Docu-fiction about the death of Che' Guevara
SIMON SAYS: KILL HIM
It's the 8th of October, and I've moored Spindrift, my 45' catamaran, off Virgin Gorda in the Caribbean, waiting for Avery to call. He calls me every year on the anniversary of the day that we executed Che Guevara.
I have no doubt he'll locate me. He's one of the Brahmins in OPS Division now with access to communications gear and intel that God only dreams about. So he'll call. If for no other reason than to remind me to keep my mouth shut. He always thought I was too squeamish for Special Ops, way back in Bolivia in 1967.
****Richard Avery and I were in the safe room of the embassy, playing "Simon Says" with our Chief of Station, Simon Beaumarchais, aka Simon the Magician, when he dropped a bomb on us.
"Che Guevara and his guerillas will rendezvous for a supply drop near the village of La Higuera on October 8th. You two will assist the Bolivian Aguila Brigade in the interdiction and elimination of this force."
Simon said this with the certitude of a fundamentalist preacher announcing the imminent arrival of Armageddon. Avery and I traded looks that expressed the doubt of backsliding converts. After all, we'd been in-country for six months, unsuccessfully trying to track Guevara through Bolivias Gran Chaco. The Chaco is a geographical anomaly, an almost impenetrable "dry jungle" of stunted trees and thorny brush that defies description.
Avery and I went back a ways. We partnered up in Special Forces training at Fort Bragg and deployed to an A Team together in Viet Nam. When the mission changed from training South Vietnamese to open military operations in the mid-Sixties, we'd had plenty of chances to use our training in counter-insurgency.
But living and fighting in a jungle environment over an extended period of time changes some people--their perspective, their personality and even their moral compass. Going "bush" we'd called it. Avery, the blue-blood Yalie, exhibited all the signs when we were assigned an area of operations on the border between Cambodia and Viet Nam known as the Parrots Beak. It was a free-fire zone: anyone remaining in the area was Viet Cong and fair game. And Avery started to relish the killing.
In my opinion, he'd gone out of control, so I quietly went to the C.O. and told him Avery needed a break. The C.O. talked to some folks, and soon we were on temporary assignment to the CIA. We had no idea when we "volunteered" that we'd be chasing Che Guevara in Bolivia.
As freshly sheepdipped spooks, we were ostensibly part of an AID mission as civic affairs advisors to Bolivian peasants. Since it was our first assignment working for the Agency, we were pumped, especially since we were working with the legendary Simon the Magician.
Simon was the reigning expert on counter-insurgency warfare in the Operations Department. He'd directed operations in the Philippines against the Communist Huk guerillas in the 50s. His success earned him a nickname--and the stars of a brigadier general when he went under military cover. In Bolivia, however, he posed as a civilian commercial attache.
That day Simon wore a cream-colored suit in raw silk from a Hong Kong tailor with a pale-blue linen shirt and a bolo tie. The effect was Sydney Greenstreet without the girth, since his slim body towered well over six feet. Under a thatch of salt and pepper hair, his deeply tanned face featured a hawk nose and high cheekbones. Although he was in his fifties, the image was that of a lean, mean, fighting machine. I wondered if Avery and I would look as good at the same age.
Because of his pale skin and reddish hair, Avery always looked sunburned, no matter how much time we spent in the field. His most notable features in a round face were a bulbous nose and big, petulant lips that made him look like an overgrown baby whose pacifier had been taken away. Like a lot of big men, he appeared fleshy, with large arms and legs and a thick torso, but he was surprisingly light on his feet. He slipped through thick jungles and brush with the ease of a much smaller man like myself.
With my 5'10" stature and muscular body, people often compared me to a football cornerback, one of those mean, nasty white boys that loved "clotheslining" a receiver in my territory. My thin blondish hair promised to desert me in middle age.
The best thing that my girlfriends ever said about me was that I looked like an average American guy. Except for my eyes. Some folks say theyre kinda scary, with a dark ring around the hazel iris that gives me an intense stare like a bird of prey. I finished my observations of our team and focused back in on what Simon was saying.
Simon put his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair, and continued, "Both the U. S. and Bolivian governments want this little revolutionary stopped. You are to take him out with extreme prejudice--with the assistance of our gallant Bolivian allies if possible, but without them if necessary." He looked as though he was waiting for a response.
In unconscious unison, we bellowed,"Yes, SIR!"
He winced, and said, "You're not on the parade ground here, gentlemen. Try to look and act a little less like gung-ho field officers, and more like civilians, at least around the Embassy. Questions?"
I looked at Avery for support. He looked away, leaving me to deal with the S2 part of the mission as always. But the question had to be asked.
"Sir, we've been trying to get a lead on Guevara for months. Just how good is this intel? I mean, suddenly we have a precise date and location? It sounds a little..." I groped for an innocuous word.
"Fishy?" Simon said tonelessly. "I agree with you MacKinnon, but this comes from an A10 rated source in Mexico's embassy in Cuba. The information was deliberately offered to our source by Raul Castro, Fidel's brother."
I digested this for a second. Would we be walking into a trap? But what was the point in drawing a couple of Yanquis into an ambush in such an elaborate manner? It made no sense unless...
I said, "But sir, this can only mean that the Cubans want Che to fail."
"Bravo, MacKinnon," Simon said. "It seems that Castro would rather have Che' become a dead martyr than a victorious challenger for the leadership of the Revolution. According to some highly placed sources in the inner circles of the regime, they fell out over "liberation" ideology. Fidel sent Che to Bolivia to keep him busy and happy, figuring he couldn't get into too much mischief in this backwater. If he succeeded, well and good, but it'd be no loss if he failed.
"However, the the missile crisis made it clear to Castro that we're ready to play tough in our back yard--and their Russian friends proved they wont risk Mother Russia for Cuba. He now sees Che as a threat to his regime's continued existence. So it is assumed that we would be doing them a favor by eliminating him for Castro."
Simons smile had the sincerity of a wolf charming a sheep from the fold.
It was just another case of a government leaving its agents hang out to dry. We got the idea, even if Che probably wouldnt.
"Without any stupid euphemisms, gentlemen," Simon said,"find him and kill him!"
****October 8, 1967
The Gran Chaco, Bolivia.
The small column of men and llamas struggled along the trail at the bottom of the arroyo. The track, running between the almost dry streambed and the overhanging cliff, was scarcely wide enough for the guerillas and beasts. The men walked heavily, obviously tired, while even the llamas occasionally missed their footing, betraying the exhaustion caused by the heavy loads of supplies on their backs.
I was set up behind some rocks on the short leg of the L-shaped kill-zone. Through binoculars, I scanned the column, trying for an I.D. of Guevara, but shadows and wide-brimmed hats, obscured their features. I counted twelve men and a couple of women. I reflected on how Latin Americans take their women to war with them or kidnap some along the way. If your male vanity dismisses their fighting abilities, you learn to your regret that they're often more dangerous than the men. So a guerilla is a guerilla is a guerilla in counterinsurgency.
We'd arrived in La Higuera the previous night, and the alcalde told us the guerillas would probably use this trail. The campesinos didn't like the Cubans any more than their government and its American "advisors." Peasants are always xenophobic; they hate all outsiders, and we were all extranjeros, foreigners, to the Indians of Bolivia's back country. Once the government troops convinced them that they could (and would) apply more force than the rebels, they gave up the Cubans in a heartbeat. So much for the solidarity of the masses.
So, was the approaching caravan the expected force of guerillas or simple campesinos going to the village? I spotted guns here and there, some half-covered by the woven native ponchos that all Bolivians wore. As far as the Bolivian government was concerned, anyone other than uniformed military caught carrying arms was a guerilla, so we were okay there.
Their point man was almost into the kill zone, drinking from a bottle, and had no clue. I'd forted up with a couple of troopers and their officer, a young lieutenant. Avery commanded the bulk of the Aguilas in camouflaged bunkers across the stream. With the cliff at their back, the guerillas had nowhere to run or hide. I looked at the Bolivian Teniente lying next to me. Technically he was in charge.
"Es el Cubano? Is it the Cuban?" I whispered. He stared back at me with an uncomfortable expression on his face. Clearly he didn't want to make the decision. He shrugged that Latin shrug that tells the Yanqui that the subject is in God's hands--and if the Yanqui wants to play God, the responsibility is on his head.
The PRC-10 radio gave a hiss of static which meant Avery was calling for firing instructions. Then Avery's voice whispered out of the ether.
"Mac. My boys are ready to rock and roll. What's the hold up?"
I looked at the Bolivian, but he studiously kept his face averted, eyes glued to his field glasses. No help there. My call. Okay, I thought, they pay you the big bucks to take responsibility for life and death decisions.
I keyed the set once and whispered, "Fuego" into the mike in my best Bolivian accent. If anyone monitored the net, and I was wrong about the identity of the group, at least there would be some deniability. The Company is very big on deniability.
The arroyo erupted with automatic weapons fire and blasts from grenades. The sounds echoed back and forth across the stony cliffs like a hundred drop-forges, pounding in a mill. The firing went on for a couple of minutes without any real resistance from the guerillas. We downed most of them in the first volley, and the rest never really got their AK-47s into play. Finally, without an order, the firing stuttered to a stop. My ears were still ringing as Avery's men slowly forded the rock-filled rivulet and approached the still-smoking ruins of the little caravan.
Avery beat everyone to the littered kill zone. It was a classic enfilade. Twelve men, two women, four llamas, dead without any serious return fire. I watched as Avery jumped back and let off a short burst into one of the figures on the ground. Correction. Now the toll was two women dead.
It's strange and frightening how the jungle works on some people, especially when they've got a hunting license--and the license includes people. Avery reverted more to some primitive part of his psyche with each passing day in the bush. It was scary. The patina of East coast blue-blood was dissolving away, leaving a person I didn't know anymore, and one I was beginning to dislike.
I didn't want to meet the Bolivian lieutenant's eyes when he came running up to me, but he shouted, "Bueno, Harry, muy bueno!" and pounded me on the back. Now that it was over, he felt that burst of adrenalin that sends the fierce joy of bloodlust through every soldier on a victorious battlefield. The reaction would come later, but for now, it was time to celebrate the fact that we were alive. Someone produced a bottle of mate, the noxious but potent local firewater, and we all had a drink to friendship between our two sovereign countries. Then a drink to Victory. Then another toast to the brotherhood of fighting men.
Meanwhile Avery was kicking over the bodies, cursing, looking for Che'. After all, Ernesto Che' Guevara was the holy grail of our quest.
"This guy with a map case must be the leader," Avery called out. I walked over, carefully stepping over the bodies and gore. The guerillas body was half-buried by the carcass of one of the llamas.
"Is it Che'?" I asked hopefully.
"Shoot, who knows? With all that blood on his face his mama wouldn't recognize him," Avery said and laughed, "But he's about the right size and has that wimpy mustache."
He grabbed the guerilla's arms and began to drag the body out from under the llama. Then the body moved, and the man moaned. He was alive.
It didn't matter. We were under orders to bring the body back to La Paz only if there was a problem in identification. The orders in that special briefing in Bogota didn't accommodate a wounded or surrendered Che. But now, faced with a wounded and semi-conscious Guevara, I was having second thoughts. There was something that went against the grain about killing an unarmed and helpless man. I didn't have time to work it out, because a grinning Avery grabbed a handful of Guevaras lank hair and pulled his head back, exposing the throat to his K-Bar. I started forward to stop him when the Teniente shouted, "Alto!" and brought Avery back from wherever he'd gone.
"Aw, Teniente, I'm just gonna finish the job."
"I think we have done enough killing for one day, Senor. I must have instructions from my superiors. It was not thought that we would be able to take him alive."
"No need to go looking for trouble, Teniente," Avery said, "You won't have to do a thing. I'll just take the little bastard's head back for a souvenir."
He bent back over the supine figure. The Teniente gave a nod and his men took their rifles off safety with audible snicks. Averey looked up, surprised.
"Maybe we better let the Teniente make the call, Rich."
"You goin' chicken-hearted all of a sudden, Mac?"
"Naw, but it's his country. Let them handle it."
Avery stood down. There was no point in fighting the Bolivians. But he gave me a hard questioning stare that said our little confrontation wouldn't be forgotten.
We traveled with a couple of the Eagles carrying Guevara in a litter made from shelter halves. His injuries werent serious, a graze on the head that bled like hell and a bullet in the thigh. By late afternoon, we'd arrived back in La Higuera and took over the adobe schoolhouse for a headquarters. The Teniente went to the Alcalde's office to use the only phone in town. While the Teniente phoned his base for instructions, we searched the injured man and confirmed he was Guevara.
He was carrying a diary in his right boot. I looked through it for intel, but it was mostly polemics like:
"We make our voices heard for the first time. We have to reach all the corners of the continent with the echo of our cry for rebellion,"
That crap was mixed with notations about the campaign:
"Low on supplies. Peasants won't give us any--so we treat them like the enemy and show no mercy." The last note was a scribbled, "Radio signal from Fidel. Supply drop at La Higuera tomorrow. Wishes me well and to go with God. Strange words from one atheist to another."
Guevara recovered enough to sit on the schoolteachers straight-backed wooden chair. I tied his ankles the legs of the chair, but left his arms loose while he ate. When he finished, he asked if I had any tobacco. I flipped him a pack of Marlboros and he shook out a couple, stripped the paper off and filled a ratty old pipe that he carried in his breast pocket.
He nodded his thanks, took a luxurious puff, and said, "You Yanqui cabrones were lucky to find El Che," and he tapped himself on his chest.
"You think we were in that barranca by luck?" I said. "In all the Gran Chaco, you ran into a bunch of the Aguilas and a couple of gringosby accident? You were burned, amigo. Fidel told us where to find you."
It took him a minute. Then I saw it in his eyes, the forlorn look of a doomed man.
"Fidel betrayed me," he whispered, almost as if by saying it out loud he could better come to grips with it. "He betrayed the Revolution."
"Welcome to the real world, pardner," I said.
Avery came into the room and said, "Some Bolivian army brass are coming in by chopper tomorrow morning." He looked over at Che and grinned. "Looks like you get to live another day, Boyo," he taunted.
But Che was already in the world of the condemned. His eyes were blank and staring as he mumbled over and over, "Fidel betrayed me."
The raucous crowing of roosters woke me up the next morning. Avery had relieved me at 4:00 a.m. and I'd crashed. We'd decided to keep watch over Che along with the guard detail set by the Teniente, because you never know exactly where a third-world army private will come down in his loyalties. I relaxed when I saw everything was in place, Guevara slumped in the chair, but now with his hands tied as well as his feet.
We ate and loafed around until late morning when the noise of a couple of choppers announced the arrival of the brass. Latino generals dont get up very early, not even for Che Guevara. Soon, two of them, with their stiffly starched and pressed fatigues covered with medals, came stomping out of the village with their aides. The Teniente kept running ahead and pointing to the schoolhouse like a little puppy who hadn't learned to heel yet. Finally they all squeezed into the schoolhouse, leaving us standing in the dust, ignored but not unnoticed. Simon trailed along behind them and gave us his wolfish smile as he shook our hands.
"Good job," he said. "I knew I could count on you two to catch the Commie bastard."
I guessed that he was overlooking the fact that wed not followed his orders to kill Guevara--for some as yet to be declared reason. He motioned us out of hearing of the Bolivians, although from the way they were screaming at Guevara, being overheard was highly unlikely. Simon lit a cigar and put his arm around my shoulder.
"As soon as the generals get their jollies off by questioning Guevara, you guys are taking him to Vallegrande in one of the choppers."
Vallegrande was a small town with an small airport for private planes, but I wondered why the Bolivians were willing to leave Guevara in our custody. But I kept my mouth shut, even though I was getting some bad vibes. Then Simon wanted to know the details of the ambush, and we talked desultorily until the generals exited the school. They passed us without a glance on the way back to their chopper and Simon joined them. The Teniente organized his men and we carried Che's litter to the remaining chopper.
Within an hour we put down at Vallegrande near an airport construction site. Apparently the general's chopper had refueled and gone back to La Paz. Simon awaited us near a bulldozer which spewed black smoke from its idling diesel. He waved us over and our party carried Guevara to his location. We were shielded from view of the town by the bulldozer, and I guessed what was coming. Simon wasted no time in confirming my apprehensions.
"Listen MacKinnon, these guys don't want Guevara in jail. We talked it over on the flight back, and they agreed that the last thing they need is a show trial with Guevara playing the role of a revolutionary martyr."
"Uh-huh, so whats gonna happen now?" I asked.
"You men are going to finish the job," Simon said.
Simon said, "Kill him."
"The guy's a wounded prisoner," I said.
"If you'd followed orders, we wouldn't be having this conversation MacKinnon." Simon froze me with those hawk-like eyes, and I looked to Avery for some support.
"Why didn't they do it?" asked Avery. "I've heard they're real big on firing squads down here."
"They don't want any of their men involved in the actual execution. They want some deniablity."
"Why us?" I argued.
He sighed at the naivete of his chosen executioners and said, "You guys don't exist, so as an official of the United States government, I don't know anything either." Simon motioned to a trench already excavated by the dozer. "Guevara's going to become part of the runway, but we'll need some kind of identification to send back to Castro."
With that, Simon walked away, leaving Avery, the Teniente and me, staring at Guevara on his litter.
The Teniente came to attention, as though he suddenly realized that his presence was needed elsewhere. He saluted and said, "Con su permiso, Senores." With that he did an about-face and marched across the field toward the buildings. Leaving Avery and me staring at Guevara. Then at each other.
"Man, I didn't sign up to be the Lord High Executioner," I said. "Even if he's a guerilla, the Geneva Convention says a wounded prisoner..."
"Screw the Geneva Convention. Don't worry about it. It's my treat," said Avery with a sneer as he pulled out his .45 Colt.
The last thing Guevara said before Avery blew his brains out was: "Fidel betrayed me."
Before we buried the body, Avery cut off his hands for ID purposes, saying he hoped Fidel would appreciate the favor. We heard later that one of the hands was delivered to Cuba by an unnamed neutral diplomat. Che's diary went missing, but it later turned up in publication. I've often wondered whether the Teniente or one of the generals saved it for a sourvenir.
Such are the triumphs of the intelligence game. The forces of Democracy, Mom and apple pie won this skirmish in a godforsaken outpost--and the red hordes of godless Communism lost. The Teniente became a Coronel. Che' became part of Vallegrande International Airport. And Che's executioners? We got to go back to Viet Nam.
Simon said we'd earned a promotion by our skill, loyalty and discretion. Seems the Company was starting a new operation in Viet Nam, code-named the Studies and Observations Group. People later heard of it in Congressional investigations as the Phoenix Program.
After a while, I had to get out of Special Ops. Too many memories; too many bad dreams. But Avery thrived, and one day he may yet make it to DCI. But he won't want his old buddy saying anything about the Phoenix program, or how we executed Che Guevara. So I'm hoping he'll call to chat about old times and to remind me we were buddies once. 'Cause otherwise it'll mean he's remembering Bolivia and how no DCI prospect can ever leave someone left alive to tell tales about him to Congress. Then he'll remember Simon's advice to those in doubt.
Simon says, "Kill him."