[News] 600 Days: The Repatriation and Resurrection of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 27 10:35:16 EDT 2017


  600 Days: The Repatriation and Resurrection of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes 
<https://www.counterpunch.org/author/sw7dey5magethec/> - October 27, 2017


/*An Interview with Dr. Jorge González, former Director of the Cuban 
Forensic Institute in Havana.*/

Fifty years ago ‘Che’ Guevara was captured and brutally executed  in the 
jungles of Bolivia by Bolivian recruits who were trained, equipped and 
guided by U.S. Green Beret and CIA operatives. Almost immediately 
afterwards Che was drafted into the canon of post-Catholic sainthood. 
The Bolivian army’s official photograph of Che, taken after he was 
executed— his head raised, eyes open, a faint smile on his lips — became 
an icon of saintly rebellion. Che’s death not only gave meaning to his 
life, but to multitudes of ordinary people around the world.  His 
Christ-like image had immediate resonance among the poor and oppressed 
of Latin America who believed that their popular saint,  ‘Querido Che’ 
would some day rise again. What was less anticipated was the impact of 
his death on generations of young people around the world.

The spiritual and political afterlife of Che, like the afterlife of 
Jesus of Nazareth, begins with their brutal torture and deaths at the 
hands of sadistic soldiers, colonizing forces (Rome and the US CIA) and 
local collaborators. Both men  faced their capture and deaths with 
equanimity and  graceful acceptance of their fate and left this world 
with words of consolation  and , yes,  of love. Both men  were given 
opportunities to surrender and save themselves, but both acquiesced to 
their fate, remained true to their beliefs, and faced their 
executioners  with words of comfort and of love. Che: “I know you are 
here to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man… please, tell 
my wife to remarry and try to be happy.” Jesus: “Father forgive them for 
they know not what they do”.

The gospel narratives of described a man whose death shook the earth and 
left his own executioners fear and regret that they had killed a son of 
God.  Jorge Castaneda’s biography, /Compañero: The Life and Death of Che 
(Knopf) and Michael Casey’s /Che’s Afterlife: the Legacy of an Image/ 
refer to an iconic photo of the dead Che   that ignited a fierce 
political and spiritual loyalty to the memory of the revolutionary 
hero.  Freddy Alborta’s photo of Che’s lacerated body, laid out on a 
concrete slab surrounded by gloating Bolivian soldiers and CIA 
operatives, one callously pointing to a mortal wound, became a global 
symbol of a spiritual socialist revolution. Che’s restful body, his 
gentle eyes and peaceful countenance radiated forgiveness and love.  
John Berger noted the resemblance of the photo to Andrea Mantegna’s 
/Lamentation over the Dead Christ/ 
(John Berger, 1975).  Alborta’s photo, sometimes referred to as “The 
Passion of the Che” ensured that the Argentine revolutionary would live 
on forever as a symbol of the spiritual socialist cause. Displayed at 
meetings or rallies the image  is often accompanied by cries of “/Che 
está Presente”- / Che is here with us, a real existential presence’ 
similar to the “Real Presence” of Jesus, here, present in our own 
bodies, minds and spirits.

/Photo by Freddy Alberto./

It took twenty years before a Cuban forensic expedition went to the 
small community of /La Higuera/ in Bolivia to locate, exhume and 
repatriate Che’s remains and those of his colleagues in 1997. The Cuban 
expedition was led by Dr. Jorge González, then Director of the Cuban 
Forensic Institute in Havana, and assisted by key members of the 
Argentine Forensic Team/(Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense,/ or 

In January 2000 I met and interviewed Dr. González following a lecture I 
gave with Dr. Hernan Reyes (Medical Director,ICRC) at the Cuban Forensic 
Institute on emerging international networks of organ and tissue 
trafficking. Dr. González did not seem to be too interested in the topic 
and cut out quickly. But when I heard that he was the leader of the 
Bolivian forensic expedition I asked for an interview. González 
guardedly agreed to an interview but only because I was introduced by a 
close colleague of his. He reminded me quite bluntly that the CIA had a 
hand in the execution of a Cuban hero and sharing his story with a North 
American was something of a political and ethical dilemma.

For the first forty five minutes González explained with scientific 
precision the methods used to locate the site where Che’s body was 
haphazardly buried. The search for Che’s remains and those of his 
colleagues took exactly 600 days in Bolivia. During that time González’s 
/equipe/ worked without the  cooperation of the Bolivian military or 
police. He made clear that the discovery was a huge scientific endeavor 
that included Cuban geologists, soil experts, seismologists, 
archeologists, geographers, sociologist-anthropologists, and bone and 
teeth specialists.

When I asked González to describe that moment when he first touched the 
skull and had first sense of recognition, he said rather stiffly:  ‘As a 
scientist I was trained to be totally objective in retrieving the first 
remains to emerge from the pit… As a scientist you feel one thing but as 
a revolutionary you feel another, for we were uncovering the bodies of 
our heroes.’ Throughout the doctor’s story, not all of which was 
transcribed in the followed tape transcription, were intimate details of 
the touching, holding close, cradling, protecting and carefully 
examining the remains of Che’s disintegrating body that was still 
recognizable  by his army fatigues, and his tobacco pouch.  The story 
was replete with Biblical references – the sacred numbers 7,14, 40, the 
mysteries, the references to Che’s  suffering, The Passion of Che, one 
could say. The tender care in identifying his fractures, his prominent 
brow, the references to the  Bolivian soldiers  washing Che’s body and 
his face to present for viewing, their constant fears that the body 
would be stolen,  and their staying up by night and day, trying not to 
fall asleep,  to protect Che’s body. The identification of the body 
included imagining the wounds that were inflicted, the fractures, the 
missing hands, the missing molar, and the pieces of recognizable cloth.  
“They have pierced my hands and feet. They have numbered all my bones.”

And finally, the right of González as the chief of the forensic team, to 
personally guard the box that contained Che’s remains refusing to pass 
the box along to the honor guards as they passed along all the boxes, 
step by step, up the stairs of a military plane at the small landing 
strip in southern Bolivia. “ I held the box to my chest and would not 
let it out of my sight”, he said.

*The Interview*

/Dr. Jorge González, head of the Cuban Forensic Team that exhumed 
Ernesto Che Guevara in 1997./

/Q: How long did this search last? /

Dr. Jorge González://It took us  600 days. We began our work in December 
1995 and we only concluded in 1997.  The only collaboration we got from 
the  Bolivian military was permission to search for the remains. But we 
had great collaboration from other  scientific teams, especially from 
Argentina. We had a research protocol followed two lines – the first was 
historical research. On the other hand there was the 
technical-scientific search for the remains. First of all, from the 
historical point of view the team tried to determine where the most 
likely site would be. We began looking at historical documents from 
1967. The historical team followed everything that was available from 
all the media: the writings, the letters of the guerillas, as well as 
published articles in journals, books, everything. The team reviewed all 
the Bolivian periodicals from 1967.

Meanwhile the technical-scientific teams did their research. We fed all 
the data into a computerized system. All the interviews with people, all 
the documents, everything went into the central database. We classified 
the data according to the credibility of the information, from zero to 
ten points. Zero meant that the team as absolutely false/untrue judged 
the information. So with respect to what informants told us we separated 
those who were actual witnesses to the events from those who were just 
repeating stories they had heard.  We graded the level of participation 
as zero if they were not there at all. We gave a ten to those who were 
there as direct participants in the events. Zero was false information 
and we had a lot of it. After a while the team could easily discern what 
was true and what was false. Then together we studied all the data we 
had. We had to reconstruct who were there at the time, those who were in 
Valle Grande, Bolivia and who already knew something about Che from 
those informants who were there only temporarily like the recruits.

The Bolivian army had a battalion of some three hundred sappers [combat 
engineers or other personnel who support the front-line infantry] who 
lived there and were already stationed there and they were used in the 
hunt for Che. Eventually the high command of a whole army division [some 
2000 men]  were called in and participated in the hunt.  By using both 
the press[the media]  and the army reports we could figure out who was 
in what place at any particular time. We even tried to reconstruct the 
entire/structure of the battalion.

In Bolivia it was extremely difficult to locate all the people who were 
in the battalion and this gave us enormous difficulties. In Cuba it is 
easy to locate people, but in Bolivia it is very hard. We bought all the 
telephone directories in the region and we looked up the names of all 
the people to see if they were still alive. We did not call them 
directly but instead through local people who were said to be friends of 
Cuba. We asked them to contact a neighbor of the person we were 
interested in and to ask the questions and intervene for us. Many would 
have been too frightened  if we had contacted them directly. So instead 
we found someone who lived nearby who was a friend of Cuba. So, for 
example, if we had been in Berkeley we would have looked you up to help 
us! So one person could tell us if a particular guy was  just  a soldier 
or was a general.  Or maybe he was a merchant or a professor in the 
university. Or maybe he was just a peasant, or maybe he was already 
dead.  But as soon as they found out if the person was open to an 
interview at the start we would go to them directly ourselves and only 
if they were too frightened to talk we used this other method.  We would 
contact a friend who would contact them and introduce us, just as I am 
talking to you because you are here with my friend Calixto Machado, and 
because Calixto sent you to me and I trust Calixto.

We lived in the area of Valley Grande but following circumstances we at 
times moved all over Bolivia from La Paz to the rural zones. When we 
were living in in Valle Grande  the local people participated more 
openly in our research. We did a sociologically study of the valley. Our 
sociologist ‘accompanied’ the people and together did a survey to find 
out the customs and local forms of communication. We had both a social 
anthropologist and a sociologist in our multi-disciplinary team. So we 
studied the origins of Valle Grande, their ethnic groups, the arrival of 
the Spaniards, and we accumulated enough to write a book about the 
region. In doing this  study we had to establish a relationship and good 
communication channels with the people.

We learned that in Bolivia there are three zones that were very 
different: La Paz and the Andean Zone; The Valley of Cochabamaba; and 
the Sierra where the guerrilla warfare was. The La Paz Zone is Aymara 
speaking. With the  Chilwanan ethnic group we had to get used to people 
talking in parables. If you asked them a simple question they would 
start to tell us a story and  the story would go on and on. Or they 
would answer our question with another question. So when we went to the 
Chilwana zone we would always begin by asking to talk to their chairman 
of the group. We would establish relations with him and tell him what we 

We lived in tents and we ate and prepared our food in the mountains so 
we didn’t isolate ourselves and we mingled with the local  people. We 
suffered the same diseases as the local people. We got lime disease 
because of the ticks, and we got hepatitis A, malaria, yellow fever, 
Chagas, and leptosorosis.  But if we had not lived with the people we 
would never have gotten the information that we needed.

We entered all the data from the interviews into the computer: Was the 
[executed] person  buried or not buried? Cremated or not cremated? Was 
the burial place on the airstrip or not?  We did an analysis and found 
that we had many different versions of what happened. When we began we 
had nineteen  versions of what had happened to Che’  remains.  We 
thought that when we finished this historical/ethnographic analysis we 
could reduce the number of versions but instead we had eighty-eight 
versions of what happened. Although the versions piled up we could 
prioritize them in terms of the credibility factor.  Slowly we 
eliminated them one by one until we were able to prioritize our #1 
version as the most plausible scenario.  So, our scientific analysis was 
well done with artificial intelligence, key words, and prioritization.

We ended the historical and ethnographic fieldwork in November 1995. But 
that year of preparatory fieldwork was based on groundwork that had been 
done on the problem since 1967. We were able to move to the next phase 
because so much work had already been done, books had been written, and 
we used all that information.

So we began the field investigations in December of 1996. The area we 
finally covered was twenty  hectares, that is, larger than the IPK,  the 
Pedro Khouri Institue [in Havana]. The area we studied was twice the 
size of a Latin American baseball stadium. We were studying one square 
kilometer and in the end we found him [Che] in just 12 square meters, in 
Valle Grande, on the airstrip, and in the vicinity of the old cemetery.

First we had to conduct a  typographical survey of the area to be 
considered.  Each technique used had to have the same points of 
reference.  We looked at every kind of photo – before, during and after 
the events – areal photos, and even satellite photos.  All pictures of 
the zone were  of interest and fed into the computer. If there was a 
wall here, was it here before? Did the road exist at that time? If there 
was a tree there it was highly unlikely (30 years later) that he [Che] 
would have been buried under the tree. If there was a house it was 
  unlikely that the body was under it.

The photo-detections were followed by basic soil studies. If you want to 
operate on a person you have to see and feel them first. You take the 
blood pressure, you do x-rays, you palpate the body.  We were going to 
operate on the body of the ground. We had to study the soil. We used an 
archeologist specialized in geo-physics, and who could do geo-chemical 
studies.  He used an international classification of soils to see 
whether there were any organic materials.  When there is a burial, there 
would be organic material there that he could sample. We had to find out 
where the soil was homogeneous and where it deviated from normal 
patterns and to prioritize the region that fell out of the normal range. 
We had the soil typography done for 20×20 meters and in each little 
square we made a preformation, 1,500 drills altogether. We estimated 
that the burial would be two meters down because the people said that 
when the bulldozer was digging the trench you could not see the top of 
the bulldozer. So we calculated the depth [of the grave] to be about two 
meters deep. To do this we had to find out what kind of bulldozer they 
had in V.G  at that time. We used a mathematical model to estimate the 
height and width of the trench and its dirt carrying capacity. The 
trench would be about 20 meters long. So we had to divide up the ground 
to find a trench that was that long. We took samples at different levels.

We used equipment that was not the best; today we would do it better.   
But we were trying to save money and it was proposed to us that we use 
certain modern equipment costing about $20,000 but   instead we used an 
old fashioned drill where you have to get on top of it   to make it go.  
Had to have two or three people put all their weight on it to make it 
function. If we were to do it again we would pay the $20,000.

We had a geologist of the quaternary period – and he examined how the 
valley formed, the tectonic movements that gave rise to the valley, the 
mountains, the streams and so on. The geology on one side of the 
airstrip was not the same as on the other and it was easier to dig on 
one side than on the other.  We did every study possible on the 
composition of the soil – its salts and minerals and anything anomalous 
in the soil. And we produced a three dimensional map in the computer.

We also did the geo-botanical studies determining which plants were from 
the region, which were more than thirty years old, the needs of each 
plant to find out if there was any that thieved more in burial grounds 
as a way of finding out the organic composition of the soil. We analyzed 
all these, materials in December of 1996 and ended in March of 1997.

In March and April of 1997 we did our analysis. We discussed our 
analysis with the geophysicists, geologists,  archeologists, and we had 
to transmit all the information and its significance to the teams coming 
in  to replace them. We had 20 hectares to study and we identified one 
hectare relying mainly on geo-physics. In the end we did not make any 
mistake, we kept working with what was the right hectare. For those 
10,000 square meters we did all the studies including geo-electrical, 
magnetic field studies, electrical-magnetic field, etc. They had built 
an airstrip there and what movement of earth moving the airstrip 70 
years before had caused.

We were all living together — 6 people –in the same house. Sometime we 
had arguments. We lived and worked together and  we talked to each other 
non stop.There were no women with us and no children. So it was just 
work, work, and more work. We worked from dawn to dusk and we even 
worked with the computers. Everything that was being done was also being 
filmed. And the film was sent to Cuba where more than twenty other 
experts  re-analyzed everything we were doing and who would contact us 
with their conclusions. We followed a strict scientific protocol and we 
discussed the findings with fifteen scientific institutes. To coordinate 
all these different experts was easy but to integrate it all into our 
study was more trouble.

In the end the Bolivian government gave us only ten days to dig. We had 
originally asked for thirty days. They replied that they would give us 
seven days.  One month or one week? So we decided to compromise, not 
your figure, not our figure, but the mean which was ten days. Ok,we agreed.

There is no simple method for detecting bones. Dogs are of no use in 
detecting bodies long since dead. They are useful at crime scenes. If 
someone picks up a cup the dog can find the person who picked up that 
cup. But dogs can do nothing twenty years after a burial. We had to 
depend on our metrics. And the mazing thing is that we found him on the 
9thday in the 9th pit at 9 am in the morning. If there were a lottery we 
would all have had to put our money on number 9.

When the first bone appeared we knew that our difficulties were over. We 
were totally prepared for the forensic analysis. We had ID cards with 
information on every person of the thirty-six people we were looking 
for.  In advance we had a complete list of all the compañeros  and what 
we were we were looking for: their age, sex, ethnicity, race, height, 
weight, and  teeth. We had brought with us dental x-rays. We had blood 
samples from members of the families. We had photos which we could 
superimpose over the skulls. In short, we had  everything we needed to 
make positive identifications.  In that first pit we found seven. As of 
today we have found twenty four in all. Soon the team will  return to 
complete the final exhumations.

We had a dental cast of Che. These were dental impressions that were 
made when Che left the country in a disguise when he left Cuba. They 
used a set of   false teeth that he wore over his regular teeth and the 
orthodontist who did that kept the cast. We had an anthropological 
forensic person who examined each tooth described in detail. We had a 
description of Che’s cavities. Just finding the teeth alone would have 
been enough for us to identify him. We also did a study of the 
fractures, which we knew about from the autopsy study done in 1967.The 
autopsy said that there was, for example, a fracture in the collarbone, 
in the ribs, and in the breast bone of such and such a diameter. We 
compared the bones we had retrieved with the autopsy report. So, just 
the fracture report alone would have been enough to identify him. But, 
because it was Che we applied ever single test we could to be absolutely 
sure that we had him. We knew the clothing that he was wearing and there 
were photos of his last days and we found the exact same jacket.

/Q: May I interrupt you for a second?  How did you feel when you began 
to remove what you believed were Che’s remains?/

[ Oh, Oh! –Dr. Calixto in the background]

Dr. Jorge González:Well, when you find remains you don’t always know who 
it is. But one of the first bones we found was Che’s. We could hardly 
believe it but we found next to the bones a piece of his  belt. At this 
point, of course, you still don’t know absolutely for certain. But from 
our particular vantage point, we were sure. We were sure that we had 
located the correct spot and that Che was going to be among the bones 
that were buried there.

How did I feel? I was there since December of 1995 and every day I got 
up thinking: ”Will he appear or won’t he appear? So the moment when he 
finally does appear I  can only summarize it as follows. Can you imagine 
what it feels like to achieve something you have been searching for 600 
days?  Can you know what it must feel like when on top of that whose 
bones we had found?  As a revolutionary and a communist, I felt that 
this was something transcendental.  But as a scientist you know it is 
all the result of all our scientific labor and that we are scientists 
only because the revolution has allowed us to become scientists and it 
was with that science that we were able to find our /companero/ Che.  So 
the result was both a coup for the revolution knowing that we had 
performed our duty and our efforts were rewarded. As a scientist I was 
trained to be objective in retrieving the first remains to emerge from 
the pit. But I already knew in my heart that it was Che and that 
knowledge gave me spiritual tranquility and a sense of pride. As a 
scientist you feel one thing but as a revolutionary you feel another, 
for we were uncovering the bodies of our heroes. It was a life saving event.

 From this moment on, we used delicate brush work and the dental   
instruments of the archeologist. That final phase of forensic work took 
only one week. The plane left Valle Grande when everything was ready. We 
were preparing   for the moment when we would find the rest of the 
remains and we worried about what could possibly happen at that moment 
–on our D-day when we had them out of the graves. We had to plan our 
every movement. What would happen if somebody was  opposed to our taking 
  out the body? The Bolivian Ministry of the Interior knew that there 
was a conspiracy afoot in that direction.  We were advised about that. 
  So, on the night that we were going to exhume all the remains, we 
decided that they should not be kept in Valle Grande. And that we should 
not remain there either.  We made a plan in which we pretended that we 
were going to arrive with the bodies to the hospital of ValleGrande. We 
prepared the hospital, put locks on the doors as if we were prepared to 
receive and protect them. But when we   exhumed the remains, instead of 
going to the local hospital we took them by stealth at night to the 
hospital at Santa Cruz instead. Nobody was expecting that.

We went by land and at night, a caravan of ten vehicles with only three 
with Cubans. The rest were local staff. In the first car an Argentine 
and a Cuban worked together. Yes, a Cuban and an Argentinian were at the 
reins. There were people from the Ministry and of the Interior and eight 
vehicles behind. We were driving as fast as we could through the 
mountains. We left at 11 pm and we arrived at Santa Cruz at 4am. The 
hospital was protected by the military.             “Despite all these 
precautions there were hundreds of people waiting outside the hospital 
who somehow by word of mouth  had managed to learn that we had arrived 
with the remains of Che.  We carried the bodies straight to the morgue 
and we stayed there locked up for seven days. By the 6th day we had 
identified everyone. We already knew by the  second day of the 
exhumation that for sure we had Che and now we were here only to confirm 
that conclusion. We knew that Che did not have any hands and so if there 
was one among the bodies without hands we knew that it would be Che. 
Even when we were  digging we saw that one body had no hands. And even 
before that we had recognized his jacket. You have a skeleton without 
hands and a jacket that we recognized. It was Che. But even so, in 
talking to the forensic anthropologist [from Argentina]  we described 
the hands and the coat but the coat was covering the skull face down.

I slipped my hand under the coat and felt the forehead, which had very 
specific characteristics. Che had a prominent forehead and when I felt 
it in my hands, I knew I was holding Che. There was also one molar 
missing, and the other  forensic anthropologist, too, felt the forehead 
and looked for the missing molar and in doing he became very emotional, 
just as was I, for he realized that he was touching the remains of our 
hero. I told the anthropologist to see for himself  if the molar was 
missing and he put his hand in there and said, ‘Yes it is, it is he’, 
and I could see tears in his eyes.

It was difficult to think that it was not him. The hands were missing, 
the coat was the same, the forehead was recognizable and the molar was 
missing. But despite all that we still continued the forensic 
examination for another five  days. During this time someone was always 
in the morgue for twenty-four   hours and  usually it was a bodyguard of 
two of us. We slept at the morgue next to the bodies. We never left the 
bodies alone. We call this a chain of custody.  We do this to protect 
the body and to make sure that no one alters the evidence. The seven 
days at the hospital we slept at the morgue in addition to the seven 
days that we were digging.  So once again seven was our lucky number. 
And we were never away from his body during all that time.

Then the plane came. The day before we left we knew exactly who was who 
and we had to do our reports.  After the reports were completed we 
called for the plane to come. Then we walked to the plane in a long line 
and we passed the bodies up, one by one, all the way up the steps to the 
plane, except for the last box. Che was in this box and I held him tight 
to myself, close to my chest, and I carried him up the steps and held 
him close  and never let him go during the flight.


The narrative of the excavation of Che is replete with Biblical and New 
Testament images, senses, emotions and signs. It is not that spiritual 
and political radicalisms are both rooted in death but rather that they 
are rooted in rituals that bring death and the dead back into life. This 
is, I think, it why Jorge González described the event as  life-saving. 
Death rituals, whether Catholic /Missa pro defunctis/, the Jewish 
/kaddish/ or the Communist excavation and repatriation of the beloved 
dead body allow the mourners to integrate the dead into their lives, to 
use  grief to affirm one’s beliefs and commitments and to continue the 
revolution that Che or Jesus for that matter] could not have achieved at 
the time of their deaths. This is what Catholics call the resurrection 
of the dead.

/*Nancy Scheper-Hughes* is Chancellor’s Professor of Medical 
Anthropology, University of California Berkeley. Scheper-Hughes 
participated in a Vatican plenary on Human Trafficking in April 2015. 
She has published a series of articles on the “conversion” of Pope 
Francis, including, “Can God Forgive Jorge Bergoglio? 
(2013, CounterPunch,;  “The Final Conversion of Pope Francis” 
<http://clas.berkeley.edu/research/religion-final-conversion-pope-francis> (with 
Jennifer S. Hughes),  and “Face to Face with Pope Francis 
(2015), Huffington Post. /

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
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