to shoot Guevara in the face so that his wounds would appear to be combat-related--and personally informed Che that he would be killed. After the execution, Rodríguez took Che's Rolex watch. He accompanied Guevara’s body back to Vallegrande, where Villoldo “took charge of the remains.”
State Department Cable, Official Confirmation of Death of Che Guevara, October 18, 1967
Ten days after his capture, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Douglas Henderson transmitted confirmation of Guevara's death to Washington. The evidence included autopsy reports and fingerprint analysis conducted by Argentine police officials on Che's amputated hands. (Che's hands were cut off to provide proof that he was actually dead; under the supervision of CIA agent Gustavo Villoldo, his body was then secretly buried at a desolate airstrip at Vallegrande, where it was discovered only in June 1997.) The various death documents, notes Ambassador Henderson, leave "unsaid the time of death"--"an attempt to bridge the difference between a series of earlier divergent statements from Armed Forces sources, ranging from assertions that he died during or shortly after battle to those suggesting he survived at least twenty-four hours."
White House Memorandum, October 14, 1967
In a final update, Walt Rostow informs Lyndon Johnson that the CIA has intercepted messages between Havana and Che from earlier in 1967 regarding the intent of the Bolivian operation to create a “continental movement.” CIA intelligence, originally redacted from the document but released in 2003, noted attempts by then Chilean Senator Salvador Allende to recover Guevara’s remains and the efforts by the Bolivian military to cover up his execution.
White House Memorandum, October 11, 1967
In another update for President Johnson, Walt Rostow reports to President Johnson that "we are 99% sure that 'Che' Guevara is dead." Rostow believes the decision to execute Guevara "is stupid," but he also points out that his death "shows the soundness of our 'preventive medicine' assistance to countries facing incipient insurgency--it was the Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion, trained by our Green Berets from June-September of this year, that cornered him and got him."
CIA, Intelligence Information Cable, October 9, 1967
The CIA sends its first intelligence report on the capture of Che Guevara. The cable states that the Bolivian army is dispatching an interrogator to confirm Che’s identity. The CIA also dispatched its own operative, Félix Rodríguez, who interrogated Guevara, gathered intelligence on his operation, and took photos of his documents and supervised his execution.
White House Memorandum, October 9, 1967
Walt Rostow reports in this memorandum to President Johnson that unconfirmed information suggests that the Bolivian battalion--"the one we have been training"--"got Che Guevara."
White House Memorandum, June 23, 1967
In a secret-sensitive memo to President Johnson, his aide Walt Rostow passes on the first evidence that Che Guevara may be leading a small band of insurgents in Bolivia. The memo outlines the rapid U.S. military assistance to Bolivia and notes CIA is "following developments closely." It is around this time that Gustavo Villoldo and Félix Rodríguez are sent to Bolivia to assist the training of a special battalion, and to track the rebel forces.