In the 1960s, America experienced a significant social revolution, which was led by a burgeoning population of post-war youth that seemed wholly committed to change on a national scale. This broad movement found its strongest supporters on college campuses and among a large number of local, ad hoc activist groups. As with any social revolution, violent or not, the youth movement of the 1960s created and borrowed symbols and icons to represent its cause in the most effective way possible. One of the most popular icons of that time was a man who came to represent the essence of revolutionary change to much of the world—Che Guevara.
During the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s, Ernesto “Che” Guevara became well known throughout Latin America and, ultimately, throughout the world because of his tenacious and sometimes outrageous exploits in support of the popular uprising led by Fidel Castro against the reigning government. As Castro’s deputy and closest comrade in the anti-government forces, Guevara successfully fought alongside the Cuban revolutionaries and eventually became widely recognized as one of that nation’s most revered heroes. However, his destiny and desire was not to remain at Castro’s side after their victory—it was to spread his concept of revolutionary change throughout Latin America. After Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba in 1959, Guevara left the country with a small group of trusted comrades to join their fellow revolutionaries in Latin America in the hopes of bringing the same kind of change to other nations as had proved to be so successful in Cuba.
For a time, reports of Guevara’s whereabouts and activities were sporadic and dubious, although it was assumed that he was organizing his forces for some revolutionary purpose in South America. It was eventually rumored that Guevara was active in Bolivia, attempting to establish an insurgency force of peasants that would be capable of toppling the government and replacing it with a Communist regime patterned after that in Cuba. However, the uprising never happened, and by the mid-1960s Guevara had disappeared from the political scene. Rumors of his death were rampant, but nothing could be confirmed and his name fell into relative obscurity beyond Latin America. However, in Cuba, Guevara was still revered as a national hero and there was a continuing and intense interest in what had become of him.
In fact, Guevara’s fate was already well known to a few, high-ranking members of the Bolivian army. These soldiers knew that Guevara had been last seen alive near Vallegrande, Bolivia—a small town located some 150 miles west of Santa Cruz—and they also knew of his execution. However, this information was classified as top-secret in the Bolivian Army and no one was willing to risk his or her life by divulging it. Still, there were a few clues to Guevara’s demise, if one looked hard enough.
In October 1967, the bullet-riddled body of a revolutionary who physically resembled Che Guevara was inexplicably put on public display at the Senor de Malta Hospital in Vallegrande. No formal statement was made as to the identity of the unknown victim, and no one involved in this bizarre incident seemed willing to discuss it publicly. However, to those who had seen the remains, it seemed likely that they belonged to Che Guevara, who was locally rumored to have been active in Bolivia at the time. The Bolivian Army and high-ranking members of the government remained silent on the issue and, within a day, the body mysteriously vanished from the hospital. After this strange episode, nothing more was heard of Che Guevara for nearly thirty years.
In November 1995, a tantalizing bit of evidence unexpectedly surfaced concerning Guevara’s fate. Mario Vargas Salinas, a retired General in the Bolivian army, informed an American journalist, Jon Lee Anderson, that Guevara’s body had been buried in an open area near the airfield in Vallegrande in 1967. Salinas went on to tell the journalist that Guevara had been captured by members of the Bolivian Army on October 8 of that year in the area of Vado del Yeso, southeast of the Bolivian capital, La Paz. Already wounded and on the verge of starvation when he was captured, the revolutionary and his small band of men were flown 300 miles away, eventually landing at the Vallegrande airfield. The next day, Guevara and his men were executed on the orders of one of the Bolivian Army’s top commanders. According to Salinas, the bodies were then buried in an impromptu grave that had been dug next to the airfield. However, Salinas was unable to recall the precise area where Guevara’s remains were located.
When Anderson reported his conversation with Salinas, the President of Bolivia, Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, decided to become actively involved in the matter by establishing a special commission to investigate Guevara’s disappearance. According to Lozada, he felt compelled to locate the revolutionary hero’s remains and provide him with a proper Catholic burial out of respect for his efforts in Cuba nearly forty years previously. Lozada charged the Presidential Commission with the responsibility to look into the circumstances surrounding the death of Che Guevara and oversee any search for his remains. The Commission immediately turned to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) because of the reputation its members had earned while working throughout Latin America on humanitarian investigations. The EAAF was asked to lead the investigation into Guevara’s fate and exhume any remains that could be located near the Vallegrande airfield or elsewhere.
By December 1995, the search for Guevara’s body was underway in earnest. The original forensics team was headed by an Argentinean anthropologist, Alejandro Inchaurregui, who instructed the members to begin digging along a 100-yard by 10-yard area behind the old cemetery at Vallegrande. Because the cemetery was located very near the airfield, Inchaurregui had decided that this was the most likely place for Guevara’s burial site. However, working conditions were made exceptionally difficult by the geography of the area and the persistent, driving rainstorms. In the end, the EAAF team found nothing and gave up on the site. It would later be learned that the anthropologists had searched the wrong area but had only missed their intended target by a few dozen yards.
The Scientists: Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF)
In 1983, after years of oppressive military rule, the President of Argentina, Raoul Alfonsin, established a special commission to investigate the thousands of civilians who had been murdered during the lengthy era of human rights violations in that country. The Presidential commission asked for assistance from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It was Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist, who answered the Commission’s call for help.Over a five-year period, beginning in 1984, Snow worked to successfully establish and organize the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) and train its members. Today, the EAAF is known in many countries throughout the world for its outstanding humanitarian efforts.
The EAAF uses a multidisciplinary approach to fulfill its mission, which involves forensic anthropologists, archaeologists, medical personnel, computer experts, and lawyers working in a team environment to address issues of human rights violations. When investigating any humanitarian issue, the EAAF gathers case histories about the victims as well as the forensic evidence that is traditional in this type of work. The team also does extensive laboratory analysis of skeletal remains to help determine both a victim’s identity and the cause of death.
Since it formation in 1984, the EAAF has grown into an organization that undertakes its work far beyond South America. Members of the team regularly travel worldwide to help with investigations into human rights violations in a wide variety of circumstances and locations.
Between late 1995 and early 1997, the EAAF continued to investigate the area near the Vallegrande airfield, as well as sites near the hospital where Guevara’s body had allegedly been put on display. However, the anthropologists found nothing of consequence in either location gathered little background information that could lead them in new directions. During this long and frustrating phase of the investigation, several members of the EAAF team came to believe that the Bolivian Army may have been deliberately trying to deceive them in their search for Guevara’s remains, and tensions ran high. However, as matters would later be resolved, the team had simply not been thorough enough in their investigation and had never managed to pinpoint the actual burial site.
In early 1997, the EAAF again returned to the original search area at the Vallegrande airfield. However, on this expedition a team of experienced Cuban anthropologists, which had carefully researched the time period when Guevara had been active in Bolivia, accompanied them. Once again, fieldwork began in earnest. This time, the anthropologists focused on an area next to the airstrip and some fifty meters from the Vallegrande cemetery—the site of the first dig in 1995.
By the end of June, the Cuban team had discovered the remains of two individuals in a grave adjacent to the airfield runway. Within two days, another five skeletons were exhumed from the same site, and one of them was preliminarily identified as that of Che Guevara. A combination of solid investigative background work and the statements of an eyewitness who had helped to bury the body of the revolutionary leader thirty years earlier enabled the anthropologists to pinpoint the gravesite that had remained a top military secret for so many decades.
During the exhumation of the remains, forensic anthropologists were able to determine that Guevara and his men had been executed together and their bodies dumped on top of each other into the carefully prepared grave. This coincided with the statement of the witness that the bodies of the revolutionaries had been tipped out of the back of a dump truck into the grave, which was then covered over with the help of a small tractor. The grave itself measured about 10 meters long, five meters wide, and three meters deep. In all, the remains of seven individuals were removed from the burial site and analyzed.
By the second week of July 1997, Che Guevara’s remains had been positively identified, along with those of several of the others who had been buried with him. Three of the skeletons belonged to Cuban revolutionaries who had joined Guevara in his fatal attempt to foment a peasant uprising in Bolivia in 1967. The others were Bolivians who had joined his cause.
That summer, Guevara’s remains were returned to Cuba, accompanied by all the pomp and ceremony that he would have probably never expected during his lifetime. On October 17, 1997, Ernesto Che Guevara was given an impressive ceremonial burial in Cuba, presided over by his old comrade Fidel Castro. Guevara’s remains were finally laid to rest in the country that had refused to let his memory die and had long since proclaimed him a national revolutionary hero.