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The Counterinsurgency Decade

Historian Herbert S. Klein notes that a counterinsurgency policy to combat "internal subversion" became a major theme of United States training for the Bolivian army. In 1963 Argentine-trained Bolivian officers established the Center of Instruction for Special Troops (Centro de Instrucción para Tropas Especiales-- CITE) under the Seventh Division in Cochabamba. In addition, by the end of 1963 Bolivia had more graduates from the United States Army Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, than any other Latin American country. A total of 659 Bolivian officers received training at the School of the Americas in 1962- 63, and 20 of the 23 senior Bolivian officers attended or visited the school during 1963-64. United States military aid increased from US$100,000 in 1958 to US$3.2 million in 1964. This aid, which included weapons and training outside Bolivia, enabled Paz Estenssoro to strengthen the army more extensively than MNR leaders originally had intended. According to Klein, Paz Estenssoro constantly justified rearming the military to the United States "as a means of preventing communist subversion."

In early 1966 there were intelligence reports that Che Guevara was in South America, but US analysts found little supporting evidence. A March 4, 1966, memorandum concerning rumors of Guevara’s presence in Colombia, noted that "penetrations of insurgent groups had revealed no indication of Guevara’s presence in any of these groups." (Central Intelligence Agency, DDO/IMS, Operational Group, Job 78-5505, Area Activity-Cuba) Further analysis by the Agency identified seven conflicting rumors of Guevara’s whereabouts. A March 23, 1966, memorandum prepared in the Western Hemisphere Division noted that Guevara’s usefulness had been reduced to his ability as a guerrilla, and that "with his myth he is ten feet tall; without it, he is a mortal of normal stature." Under the circumstances, the Agency concluded: ". . . it is not believed justifiable to divert considerable amounts of time, money and manpower to an effort to locate Guevara. It is considered far more important to use these assets to penetrate and monitor Communist subversive efforts wherever they may occur, since Guevara’s presence in an area will not affect greatly the outcome of any given insurgent effort."

In March 1967, Bolivia became a prime target of Cuban-supported subversion when Ernesto "Che" Guevara and his tiny National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN) launched a guerrilla campaign. According to information provided to the CIA, Che Guevara stated that the ultimate purpose of the insurgency in Bolivia was to "create a Viet Nam out of South America." The insurgency in Bolivia, organized and supported by Cuba, raised the possibility that the insurgents may eventually provide a rallying point for many disaffected elements which hitherto had been unable to coalesce. The threat posed was more a function of the inherent fragility of Bolivia’s political, economic, and social structure than of the insurgents’ own strength and capabilities. There was little chance that the insurgents would be able to bring about the overthrow of the Barrientos regime, but it was also unlikely that the regime would be able to stamp out the insurgency.

A prolongation and expansion of the insurgency would impose severe financial and psychological strains on Bolivia, greatly hindering the economic development and social amelioration that were essential to the achievement of stability in that country. Defense costs for a protracted guerrilla war would add heavily to the already serious deficit in the national budget, would further limit public investment, and would threaten the government’s stabilization program. In these circumstances, Barrientos would become increasingly dependent on US aid. Although eager to obtain technical and material military aid, he would be extremely reluctant to sanction a military intervention in force by the already concerned neighboring states or by the OAS.

On March 16, 1967, the US Embassy in La Paz reported that President Barrientos had personally informed Ambassador Henderson that two guerrilla suspects had been detained by Bolivian authorities and, upon interrogation, had admitted association with a group of 30 to 40 guerrillas "led by Castroite Cubans" and other foreigners. The suspects reportedly mentioned that Che Guevara was leader of the guerrilla group, but they had not seen him. Barrientos urgently requested US communications equipment to enable the Bolivian Government to locate reported guerrilla radio transmitters. Henderson made no commitments beyond a promise to look into what the United States could do.

The young French communist Jules Regis Debray was closely associated with Fidel Castro and suspected of serving as a Cuban courier. Revolution in the Revolution, his digest of several long conversations with Fidel, had already been serialised on Radio-Habana. Debray was strongly suspected of being on a courier mission when he was caught in guerrilla territory in Bolivia in April 1967 after having entered the country clandestinely.

The performance of the government units revealed a serious lack of command coordination, officer leadership and troop training and discipline. Despite its increased United States training, Bolivia's army still consisted mostly of untrained Indian conscripts and had fewer than 2,000 troops ready for combat. Therefore, while the army kept the 40-man guerrilla group contained in a southwestern area of the country, an 800-man Ranger force began training in counterinsurgency methods. With counterinsurgency instructors from the United States Southern Command (Southcom) headquarters in Panama, the army established a Ranger School in Santa Cruz Department. Although original estimates were that the battalion would not be combat ready until approximately December 1967, by July 1967 it was believed that this date could be advanced to mid-September 1967.

The Bolivian Ranger battalion tracked down the guerrillas in October 1967. The published accounts concerning the death of Ernesto "Che" Guevara were based in essence on the Bolivian Army press conference on 10 October, attributing Guevara’s death to battle wounds sustained in the clash between the Army and the guerrillas on 8 October 1967./2/ Guevara was said to be in a coma when captured and to have died shortly thereafter, the heat of battle having prevented early or effective treatment by Bolivian soldiers.

In fact, Guevara was captured on 8 October as a result of the clash with the Cuban-led guerrillas. He had a wound in his leg, but was otherwise in fair condition. He was questioned but refused to give any information. Guevara refused to be interrogated but permitted himself to be drawn into a conversation. He said that with his capture, the guerrilla movement had suffered an overwhelming setback in Bolivia, but he predicted a resurgence in the future. He insisted that his ideals would win in the end even though he was disappointed at the lack of response from the Bolivian campesinos. The guerrilla movement had failed partially because of Bolivian Government propaganda which claimed that the guerrillas represented a foreign invasion of Bolivian soil. In spite of the lack of popular response from the Bolivian campesinos, he had not planned an exfiltration route from Bolivia in case of failure. He had definitely decided to either fall or win in this effort.

At 1150 hours on 9 October the Second Ranger Battalion received direct orders from Bolivian Army Headquarters in La Paz to kill Guevara. These orders were carried out at 1315 hours the same day with a burst of fire from an M-2 automatic rifle. Guevara’s last words were, "Tell my wife to remarry and tell Fidel Castro that the Revolution will again rise in the Americas." To his executioner he said, "Remember, you are killing a man." At no time during the period he was under observation did Guevara lose his composure. Guevara's capture and summary execution on ended the ill-fated, Cuban-sponsored insurgency.

The death of "Che" and Debray’s dramatic public reversal of plea from innocent to guilty in the court case represents a serious blow to Castro. Both his leading guerrilla fighter and guerrilla theoretician have fallen in Bolivia. Cuban officials accepted the fact that "Che" is dead and may be trying to recover the body. The communist-leaning President of the Chilean Senate, Salvador Allende, has sent a message to President Barrientos asking for the remains. This request, and one by the family- "Che’s" brother went to Bolivia to claim the body-probably led Barrientos to make the announcement that "Che" had been cremated. The Bolivians did not want an independent autopsy to show that they executed "Che" and they were intent on not permitting the remains to be exploited by the communist movement.

Dariel Alarcon Ramirez aka “Benigno” fought alongside Che Guevara in Bolivia during the fateful escapade that led to Che’s death at the hands of US-trained Bolivian soldiers. He later wrote that Fidel Castro deliberately sent Che to his death-mission in Bolivia. Benigno suggests that Fidel, in effect, condemned Che out of concern that Che’s popularity represented a threat to Castro’s own leadership in Cuba. While this accusation does not represent an entirely new theory, Benigno’s insider access, closeness to Che, and long-time relationship to Castro add strength to the argument. The author first began having doubts about Castro’s designs for Che in 1965, when Begnino was fighting alongside Che in the Congo. Following his daring 1967 escape from Bolivia, Benigno claims to have carried a marked, though hidden, anger over Fidel’s betrayal and the loss of Cuban combatants.

The Debray trial became a cause celebre in France. The Bolivians, feeling Debray should pay for his sins, sentenced him to 30 years in jail. Debray’s release was agreed in December 1970, and he was hustled off to Chile.

The army's increased capabilities and its decisive defeat of the legendary Cuban guerrilla leader enhanced its prestige. The fact that Barrientos's vice president, Luis Adolfo Siles Salines, a conservative civilian, had to request permission from the military high command to assume his mandate after Barrientos's death in April 1969 indicated how powerful the army had become as an institution.

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Page last modified: 20-12-2012 17:58:42 ZULU