163. Editorial Note

On March 16, 1967, the Embassy in La Paz reported that President Barrientos had personally informed Ambassador Henderson that two guerrilla suspects had been detained by Bolivian authorities and, upon interrogation, had admitted association with a group of 30 to 40 guerrillas “led by Castroite Cubans” and other foreigners. The suspects reportedly mentioned that Che Guevara was leader of the guerrilla group, but they had not seen him. Barrientos urgently requested U.S. communications equipment to enable the Bolivian Government to locate reported guerrilla radio transmitters. Henderson made no commitments beyond a promise to look into what the United States could do. (Telegram 2314 from La Paz, March 16; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 BOL)

A year earlier there were intelligence reports that Che Guevara was in South America, but U.S. analysts found little supporting [Page 370] evidence. In a March 4, 1966, memorandum concerning rumors of Guevara’s presence in Colombia, FitzGerald noted that “penetrations of insurgent groups had revealed no indication of Guevara’s presence in any of these groups.” (Central Intelligence Agency, DDO/IMS, Operational Group, Job 78–5505, Area Activity—Cuba) Further analysis by the Agency identified seven conflicting rumors of Guevara’s whereabouts. A March 23, 1966, memorandum prepared in the Western Hemisphere Division noted that Guevara’s usefulness had been reduced to his ability as a guerrilla, and that “with his myth he is ten feet tall; without it, he is a mortal of normal stature.” Under the circumstances, the Agency concluded:

“… it is not believed justifiable to divert considerable amounts of time, money and manpower to an effort to locate Guevara. It is considered far more important to use these assets to penetrate and monitor Communist subversive efforts wherever they may occur, since Guevara’s presence in an area will not affect greatly the outcome of any given insurgent effort.” (Ibid.)

On March 24, 1967, the Embassy in La Paz reported that Barrientos met with the Deputy Chief of Mission on March 23 to advise him that the guerrilla situation had worsened and that this deterioration caused him increasing concern. Barrientos believed the guerrilla activity was “part of a large subversive movement led by Cuban and other foreigners.” He pointed out that Bolivian troops in the area of guerrilla activity were “green and ill-equipped,” and reiterated his urgent request for U.S. assistance. The Embassy told Barrientos that “our military officers were working with the Bolivian military to ascertain facts relating to requirements.” (Telegram 2381 from La Paz, March 24; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 BOL) Two U.S. military assistance advisory group officers reported that on March 23 guerrillas had ambushed a 22-man Bolivian Army patrol near Nancuahazu, prompting the Embassy to report to the Department on March 27: “There is now sufficient accumulation of information to bring Country Team to accept as fact that there is guerrilla activity in area previously mentioned, that it could constitute potential security threat to GOB.” (Telegram 2384 from La Paz, March 27; ibid.)

In a 90-minute meeting with Ambassador Henderson on March 27, Barrientos appealed for direct U.S. budgetary support for the Bolivian armed forces to meet the “emergency and one in which Bolivia was ‘helping to fight for the U.S.’” In reporting this discussion to the Department, Henderson observed:

“I suspect that Barrientos is beginning to suffer some genuine anguish over the sad spectacle offered by the poor performance of his armed forces in this episode; i.e., an impetuous foray into reported guerrilla country, apparently based on a fragment of intelligence and resulting in a minor disaster, which further tended to panic the GOB [Page 371] into a lather of ill-coordinated activity, with less than adequate professional planning and logistical support.” Henderson continued, “pressed by his military he may seek resort to the lobbying talents of Ambassador Sanjines in Washington in an effort to end-run proper channels of communication with U.S. authorities.” (Telegram 2405 from La Paz, March 29; ibid.)

On March 29, the CIA reported that two guerrillas captured by the Bolivian Army had furnished information that the guerrilla movement “is an independent, international operation under Cuban direction and is not affiliated with any Bolivian political party. The Agency had received information about the development of other guerrilla groups in Bolivia. “Should these other groups decide to go into action at this time, the Bolivian Government would be sorely taxed to cope with them” in addition to the Cuban-backed group. (Memorandum from [name not declassified] to the Chief, Western Hemisphere Division, March 29; Central Intelligence Agency, DDO/IMS, Job 88–01415R, [file name not declassified])

On March 31, the Department responded to Henderson’s concerns: “We have no evidence ‘end runs’ being attempted here.” The Department instructed the Embassy in La Paz:

“You may at your discretion inform Barrientos that we most reluctant consider supporting significantly enlarged army, either thru provision additional material or thru renewal budget support. We fully support concept of providing limited amounts of essential material assist carefully orchestrated response to threat, utilizing to maximum extent possible best trained and equipped troops available. Should threat definitely prove greater than capacity present forces, Barrientos can be assured U.S. willingness consider further assistance.” (Telegram 166701 to La Paz, March 31; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 BOL)

Also on March 31, the Department informed U.S. posts in neighboring countries to Bolivia that the current plan “is to block guerrilla escape then bring in, train and prepare ranger-type unit to eliminate guerrillas.” The Department also indicated that the United States was considering a special military training team (MTT) “for accelerated training counter guerrilla force.” (Telegram 16641 to Buenos Aires, et al., March 31; ibid.)

On May 11 Rostow reported to President Johnson that “CIA has received the first credible report that ‘Che’ Guevara is alive and operating in South America.” The information had come from interrogation of guerrillas captured in Bolivia. “We need more evidence before concluding that Guevara is operational—and not dead, as the intelligence community, with the passage of time, has been more and more inclined to believe.” (Memorandum from Rostow to Johnson, May 11; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Bolivia, Vol. IV, Memoranda, [Page 372] January 1966–December 1968) According to the CIA report, May 10, Che Guevara told [text not declassified] that he had come to Bolivia “in order to begin a guerrilla movement that would spread to the other parts of Latin America.” (CIA Information Cable TDCS 314/06486–67; ibid.)