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Gary Prado Salmón, Bolivian general who captured Ché Guevara, dies at 84

By Phil Davison Washington Post

Gary Prado Salmón, the Bolivian army special forces officer who captured revolutionary guerrilla fighter Ernesto “Ché” Guevara in the Bolivian jungle in 1967, died May 6 at a hospital in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz. He was 84.

His son Gary Prado Arauz announced the death on Facebook but did not provide a cause. His father, who had retired with the rank of general in 1988, had been in a wheelchair as a paraplegic after being shot in the spine in 1981.

There was speculation at the time of the shooting that a pro-Guevara Bolivian army officer had taken revenge. Gen. Prado described the shooting as a “mystery” but remained loyal to the Bolivian armed forces and took the matter no further.

For capturing Guevara, and thereby blunting Bolivia’s own left-wing insurgency against the country’s military leadership, Gen. Prado became a hero within the military and among its anti-communist supporters. But that was not so much the case among younger Bolivians who, along with many fellow South Americans, had had enough of military rule throughout the continent.

Gen. Prado, who had undergone training by the U.S. Green Berets, was a captain when he pursued Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. The Argentine-born guerrilla had been instrumental in Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution and, after unsuccessfully attempting to support left-wing guerrillas in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, set about exporting the Cuban revolution to other parts of Latin America.

In an interview this month with the news service CE Noticias Financieras, Gen. Prado recalled an important tip when a peasant potato and cattle farmer, who happened to be an old school friend, reported to him that, in October 1967, he had seen strange armed men in the Churo ravine where his cattle grazed near the village of La Higuera.

Gen. Prado also recalled Guevara surrendering to him on Oct. 8 in the ravine after the guerrilla had been shot in the leg, his pistol empty and his M2 carbine rifle shattered by Bolivian army gunfire. “I said, ‘Who are you?’” the officer recalled. “He said, ‘I am Ché. I am worth more to you alive than dead.’”

Gen. Prado recalled Guevara asking for water and something to smoke. The Bolivian gave him an Astoria cigarette and, knowing his love of cigars from media reports, a Pacific cigar.

In the recent Noticias Financieras interview, Gen. Prado recalled chatting to the wounded Guevara while the latter was laid out on the floor of a mud-walled hut used as a primary school in La Higuera.

“I was left with two images,” Gen. Prado said. “He looked like a finished man. He had reached the end of his dream; he surely saw that his world was coming to an end. He was very depressed, he was sad, he was pitiful. At that time, he was not the man he is today, who has become a myth. I asked him why he came to Bolivia, what was he looking for here… . He told me, ‘The revolution has no borders.’”

“The conclusion I have reached after so many years of research is that they [the Cuban leadership under Fidel Castro] sent him to Bolivia to get rid of him,” he added. “I felt pity, I couldn’t do any more. People have the image of the myth, wow. To tell the truth, I felt sorry for the guy.”

Gen. Prado subsequently left to continue combat with the guerrilla fighter’s small group of surviving men in the jungle. When he left La Higuera for his base in Vallegrande, Guevara was still alive in the schoolhouse, but Gen. Prado soon learned that the guerrilla has been executed in La Higuera the following day by a Bolivian army sergeant.

A Cuban American CIA agent, Félix Rodriguez, who had also helped track Guevara and his men to the area, said in later interviews that he and his superiors in the CIA would have preferred to keep Guevara alive, to show the world how defeated he looked - “like a beggar,” he said - when apprehended.

But, he said, he was overruled by Bolivian President René Barrientos and the Bolivian military high command, which wanted to avoid a show trial that might win global sympathy for Guevara.

Rodriguez ordered the executioner, Sgt. Mario Terán, to shoot Guevara in the legs and arms to make it look like the guerrilla had died in combat with the army.

Later, when the body arrived by helicopter in Vallegrande, Gen. Prado said he sat next to the body on a stretcher and saw the jaw dropping. “I took out my handkerchief and tied him up as if he had a toothache,” he recalled. “I sent him off like this so that he would keep his physiognomy.”

Gary Prado Salmón was born Nov. 15, 1938, in Rome, where his father was on military assignment for the Bolivian army. The family soon returned to Bolivia, where his father rose to colonel and Gen. Prado enrolled in military school at 15.

In his later years, he wrote books including “How I Captured Ché” (1987) and “The Defeat of Ché Guevara” (1990). A complete list of survivors could not be determined.

In 2010, Gen. Prado was placed under house arrest for alleged ties with right-wing “terrorists” plotting to overthrow the left-wing, Indigenous president, Evo Morales. A Bolivian judge ordered his house arrest for allegedly conspiring to bring secession to eastern Bolivia, the main bastion of opposition to Morales. His son Gary was also arrested, but both men were later released.

Gen. Prado spent the last two years of his military career, until 1988, as a Bolivian military representative to the Inter-American Defense Board in Washington.

In a 2017 interview with the Financial Times, Gen. Prado recalled Guevara giving him his Rolex Oyster Submariner - a gift from Castro - after scratching a cross on the back of it. “I later sent it to his family via the Cuban Embassy,” he said.

“I was shocked about the execution” he told the newspaper. “I didn’t expect that. I thought Ché would have been tried like other prisoners. The whole thing was badly managed. The Bolivian government put out the misinformation that Ché had died in combat, but then came reports that he’d been seen walking to La Higuera, so finally the president had to come clean.

“I think he made the decision to execute,” he added, “because, if Ché had been taken prisoner, he’d have been put on trial, and the trial would have been a cause celebre.”