Former CIA operative Felix Rodriguez, who participated in the historic manhunt to capture Ernesto "Che" Guevara, says the Marxist revolutionary was little more than a criminal and devoted killer who deserves to be demystified.
"I believe that eventually people will see what he really was. He was an assassin," said Rodriguez, who spoke to Newsmax about Guevara in advance of the 46th anniversary of his death on Oct. 9, 1967, at age 39. "He was an individual with very little regard for life. He enjoyed killing people."
In the interview with Newsmax, Rodriguez gives a detailed first-hand account of the capture and execution of the man whose image is still being appropriated as a counterculture fashion statement.
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Rodriguez, a Cuban-American Vietnam veteran who fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion, was recruited to train and lead a team to track down Guevara, who had been instrumental in Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution.
Rodriguez said he talked to the military official who trained Guevara, who told him of Che's fascination with violence.
"We have history from the man who trained him, who is a Cuban, who was the one who trained him in Mexico," said Rodriguez. "He was the one who trained Fidel and all of his people."
Rodriguez said the trainer told him that "Che was fascinated" with killing and recounted how Guevara asked him, "What does it feel like when you personally shoot somebody and you see the blood coming out?"
Guevara was in Bolivia trying to overthrow the government there — probably to spark a similar revolution as Castro's in Cuba — when Rodriguez began to track him down. An informant advised the Bolivian Special Forces of the location of Guevara's guerrilla encampment in the Yuro Ravine.
"We were able to capture a guerrilla," Rodriguez said. "I interrogated him extensively. He gave us the way that Che would move in the area."
In late September 1967, a unit commanded by Lt. Eduardo Galindo was able to kill three guerrillas from Che's vanguard.
"So we knew at that time that Che was definitely in the area. With this information I went to Col. Zenteno Anaya, the head of the ACE division headquarters, and asked him to move the battalion to operation, even though it only still had two weeks of training," Rodriguez said.
On Oct. 7, one of the battalion's companies commanded by Gary Prado received intelligence "from a farmer that there were voices at this place called Quebrada del Yuro — nobody was supposed to be there," said Rodriguez. "So that evening Gary Prado surrounded the Quebrada del Yuro with less than 200 men."
Rodriguez said, "On [Oct. 8], which happened to be on a Sunday, that's when the firefight started and Che was ... wounded on the right leg."
First wounded, then captured, Guevara was intent on saving his own life.
"The soldier who captured him told me that when [Guevara] came face-to-face with the army, he told them, 'Don't shoot, I am Che. I am worth to you more alive than dead,'" Rodriguez said.
Guevara was taken into custody and delivered to Prado, and he was housed as a prisoner in an old schoolhouse. Rodriguez celebrated with Col. Zenteno in Vallegrande and asked if he could accompany the colonel to see Guevara. The next day they helicoptered in and landed at Higueras, where Guevara was being held.
"I had a lot of mixed feelings … When I saw him for the first time, I felt sorry for him," Rodriguez recalled. "He looks like a beggar. He's a man who didn't even have a uniform, he didn't have any pair of boots, he had some pair of leather tied down to his foot. He was very filthy and he really looked like a beggar and it was a tremendous shock, remembering that the image when he visited [the] Soviet Union and China … [then] to see this man the way he looked at this point in time."
During the interrogation, Zenteno did all the talking to Guevara. Rodriquez said he did not utter a word. Guevara, however, wouldn't answer Zenteno's questions.
When Rodriguez later went back, Guevara had been tied up and was on the floor with the bodies of two dead Cubans in front of him.
"So I stood in front of him and say, 'Che Guevara, I come to talk to you,'" Rodriguez recounted.
"He looked at me kind of arrogant and said, 'Nobody talks to me, nobody interrogates me.' And then I said, 'Well, I didn't come here to just interrogate you. I admire you, you used to be head of a state in Cuba and you are like this because you believe in your ideals even though I know they are mistaken. I just came here to talk to you."
"So he looked to me for a while to see if I would laugh. When he saw that I was serious he said, 'Can you untie me? Can I sit?' So I asked a soldier outside — I have to give the order three times — to untie Commander Guevara."
"So the soldier came in, they finally untied him, we sat him on a little bench and we start talking," Rodriguez continued. "Whenever I asked him tactical questions of interest to all, he said, 'I cannot answer that.'"
At one point, Rodriguez said, he finally got Guevara talking after chiding him about an ill-fated revolutionary action in Africa.
"You don't want to talk about Africa but we were told by your own people you had like 10,000 guerrillas and they were very poor soldiers," Rodriguez said he told Guevara. "So he said, 'Well, if I had 10,000 guerrillas it would have been a big difference, but you're right, they were very poor soldiers.' And we talked about the Cuban economy, about the different situations."
When he asked why Guevara selected Bolivia, Rodriguez said Che told him, "One, it was far away from the United States. Second, it was a very poor country so he didn't feel that the United States would have that much interest in Bolivia, and third and most important to him, it had a boundary with five different countries."
Rodriguez said Guevara told him that if he had been able to take over Bolivia, it would have been easier for the revolution to spread to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru —– "all of those countries next to Bolivia."
As an operative working for the CIA, Rodriguez's orders were to keep Che Guevara alive — even as the Bolivians were in command and Rodriguez was acting only as an adviser.
The Bolivians, however, were not keen on letting Guevara live.
"After he was captured, I asked Col. Zenteno to try to keep him alive. While I was talking to him on and off, and Zenteno was off in the operational area, there came a phone call and the phone call included the fateful code numbers 500 and 600."
Rodriguez explained the significance of the cryptic code.
"It was a very simple code that we had created: 500 was Che Guevara, 600 kill him, and 700 to keep him alive. So the order came from the [Bolivian] president and the commander in chief of the armed forces of 500, 600," Rodriguez said. "So when Zenteno came down the hill before he left I called him inside and I said 'Mi colonel, there's order from the high command to eliminate a prisoner."
Rodriguez said that Zenteno "looked at his watch and said, 'You have until 2 o'clock in the afternoon to interrogate him. Our helicopters went to camp several times, bringing food and ammunition, taking our wounded and our dead. I want your word of honor that at 2 o'clock in the afternoon you will bring me back the dead body of Che, and you can kill him any way that you want, because we know how much harm he has done to your country.'"
A helicopter pilot arrived with a camera and said the intelligence chief wanted a photo of Guevara as a prisoner. As other photos were later taken, a Bolivian woman approached the schoolhouse where Guevara was held and asked what was happening.
"She said, 'We saw you being photographed with him out there and look, the radio's already given the news that he died from combat wounds,'" Rodriguez recalled. "So at that point in time I thought there was no counter-order for sure, so I came into the room, I stood right in front of him, and said, 'Commander, I'm sorry, I tried my best.'"
Che Guevara would not be kept alive.
"He perfectly understood what I was saying. He turned white like a piece of paper. He said, 'It's better this way; I should have never been captured alive.' And he pulled a pipe from his back and said, 'I'd like to give this pipe to a soldadito, a soldier that treated me well.' And at that point in time, Sgt. Mario Teran, who was the one who was doing the execution in the area, had burst into the room."
Rodriguez said when he asked if Guevara wanted to send a message to his family, the revolutionary responded in a sarcastic way, saying, "Well, if you can, tell Fidel he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America."
Rodriguez said, "Then he changed his expression, saying, 'If you can, tell my wife to remarry and try to be happy.' That was his last words. He approached me, we shook hands, and we embraced. And he stood back in attention, thinking I was going to be the one to shoot him."
Rodriguez left the room. About 20 minutes later, he heard a short burst.
"Sgt. Teran borrowed an M-2 carbine … I understand that he walked into the room and at that point he shot him."
Guevara was finally dead. A priest would arrive to give him the Catholic benediction. Rodriguez took some photos of the body and pondered what had just happened.
"I thought to myself, this guy who was an atheist, who didn't believe in God, nevertheless got the last ritual from the Catholic Church."
Rodriguez took off with the military officials and they landed with Guevara's body at Vallegrande — with 2,000 people waiting and a massive military contingent.
"There were 15 different aircraft from the different presses, four military planes from different military people, so I just put my head down as soon as the helicopter landed and just ran into the crowd so I would not be photographed," Rodriguez said of his operative status.
Rodriguez described a gruesome meeting the day after Guevara died.
"We have a meeting with Gen. Ovando Candia, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. At that meeting he looked at one of the colonels and said, 'Look, if Fidel denies this is Che Guevara, we need tangible proof of it. Cut his head [off] and put it in formaldehyde.'"
"I said, 'mi general
, you cannot do that.' He said 'why not?' Supposedly Fidel Castro denied this is Che Guevara," Rodriguez recounted.
"You cannot show the head of a human being," Rodriguez told the commander. "If you want tangible proof of it, we have his fingerprints from the Argentine federal police and they can be checked. Cut one finger' … He ordered the colonel to cut both hands."
After the grisly scene, Rodriguez left. The military dug a hole at the end of the runway for an inauspicious burial for Guevara, who was laid to rest with two other bodies.
Rodriguez is uncertain about whether Guevara's death happened the right way. Instead of a trial, his shooting made him a martyr for many. Even to this day, the counterculture image of Che has been immortalized by college students on T-shirts and other items.
But, he adds, it was not his role to say how it should have been handled.
"I felt that I was there to advise, not to command. It was a decision of the Bolivian government. If I had taken that decision and saved him, it would probably be one that I would really regret for the rest of my life. I decided to let history run its course."
Guevara's death was one that would ultimately shape the course of events for South and Central America, Rodriguez said, noting the odd legacy that has risen up around him in popular culture legend.
"The Cuban government, who actually sent him to be killed there, used his image to create this image of the guy who was helping the poor people. His image is seen in a lot of places today, even though a lot of these young kids who would use his face in a T-shirt don't even know who he is," Rodriguez said.
"I recall, for example, in Paris … this young Frenchman … had a T-shirt with Che Guevara's figure on it and he was 20 years old. And the guy looked at it and said, 'He's a rock singer.' So it means that a lot of people see this in the store, they buy it, and they have no idea."
Rodriguez said: "This guy was really a criminal. It's a matter of record that you can check that he said many times that if he had the atomic bomb he would have thrown it over New York. To implement socialism in the United States was worth it, the life of millions of American innocent people."
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