'Santo Ernesto' The Curse Of Che Guevara

Legendary Argentinian guerrilla fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara was shot dead in Bolivia 40 years ago. Some worship him like a saint, while others credit him with the power to take revenge on his killers from beyond the grave.

The man who shot the most famous guerrilla fighter of all time lives in Bolivia's largest city, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in a typical middle-class neighborhood. The street is quiet and located close to Avenida Paraguay, one of the main thoroughfares in the sprawling city. The man who lives here is 68 years old, white-haired and stocky. He once served in the military and was honorably discharged 10 years ago. The former soldier is married and has five children. He introduces himself to strangers as "Pedro Salazar," but his real name is Mario Terán.

It was Mario Terán who killed Ernesto "Che" Guevara 40 years ago on Oct. 9, 1967.

"He had shouldered his gun and was carrying a beer in each hand when he came up the hill and towards the school," 63-year-old farm worker Manuel Cortéz remembers. He lives next door to the school in the tiny village of La Higuera, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) southwest of Santa Cruz. Cortéz had seen Che being locked inside the school along with his fellow combatant, Willy, the day before. The Bolivian army had ambushed the utterly exhausted guerrilla fighters in a nearby valley. "The soldiers celebrated their triumph all night," Cortéz remembers.

The simple school building was made from mud and straw and was divided into two classrooms. Willy was locked up in the one on the right, Che in the one on the left. "Don't kill me! I'm worth more to you alive than dead!" the Argentinian is said to have exclaimed when he was arrested. But on the morning of Oct. 9, Bolivia's then president, René Barrientos, ordered the execution of the guerrilla fighters.

First, one soldier shot Willy. At around 11:30 a.m., Mario Terán stepped into the room on the left. He fired his M2 Carbine rifle at the rebel leader, who was crouching on the floor. Che was hit nine times and died.

There are hardly any photographs of Terán. In 40 years he has never spoken publicly about Che, and his address is Bolivia's best kept secret. Former guerrilla fighters speculate he has an agreement with the CIA, who is said to be protecting him. Some former fellow combatants believe he is afraid of a Cuban unit seeking revenge. Julia Cortéz, the former village schoolteacher who brought Che some soup shortly before his death, believes Terán is "afraid of the curse of Che."

The people in the small town of Vallegrande, where anthropologists retrieved Che's remains 10 years ago, firmly believe in the curse. Six of the politicians and military officers who share responsibility for his death have already died a violent death. They were murdered, died in accidents or in a helicopter crash -- like President Barrientos.

'The Che Myth Must Finally Be Destroyed'

General Gary Prado, who arrested Guevara, could be said to be one of the curse's victims. A shot went off from a gun he was handling and hit his spine. He has been paralyzed ever since. "There is no curse. That's nonsense," he snarls from his wheelchair.

Prado, who is now 68, was the commander of the special military unit that pursued the guerrilla fighters on their odyssey through the bleak mountains of southeastern Bolivia. The old general says he wants to rescue the reputation of the soldiers who fought the guerrilla fighters: "That was a foreign intervention. The myth of the holy Che must finally be destroyed."

That seems highly unlikely. A wave of Che nostalgia is rolling through Latin America on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his death. Veterans of the Cuban Revolution have erected a mausoleum above the ditch by the side of the Vallegrande airstrip where Che's bones were found. The school in La Higuera has been renovated and converted into a museum. The laundry room in the Vallegrande hospital -- where the famous, Jesus-like photograph of Che's laid-out corpse was taken -- has become another pilgrimage site for "revolution tourists" from all over the world.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has a huge portrait of Che hanging in his office, is now inaugurating the "Ruta del Che" (Che Route.) In return for a small sum, young men from Vallegrande are to introduce visitors to the last remaining historical witnesses: the village's former schoolteacher who was able to speak to the revolutionary for a few minutes; the photographer who secretly photographed his corpse in the laundry room; the nurse who washed him before doctors pumped his body full of formaldehyde and cut off his hands.

Tourists from all over the world visit La Higuera on pilgrimage. A Frenchman has opened a hostel at the telegraph office where the guerrilla fighters made their last attempt to establish contact with the outside world. Next door, Cuban doctors provide treatment to the destitute farm workers free of charge. Images of the revolutionary hang in the villlagers' huts, and many people pray to "Santo Ernesto" who is said to bring about miracles.

Mario Terán never returned to La Higuera. He is rumored to have become an alcoholic and to live in constant fear. "No, he's doing fine," General Prado insists. "He's just sick and tired of all the fuss about Che."

He recently broke his silence when his son passed a letter penned by him on to El Deber, Santa Cruz's largest daily.

In it, Che Guevara's killer expresses his gratitude to Fidel Castro, of all people, because Cuban doctors operated on his eye free of charge in a Santa Cruz hospital. "He received treatment under a false name," says one of the doctors who work in La Higuera.

Mario Terán has escaped the curse of Che, it seems -- at least so far.

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