The Day Che Died

You guys should get down to Vallegrande. They've captured Che!" A long hot Sunday was ending with cool beer in the main square of Santa Cruz, a dusty boomtown in eastern Bolivia, when we were hailed by an American soldier whom we had interviewed earlier that day: October 8, 1967. Easier said than done. It was hard to find a driver ready to carry three English journalists through military roadblocks.

They needn't have worried; eight hours later we rolled into Vallegrande past sleeping sentries. The little town in the foothills of the Andes barely registered events in the outside world, but that day it was buzzing with news of a battle between a Bolivian army patrol and the remnants of the guerrilla band led by the Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

In the late afternoon a helicopter swirled into view out of the setting sun. We could see a bundle strapped to one of its runners, but soldiers prevented our approach. Something was loaded into the back of a battered Chevrolet van and driven a few blocks to a gated compound. Despite the best efforts of the guards, we pushed our way into the compound, where they lay the body on a stone slab normally used for washing clothes.

Guevara had slipped into Bolivia in November of 1966 after resigning his various government positions in Cuba the previous year. He had come to South America to lead what was meant to be the first of many revolutions in the region. Despite victories in initial skirmishes, the guerillas were beset by problems—food shortages, infighting, and, most damaging, locals who were indifferent to the cause.

The black-and-white photograph of Guevara lying with his eyes wide open has been reproduced many thousands of times over the past 39 years all around the world. It was my first encounter with violent death, and his clear gaze remains fresh in my memory. There was no fear in those eyes. What, I wondered, had he seen in the situation that I couldn't see? The bullet hole through his torso told us that if he had indeed been captured, he was subsequently summarily executed.

It didn't occur to me then that the dead guerrilla leader's image would retain its appeal in Hollywood, New York, and London almost half a century later. I should have realized, perhaps, that dead revolutionaries—like Trotsky—have a longer shelf life than the living, who grow old and make unappealing compromises.

We were the first Western journalists to see his body and I was afraid we might be prevented from leaving town. We didn't remain long, but before departing we found a telegraph operator who tapped out messages in Morse code to an office in La Paz. More hopeful than confident, I filed a one-paragraph story.

At some point during that long night, we stopped at a roadside bar and persuaded its owner to tune in to the BBC: "Reuters reports that Bolivian troops have killed Ernesto Che Guevara, the former associate of Fidel Castro who resigned his post in the Cuban government in 1965." My story had gotten through and the first hurdle was cleared.

The next day I filed a long piece, which, in a unique double, appeared on the front pages of both The New York Times and Moscow's Izvestia.

Christopher Roper worked for Reuters from 1964 to 1968.