From the Hunt to the Auction of Che

By Hernando Calvo Ospina on October 8, 2022

In March 1967, some twenty men of the U.S. counterinsurgency special forces were installed in Bolivia, some of them transferred from South Vietnam. They were part of the Mobile Training Teams. They would be in charge of organizing and training a battalion of jungle “hunters”, an elite corps also known as “Rangers”.

Che, photo: I. Ozerskij

They were led by Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, a veteran of the Korean War and of clandestine special operations in Laos and Vietnam. Shelton decided that a good part of the recruits should come from the Quechua Indians. According to this military man, knowledge of the terrain, language and idiosyncrasy would facilitate the relationship and collaboration with the rural population. In addition, Shelton maintained that the Quechua were more resistant than the Aymara Indians to the rigors of the jungle (1).

Parallel to Shelton’s group, Félix Rodríguez Mendigutía and Gustavo Villoldo Sampera, of Cuban origin, both of whom worked for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, arrived. They were joined by Howard Hunt, one of the CIA’s key men in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in June 1954. During the “Cuba Project”, which prepared the failed invasion of Cuba through Playa Giron, April 1961, Hunt was responsible for organizing the “Cuban Provisional Government”. There was also Antonio Veciana Blanch, of Cuban origin, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz as an official of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an institution dependent on the State Department, and right-hand man of the CIA’s actions abroad. Veciana had been one of the main contacts between the CIA and the “Cosa Nostra” mafia, when President John F. Kennedy authorized this “relationship” with the aim of assassinating Fidel and Raúl Castro, as well as Che Guevara. (2)

Both were in Bolivia to pursue, capture or kill Che Guevara. The CIA had not been able to fulfill the objective in the Congo. On April 24, 1965 Che had arrived in Tanzania with a small group of Cubans. From there he went to the Congo, making contact with the rebels fighting the dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who had the military support of Americans and Europeans. Che went to the Congo because the leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila had asked the Cuban leadership for advice on guerrilla techniques. The revolutionary and his men withdrew from the Congo in November, in agreement with the rebels.

Che had arrived in the Andean country in November 1966 with a Uruguayan passport and under the name of Adolfo Mena González. A few days later he would join the incipient guerrilla movement. The intention was to consolidate a rebel movement that would initiate the expansion of the liberation processes throughout South America.

Almost a year before, on October 3, 1965, in the act of constitution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, Fidel Castro had read the emotional farewell letter that Che had written to him, in which he resigned from all his official positions entrusted to him by the nascent Revolution. “Other lands of the world demand the assistance of my modest efforts. I can do what is denied to you because of your responsibility at the head of Cuba and the time has come to separate us. Know that I do it with a mixture of joy and pain, here I leave the purest of my hopes as a builder and the most beloved among my loved ones […] In the new battlefields I will carry the faith you instilled in me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties; to fight against imperialism wherever it may be; this comforts and heals more than any tear. I say once again that I release Cuba from any responsibility, except that which emanates from its example […]”.

The order to send this team to “hunt” Che had been given after the CIA had obtained the photos taken from a U-2 spy plane. This “invisible bird” had made its first flights in 1956. Its existence jumped to the front pages of the world press on May 1, 1960, when the Soviets shot down an example over their territory, causing great tension between the two nations. Two years later, on October 14, it would be one of these ships that would take the photos over Cuba that would trigger the so-called Missile Crisis. The U-2 enjoyed great prestige for its ability to take photographs of the terrain, even when flying at an altitude of 20 kilometers. Its cameras were equipped with an infrared detection system, which printed the lowest thermal radiation on an ultra-sensitive film.

This aircraft was not the only means used by the U.S. special team to accurately locate Che’s guerrilla column. If the information obtained from some defectors and captured -who denounced voluntarily or under torture- was important, the surveillance of other airplanes was also important. During the day, aircraft rented by the CIA, camouflaged among those of the oil and gas companies, watched the entire southern part of Bolivia: from Santa Cruz, to the border with Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. (3)

When it was certain that the one who commanded the guerrilla column was Che, another section of the CIA contributed to the field operatives: the Psychiatric Personality Study (PPS) of the revolutionary leader. As the CIA does with every person it puts under its magnifying glass in the world, the contents of Che’s PPS included the investigations of psychologists, psychiatrists, journalists, etc., on his alleged personality and behavior since childhood, including possible illnesses and even sexual “tastes”.

The strategic importance of capturing or assassinating Che was demonstrated on April 9, 1967. On that day, as on few other occasions, high-ranking civilian and military officials working on Latin America gathered at the White House to discuss the steps to be taken. Present for the Pentagon were the Army Chief of Staff General and the commander of the Southern Command, accompanied by their chiefs of engagement and investigative troops. From the White House and the State Department, the Assistant Secretary of State for Regional Affairs, an advisor to the National Security Council, and several advisors were present. The meeting was led by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Richard Helms, head of the CIA.

The axis of the combat zone was located near the Ñancahuazu River. Rodríguez Mendigutía and Villoldo Sampera led the Bolivian troops. Wounded in combat, Che was captured on October 8, 1967, and killed the following day inside the humble school of La Higuera, in a state of total defenselessness.

Years later, Rodríguez Mendigutía boasted of having been the last American and the last Cuban to see Che alive. It was he who transmitted to a Bolivian sergeant the order from Washington to shoot the guerrilla fighter. In his current house, a real bunker located in the Miami area, he has his personal “museum” where he exhibits the steel Rolex watch and the pipe he stole from Che. Some details of the actions he carried out during this operation were described in a report to the CIA, declassified in 1993. (4)

Complying with Washington’s design, Gustavo Villoldo Sampera was in charge of the secret burial of Che, with the intention of “preventing Havana from venerating his remains as a monument to the Revolution”. (5)

What he could not avoid, on the contrary: Che became one of the greatest symbols of the revolutionary struggle for freedom in the history of mankind.

Nor could it prevent Che from returning to Cuba. On June 28, 1997, a group of Cuban and Argentine experts had discovered a mass grave in Vallegrande, Bolivia, which contained his remains and those of 6 other guerrillas. On July 12, they were transferred to Cuba, and received by their relatives and all the people of Cuba, in a simple but immense ceremony. Today they rest in the mausoleum of the Ernesto Che Guevara Square in Santa Clara.

In 2007 a Texas bookstore hosted an auction held by Villoldo Sampera. On offer were Che’s fingerprints and a lock of hair he cut from the corpse, as well as maps of the detection and capture mission. He hoped to obtain half a million dollars. Although the great world press echoed this, he had to sell his “trophies” to a single bidder for $100,000. Many shied away because they felt that owning them would bring them bad luck.


(1) Gillet, Jean-Pierre. Les bérets verts. Les commandos de la CIA. Albin Michel. Paris, 1981.

(2) Report of the Special Committee chaired by Senator Frank Church: “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders.” An Interim report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities United States Senate Together UIT Additional, Supplemental, and Separate Views. November, 1975. U.S. Government printing office 61-985. Washington, 1975.

(3) Jean-Pierre Gillet. Ob.cit.

(4) nsarchiv/NSAEBB…

(5) El Nuevo Herald, “Villoldo : Yo enterré al Che” Miami, September 21, 1997.

Source: Cuba en Resumen