Long before the worldwide hunt and takedown of America’s public enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden, there was another global manhunt for another famous enemy of America: Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
In Kevin Maurer and Mitch Weiss’ new book, “Hunting Che: How a U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture the World’s Most Famous Revolutionary,” the authors tell the story of the Green Beret team that traveled to Bolivia in 1967 to train the raw Bolivian soldiers who would, in due course, hunt down and capture Che Guevara.
The United Sihgbtates had been trying to keep track of Guevara for years prior to the 1967 Bolivian campaign, the authors note, chasing his ghost across Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia as intelligence analysts built up an extensive profile of him. The CIA knew everything about him, except where he was.
“The bearded icon took the international stage when Castro rose to power in Cuba. Che and Castro were as close as brothers and shared a missionary zeal for Cuban-supported revolution,” write the authors. “Che was a Communist evangelist, and his disdain for the United States and its economic hegemony was part of his appeal in an era of youthful rebellion and Cold War paranoia.”
The authors note that Guevara had been a rebel as a teenager as well. Raised in a middle-class family in Argentina, Guevara took to wearing dirty and messy clothes as he wanted to present himself as an outlaw. His school friends called him “Chancho,” or “Pig.”
“He loved playing the loner, the rebel. He got the nickname Che — which means ‘hey’ in Spanish — because he used it so much. It was the equivalent of ‘yo.’”
Trained as a medical doctor, Guevara gave up medicine to accompany Castro and his rebels from Mexico to Cuba. Once in power in 1959, Guevara made his headquarters at La Cabana prison, and there he oversaw the many summary executions of those who opposed the Cuban revolution. It was a bloodbath.
When Guevara was assumed to be in Bolivia, the United States sent a 16-man Army Special Forces Green Beret team to create and train an elite Bolivian Ranger company. With U.S. troops fully engaged in South Vietnam, though, the White House refused to allow the Green Berets to accompany the Bolivians into combat against the Guevara group. The Bolivians had to be trained quickly.
The Green Beret team was headed by Maj. Ralph “Pappy” Shelton, a 10th-grade dropout who picked cotton and did odd jobs to support his mother in Corinth, Miss., prior to enlisting in the U.S. Army. Rising through the ranks from a private to major, Shelton saw combat in Korea, Laos and the Dominican Republic.
Shelton’s unassuming, down-home style made him friends and admirers among the Bolivian soldiers as well as the residents of La Esperanza, the village that housed Shelton’s makeshift training camp. Shelton spent a good deal of time at the village’s general store, strumming his guitar and singing along with the locals.
Shelton and his team performed what the Green Berets do best: train local soldiers for the defense of their country against common enemies. The training was called Foreign Internal Defense, and Shelton embarked on an accelerated program with the Bolivians. This successful U.S. Special Forces operation was later duplicated in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Leading one of the Bolivian Ranger companies trained by Shelton was Capt. Gary Prado Salmon. The young captain was the officer who captured Guevara in the Bolivian jungle.
The CIA sent two Cuban-American agents named Felix Rodriguez and Gustavo Villoldo to Bolivia to assist the Bolivian government. Both of the agents were Cuban exiles who fought in the Bay of Pigs invasion and worked with the CIA on anti-Castro raids. Villoldo was also part of the hunt for Guevara in the Congo prior to being assigned to the Bolivian mission.
Mr. Rodriguez was with the captured Guevara when the Bolivian government ordered him killed, despite U.S. pleas to keep him as a prisoner. Mr. Rodriguez spoke with Guevara and posed with him for a now-famous photo.
The authors interviewed Mr. Rodriguez and other surviving participants of the Guevara takedown, and they used government reports, documents and Guevara’s own writings to tell this fascinating story of the hunt for Guevara. Unlike other books about Guevara, the authors were not enamored with the “Che” icon, but all in all, I think they were fair to him. Their well-written, well-documented and fascinating book reads like a thriller.
Guevara, the authors explain, was not a great guerrilla leader — he was an utter failure — but he was a great propagandist. And his value to communists and other revolutionaries lives on with his iconic reputation and his image on T-shirts and posters.
Paul Davis is a writer who covers law enforcement, intelligence and the military.