In a 6-foot-deep pit, the body of Che Guevara lies exposed to the Bolivian skies. That is what the experts who have unearthed a mass grave in this small Bolivian mountain town said Friday: that the grave contains the remains of Guevara and six of his guerrilla comrades.
The skull that is thought to be Guevara’s lies partly exposed at the bottom of the pit, covered by an khaki military jacket. The skeleton has no hands, an important clue.
Although the remains have not yet been exhumed and definitely identified, two of the experts say they are “100 percent sure” they have at long last found the remains of the legendary Argentine-Cuban revolutionary.
After Guevara was wounded and captured on Oct. 8, 1967, he was held overnight and executed on the orders of the Bolivian president, and in the presence of a Cuban-American agent for the CIA.
The revolutionary had come to Bolivia in 1966 to begin what he hoped would be a continental revolution by Marxists against “Yankee imperialism.” The deaths came after an abortive 11-month campaign led by Guevara, the former confidant of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The missing hands are the strongest piece of evidence. After Guevara’s execution, his body and those of several of his comrades were flown by helicopter to Vallegrande. His body lay in public view in a hospital laundry for 24 hours, after which it and those of his comrades vanished.
The Bolivian high command decided to “disappear” their bodies in order to deny the guerrilla a place where his disciples could pay him homage after death. But to preserve evidence that they had killed Guevara, they amputated his hands.
Since then, the whereabouts of the bodies has remained one of Latin America’s most enduring mysteries and a military state secret in Bolivia. Guevara’s hands, preserved in formaldehyde, eventually surfaced in Cuba.
The long silence was finally broken in Nov. 1995 when a retired Bolivian general, Mario Vargas Salinas, who has taken part in the anti-guerrilla campaign in 1967, disclosed that he had taken part in the secret burial in the early hours of Oct. 11, 1967, and that the guerrilla leader and his comrades had been buried in a pit dig by a bulldozer on the edge of Vallegrande’s dirt airstrip.
After Vargas Salinas’ revelations, President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada formed a commission to find the bodies and return them to the families.
On June 28 Bolivians working with the Cubans bulldozed open a trough in which they found human remains. As they dug, they realized that this was a site that had once been dug up by a bulldozer. Over the last few days the skeletal remains of seven men have come into view during the delicate work of exhuming the skeletons.
The Cubans were joined July 1 by three Argentine forensic anthropologists who were involved in the earlier digging, and what they have found “coincides absolutely with General Vargas Salinas’ account,” said one of the experts, Alejandro Inchaurregui.
Sunday the forensic team expects to remove the bodies to a laboratory for formal identification and Inchaurregui says he expects the identification of Guevara to be complete Monday.
In addition to the missing hands, one further detail has strengthened the belief that the remains found are Guevara’s: In a pocket of the jacket covering the skeleton with no hands are traces of plaster of Paris.
On the same evening that Guevara’s hands were amputated, death masks were made of his face by a doctor at the Vallegrande Hospital. The plaster traces could be residue from that process.