The Miami Herald
Thu, Mar. 22, 2007

On the trail of Che Guevara


On an October night outside the Bolivian city of Vallegrande, Gustavo Villoldo says he secretly buried the body of iconic revolutionary leader Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara along with two fellow rebels. The year was 1967.

That night, he says he snipped a lock of Che's hair and scribbled down the exact geographical coordinates before dropping the bodies into a common grave.

Now, Villoldo -- a Miami Cuban exile hired 40 years ago through the CIA to hunt down Che -- has come forward for the first time with his evidence to claim that Che's remains may still be in Bolivian soil and not in a Cuban mausoleum, his official grave site -- as Fidel Castro claims.

''In the hair, I'm sure there is a sample of Che's DNA, and I'm willing to have it tested and compared against the remains in his tomb in Cuba,'' he said.

To prove it, Villoldo would need the cooperation of Che's relatives to compare DNA and that of the Cuban and Bolivian governments to examine Che's supposed remains.

That's unlikely, but Villoldo's claim is sure to add more intrigue to the long-running international debate over one of the Cuban Revolution's most recognizable faces. It's a debate that began in 1995 when the Cuban government, amid much fanfare, announced it had located Che's bones and returned them to Cuba in 1997.

For the retired 71-year-old South Miami-Dade farmer, it means closing his personal circle with Che, who he calls a ''cold-blooded killer'' for ordering the execution of hundreds of Cubans before firing squads and the man, along with Castro, partly responsible for the suicide of Villoldo's father.

''I don't understand these kids who think Che's someone to be admired. The man was a monster,'' he said.

He contends that hundreds of thousands who make pilgrimages yearly to Che's tomb in Santa Clara are being hoodwinked by the Cuban government.

Villoldo said he's one of only four men who were present when Che's body was buried and is positive that he is the only one who knows the grave site's coordinates -- and can settle the matter once and for all.

''If I was in Che's place, I would want my kids to know where I was buried,'' said Villoldo, who has eight children and 17 grandchildren.

Unclassified CIA documents and Che biographies confirm Villoldo's involvement in the case. He first spoke of his role in Che's burial and his skepticism of Cuba's claim to the The Miami Herald in 1997, but did not reveal the strands of hair -- turned blondish by exposure to the elements -- that he has kept wrapped in a piece of yellow paper. Neither did Villoldo disclose it in his 1999 self-published book, Che Guevara: The End of a Myth.

Besides the hair sample, he keeps a scrapbook of the mission, which holds photographs, the map used to track Che and his guerrillas, mission orders and Che's fingerprints.

Villoldo says he's not coming forward for money but wants the truth known about Che's remains.

Cuban officials have not commented, but Bolivian government officials and Argentine scientists who took part in the dig have been on the defensive -- again.

''I don't have the slightest doubt that the skeleton we found was that of Che,'' Alejandro Inchaurregui, one of two forensic anthropologists who discovered the bones, said this month in Argentina.

But he said no DNA testing was done. And that they relied on the memories and diaries of two retired Bolivian generals to help locate the bodies. A jacket, believed to be Che's, with tobacco tucked in a secret pocket was a strong indicator.

Villoldo counters that those military men took part in Che's capture, but were not present the night he sneaked Che's body out La Nuestra Señora de Malta Hospital's improvised morgue in Vallegrande, where the media gathered.

He thinks the Cuban-led anthropological team stumbled onto another unmarked grave of executed guerrillas. Another inconsistency: the Cuban dig team said it found Che along with six other men.

''We buried three men that night -- Che and two of his fellow rebels,'' Villoldo said. ``Thirty years later, they start digging and find seven men buried? Dead bodies don't reproduce, they don't multiply.''

Others, too, have raised questions. Last month, an investigation by Letras Libres, a Spanish-Mexican magazine, published a story headlined Operation Che -- History of a State Lie. It alleges the discovery of Che's remains was a propaganda stunt by Castro to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Che's death.

Long before he was hired by the Bolivian government to track down Che, Villoldo and Che shared an unpleasant past.

The two first met in Cuba only days after Castro took power in 1959. Che, named head of the the Banco Nacional, began dismantling all traces of capitalism.

A main target: a General Motors distributorship owned by Villoldo's father, also named Gustavo. Che told Villoldo that his father's company would be seized. The family was ruined.

''Che believed rich people were all bandits,'' Villoldo said.

Three weeks later, his heartbroken father swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. Villoldo later fled the island, headed for Miami and quickly joined Brigade 2506, taking part in the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. He became an officer in the U.S. Army by direct commission of President John F. Kennedy and later was recruited to work with the agency.

In 1965, Villoldo received a call from his CIA handler, asking if he would be interested in a special mission to hunt down Che in the Congo, where the Argentine Marxist rebel was trying to spark more revolutions. He jumped at the chance.

Villoldo first traveled to Africa, but Che slipped away and vanished. In late 1966, it was learned Che had resurfaced in the Bolivian jungles, still trying to spark an insurrection.

Villoldo was tapped to head the operation, along with three other Cuban exiles. Leading them through the jungle were Bolivian army rangers trained by U.S. Army Green Berets.

On Oct. 8, 1967, during a brief gun battle, Che was wounded in the leg and captured; many of his 50 men were killed. He was interrogated in a schoolhouse in a mountainous hamlet called La Higuera.

Villoldo heard the news as he arrived at mission headquarters in Vallegrande. Everyone, including Che, tensely waited for orders from Bolivian President Rene Barrientos about the famous rebel's fate: life or death?

''Che came barking at the wrong tree when he invaded my country,'' said Rene Barrientos, a Miami Dade College professor and son of the Bolivian president who ordered Che's execution.

''He didn't realize my father was popular with the peasants, who just ignored Che,'' Barrientos said.

Félix Ismael Rodriguez, another Cuban exile working under Villoldo, was with Che during his final hours. Rodriguez told The Miami Herald last year that Che figured the end was near for him when he heard firing squad gunshots.

''Are they going to kill me, too?'' Che asked.

After Che was executed, his body was flown to a local hospital, where Villoldo, the only U.S. advisor on site, and some high-ranking military personnel had to decide what to do next.

Film footage from the day shows photographers, reporters and townspeople freely milling around Che's shirtless bullet-poked body. Among those who came to see the body was President Barrientos, who had mixed feelings about Che's execution, says his son.

''I don't think my father wanted to kill Che for humanitarian reasons, but it was something that was decided by my country's high command and he went along with it,'' Barrientos said.

Disposing of Che's body, and keeping Cuba from recovering it, became Villoldo's problem. A plan was hatched with Bolivian officials to secretly bury him in an airstrip under construction. Equipped with a pickup truck and a front-end loader, Villoldo was accompanied by three Bolivians.

Just after 2 a.m. Oct. 11, 1967, the bodies of Che, 39, and two of his fellow rebels, ''Chino'' Chang and ''Cuba,'' were taken from the morgue, loaded into the back of the pickup truck, covered with a tarp and driven to the airport, according to Villoldo. The three bodies were dropped into a waiting trench. The loader went to work covering their bodies. Villoldo wrote down the coordinates.

He already had a lock of Che's hair in his pocket.

''I cut Che's hair to chip away at the symbol of the Cuban Revolution -- which was the long hair and the beard,'' Villoldo said.

Villoldo knows his story may spark anger from Che lovers and haters alike. But he wants Che's family to know where their loved one is buried.

''I will give them the coordinates, but only to them, not Castro,'' he said. ``It's only right, I think.''