In the 1960s, Che Guevara was an iconic figure, especially among those who thought that the young revolutionary was hip, chic and achieved almost rock star status. He was young, handsome and very well educated. In fact, Che is now probably more popular in the country responsible for his death, Bolivia, by people who have little understanding of what he truly stood for, than he was then in 1967.
This is a good history lesson for the students of both unconventional warfare as well as those looking for a good counter-insurgency mission lesson. And it shows how quickly a dedicated professional group of Special Operations Forces can turn a group of peasants into a professional, 400-man strong Ranger unit in just a few months.
The Bolivian people rejected his message of revolution and the farmers who saw Che and his band of revolutionaries, turned them into the government. They were hunted down in short order by the recently formed and trained Bolivian 2nd Ranger Battalion.
The Bolivian Rangers were trained by an ODA of Green Berets from the 8th Special Forces Group from Panama. The 16-man A-Team was commanded by Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, who had already conducted several important missions for SF in both Latin America and the Far East.
Shelton came from the enlisted ranks, progressing from private to Sergeant First Class and had fought in Korea before attending Officer Candidate School. Being older at 29, than the other candidates, he earned the nickname Pappy, which stuck. In 1962, Shelton joined the ranks of Special Forces and he had already taken SF A-Teams into Laos to combat the Pathet Lao and in the Dominican Republic in 1965 after the U.S. incursion there.
His team of 16 Spanish speaking Green Berets were sent to Bolivia to train the new Ranger unit that would be going up against the Marxist revolutionaries. The Green Berets with CIA assets in place, aggressively went hunting Che and his band from the moment that they were activated.
One of the SF officers assigned to Bolivia, LT John Waghelstein, later became the commander of the 7th SFG (A), and he recognized what the Bolivian government did to help defeat the message of Che. And he would repeat it later after he took command of the MILGP in El Salvador during the 1980s. ‘You can kill guerrillas and build a wall around this country with bodies of dead guerrillas, but unless you address the root causes of the insurgency, you can’t win. No way,’ he said.
Che grossly miscalculated his ability to foment revolution outside of Cuba. Once the Communists took over, Guevara was put in charge of the infamous “La Cabana”, the 18th-century prison where hundreds of political rivals who were branded “war criminals” were executed. Something the recent followers of Che seem to blot out of their collective conscience.
With the U.S. embroiled in the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, once Che announced that he was going to create 2-3 Vietnams in the United States’ backyard in Latin America, his group immediately went on the radar of the government.
He also got on the radar of the Soviets, at that time under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviets were trying to dissuade Castro from supporting revolutions in Latin America. Guevara publicly stated that the Soviets had “forgotten Marx”, and the iciness between the two would prove to be possibly a death knell for his operation in Bolivia.
Guevara Builds Little Support in Bolivia:
Guevara arrived in La Paz from Uruguay, he trademark beard shaved off and his hair died grey under an assumed name. He and his group of 50 revolutionaries moved to the Ñancahuazú valley in the southeastern part of the country. His second in command was an East German, named Haydée Tamara Bunke Bider, known by her nom de guerre “Tania”. They attracted few guerrillas to join their ranks, and those that did were mostly unreliable.
Worse, the support that Guevara expected from the Bolivian Communist Party, was not coming. They followed the leadership of the Soviets and wouldn’t help Guevara. He characterized the BCP in his diary as “distrustful, disloyal and stupid.” And Guevara’s radio, with which he was supposed to keep in contact with Havana didn’t work. So they could not be resupplied.
In a couple of small skirmishes with the Bolivians, Guevara’s guerrillas were successful in the spring of 1967 but that would soon change. They began deploying larger units to the operational area and they were beginning to turn the tide. One group of guerrillas with Tania was ambushed by Bolivian troops. Tania was killed while crossing a river and when her body washed up several days later, it has been largely eaten by piranhas.
Local Bolivian villagers didn’t care for Guevara and his message didn’t resonate well with them. So rather than flock to his banner of revolution, they informed the Bolivian army whenever they were spotted.
Bolivian Rangers Tighten the Noose:
Meanwhile, the raw peasants that Shelton and the Special Forces men inherited were quickly being turned into Rangers. Their training was completed in mid-September and they were immediately transferred to the operational area.
Shelton, in an interview just prior to his death in 2010, described ”We had a job to do and we did it,” Shelton said. ”The people of Bolivia wanted Guevara gone and asked for help, and we were glad to give it. That man is famous now, but he killed lots of innocent people and we were glad to help put him out of business.”
He set up the Ranger training at a small base that was an abandoned sugar mill in La Esperanza, north of Santa Cruz. He quickly recognized the value of a Bolivian captain, Gary Prado who was assigned to the new Ranger unit and the two became very close and Prado would be given command of one of the Ranger companies.
The Rangers with SF instruction became proficient soldiers in just 19 weeks of training. The had learned to operate at night and had become proficient with their weapons, something the regular Bolivian army was not. Shelton kept in close contact with Felix Rodriguez from the CIA’s Special Activities Division who kept him informed of the guerrillas’ activities about 160 kilometers away.
Once they were ready, the Rangers deployed to the operational area in trucks. And they split up into companies, as they’d been taught and soon their training would pay off.
Che Captured and Executed:
On October 8, 1967, Che’s ragged band had been spotted by a local woman. The troops moved in and soon the two sides were locked into gunfire. Guevara was slightly wounded twice and his weapon was rendered useless. He didn’t hesitate. He threw up his hands and surrendered.
“Do not shoot! I am Che Guevara and I am worth more to you alive than dead.”
Captain Prado took him prisoner and Che was quickly bundled off to a schoolhouse in the nearby village of La Higuera. There, he refused to be interrogated by Bolivian officers but would chat quietly with the soldiers.
The Bolivians were in a quandary. They didn’t want to try Che and then have Cubans or those sympathetic to him try to plan an escape. President Barrientos early the next morning on October 9, ordered that Che be executed and that the soldiers would say that he died in combat during his capture.
The Bolivian soldier who volunteered to kill Che, did so because several of his close friends had been shot in combat with Che’s band of guerrillas earlier that week. He shot Che nine times with an M-2 carbine, in the legs, shoulder, chest, and throat. He was pronounced dead that afternoon and the Bolivian brass posed for pictures with the dead revolutionary.
One myth that has endured was that CIA ordered the assassination. That is false, Rodriguez and CIA wanted Che alive and wished to bring him to Panama to be further interrogated.
The amazing thing is how exactly what the Bolivians didn’t want, came true. Che became a martyr in death and in the very village where he was killed, erected a statue of him. Everywhere in Bolivia are pictures and murals of him including the university in La Paz. The same people that rejected and informed on him, now revere his memory.
The Bolivian Army had an elite Ranger battalion but was distrustful of anyone who could help in overthrow the countless corrupt governments that would ensue. They disbanded the unit not long after. Several years later the Rangers were reformed.
In a testament to the Special Forces men from Panama who trained them, they wear Green Berets with a red flash. Their unit crest is identical to the one the SF wears but in lieu of “De Oppresso Liber”, theirs simply reads “Ranger”.
On a counternarcotics mission training another unit several years later, my partner Dave and I heard that the 7th SFG commander, Hugh Scruggs, and SOCSOUTH Major, later BG Remo Butler were to visit the Ranger Bn. prior to 7th SFG conducting some joint training. We accompanied them to the Bn where their history to Shelton and SF troops from Panama remained strong.
There were numerous pictures on the walls of that time and their unit sign in book that dated back to that time was at the HQs. They asked all four of us to sign in as guests and flipping back to the beginning, Colonel Scruggs showed the rest of us the signatures of the long-before SF troops who helped start the unit. It was a neat moment.
Shelton left Bolivia two days after Che was captured. His mission and Army service were done. He retired soon afterward and settled in Sweetwater, Tennessee. He died on June 29, 2010, and is buried in Athens, TN.
Photos: US Army