"He's still in the Mexican Embassy, do you want to see him?" asked Amalia Barrón, a young Bolivian journalist I knew from the Camirí days. Philippe Nourry of Le Figaro and I had flown Amalia out of Camirí on the plane I had hired to smuggle me out of the Bolivian oil town where the Bolivian guerrillas were tried. The angry chief of the Fourth Division Intelligence Section would not let me out, claiming I had left Camirí and returned to the area without military permission when I had gone to Valle Grande to investigate Che Guevara's capture. Disguised as the taxi driver, I drove Amalia, Nourry, and the taxi driver out to the landing strip at Choreti, past sleepy eyed and still sleeping guards at the checkpoints. The few who stopped us were satisfied with Amalia's and Nourry's exit passes.
I had kept in touch with Amalia since we left the dusty oil town after the sentencing of Régis Debray, and now we were in the lobby of the Hotel La Paz in the Bolivian capital, talking about Antonio Arguedas, the former minister of government who had sent a copy of Guevara's diary to Fidel Castro, the prime minister of Cuba. Castro was able to publish the diary before the Bolivian Military could sell the rights for its publication.
Arguedas fled Bolivia, fearing for his life, when it was discovered he had sent Castro the diary. The Bolivian Military were very angry. They stood to make over $250,000 out of the sale of the diary. Arguedas, accompanied by his brother, jumped in a jeep and drove to the Chilean border. His flight was followed almost immediately by that of at least one CIA agent whose cover Arguedas could blow—and did later.
Arguedas was technically free but never got rid of Chilean Police or American and British agents. He blabbed about the Bolivian CIA operation while in Chile. Then, always accompanied by British or American agents, flew to London, to New York, and finally to Peru—a mad series of moves halfway around the world. The agents were very interested in keeping the Bolivian CIA operation quiet, and perhaps in keeping him in the service of the CIA, or in debriefing him about his Cuban connections.
He was finally lured back to Bolivia by the late President René Barrientos, who promised him a fair hearing and treatment if he returned. On his arrival at El Alto Airport in La Paz, Arguedas in a very dramatic interview that was stopped almost immediately by the military confessed he had been working for the CIA and poured out the names and activities of CIA agents in Bolivia, something he had partially leaked at several places while outside Bolivia. Almost as suddenly, the military reversed themselves and let the press talk to Arguedas for about two hours. Then they locked him up for good.
I was interested in talking to Arguedas again—and alone—because he obviously had some inside information about the guerrillas and Che Guevara. I was particularly interested in a tape I knew he had made of an interview with Mario Terán, the Bolivian army sergeant that executed Guevara. Arguedas confirmed he had made this tape in his second interview on his return to Bolivia even though he said then that he had let it fall into the hands of the CIA as proof of his good faith when he was in London. I thought he might at least have a copy since he made it clear in Bolivia that he had left certain evidence with friends outside Bolivia in case anything happened to him on his return to his country.
The former minister of government, I had learned, was playing a triple game. He was a CIA agent and as such received the CIA intelligence from the field. Torn between nationalist and leftist sympathies he began to use the intelligence he received as a member of the Bolivian government to the advantage of the Cuban supported guerrillas the Bolivian military were fighting. He would tip off urban contacts of the guerrillas who had been discovered through information gained in the field and thus give them a chance to get away before Bolivian authorities—his own agents—could arrest them. When he became a suspect, the intelligence people began to by pass him. It was then that in a fit of pique he sent Castro the diary, using, according to him, an address taken by intelligence officers from the body of a guerrilla killed in the field.
On his return to Bolivia the military brushed aside the law and subjected Arguedas to a military trial. According to Bolivian law, cabinet ministers may be tried only by Congress. The angry military charged Arguedas with "treason, espionage, and other grave crimes." They announced Arguedas had confessed he "had given the diary of the chief of the Guerrillas of the Southeast, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, a secret military document, to the communist government of Havana to the grave detriment of the international prestige of the Nation and in particular the Armed Forces of the Nation."
The military, always suspicious of divisions in their ranks and afraid of each other, sought to establish how Arguedas obtained a copy of the diary and to place responsibility on someone for permitting the diary to be photographed by the CIA. But the trial, as most things in Bolivia tend to do, back fired. The witch hunt didn't work. Instead of proving anything against Arguedas concerning the source of the copy of the diary he was able to send Castro, the military were only revealing their ineptitude, confessing the CIA got to Guevara's diary before they did, and that Guevara had indeed been captured alive and executed by them and had not died of battle wounds as they sought to make everyone believe. The depositions of the military at the trial were very revealing and did nothing to enhance the poor image of the discredited Bolivian armed forces. When it became evident undesirable truths were coming to light and that the Military Court would be unable to establish who gave Arguedas the diary, the military dropped the trial and turned it over to a civil court. This only made matters worse. The civil court let Arguedas out of jail and gave him access to the court record, which he carefully copied with a 35 millimeter camera.
In a meeting arranged by another woman journalist, the pushy Betsy Zavala of United Press International, I saw Arguedas after he was freed and talked alone and at length with him. Betsy was a close friend of his wife. He was suspicious of me and probably would not have talked except for Betsy's insistence and assurances that I was a bonafide journalist she had known and worked with for years. I was interested in finding out something about his interview with Terán, and hopeful of being able to get a copy of the tape itself. Arguedas simply wouldn't talk about Guevara. He continually referred to him as "El Comandante Guevara," indicating he had great respect for him. I offered some information. I told him I had been to the school where Guevara had been executed and taken pictures of it—and how because of my efforts I had landed in jail. He was very curious, and he listened very carefully. Gradually he eased up, but not much. In another lengthy meeting the next day he returned to his favorite theme, the CIA and how it operated in Bolivia. He spoke of the U.S. influence and how it was exerted in his country. Then, surprisingly, he gave me the photocopies of the records of the trial.
I studied the court records carefully with a magnifying glass after I got back to Rio. The individual depositions showed Arguedas was lying about the source of his copy of the diary—a fact that escaped his attention. He claimed the CIA had given him the diary. The court record also revealed how the CIA got and copied the diary, that Guevara was captured after suffering only a minor thigh wound, and that deep differences existed among the members of the Bolivian armed forces.
That differences existed among the members of the Bolivian military was common knowledge and had been borne out by public statements of its members. In the case of the execution of Che Guevara, General Alfredo Ovando, the commander in chief of the Bolivian armed forces, and other high ranking officers maintained he had died of battle wounds while the officer who captured him, Captain Gary Prado, submitted a battle report after Guevara was shot disassociating himself from the execution. The court record further documented these differences.
Every conversation with Arguedas inevitably touched on the CIA. He kept insisting it was an invisible government in his country. For me the court record crystallized a growing conviction; the CIA did not give Arguedas the diary. I had seen the Havana version of the diary and noted it included both the first book, covering the start of the guerrilla training period and running through December 31st, 1966, and the second one that followed it and ended the day before Guevara was shot and captured at La Higuera. However, 47 pages were missing from the second book. I also knew—but I cannot reveal the source—that the undeveloped film of the second book Captain Felix Ramos copied in La Higuera went straight to Washington and that copies of the photocopies of the final part of Guevara's diary were sent to General Ovando. The Bolivian military, in turn, made copies of the diary and Ovando passed these around to the President, the late General René Barrientos, and a few of the high ranking officers under him. Fidel Castro's announcement in Havana that he was publishing the diary worried Ovando and his brother officers who had copies. They began suspecting each other. Their suspicions continued even after Arguedas suddenly fled Bolivia when it was discovered he had given the diary to Castro. When the diary published by Castro appeared, it became evident to those with inside knowledge—at that time only the military, the CIA and a few other people—that the Havana diary was not published from the CIA made copies. Had it been, it would have been a reproduction of the complete second book only. The Havana version was published from a photocopy made of both books by the military themselves after removing the pages covering Guevara's entries from 20 March through 20 April. These pages proved that "the Frenchman," Régis Debray, then on trial in Camirí, had actually carried a weapon while with the guerrillas, stood guard and carried out other guerrilla duties. The military had removed these pages from the copies Ovando gave the select group of officers and the president, and introduced them at the trial in Camirí to convict Debray. Much later I learned that Arguedas borrowed President Barrientos' copy, which he in turn copied and sent to Cuba.
I was able to talk to Arguedas one more time on a subsequent trip to Bolivia. Though he seemed closer to opening up every time I talked to him, he still refused to talk about his interview with Terán. By this time he had become interested in journalism and was working with Jorge Suárez, the leftist editor of the daily Jornada. This time I spoke with him at the print shop, just off Plaza Murillo.
The next news I had about Arguedas came on the wires. He had been shot and after treatment disappeared from the hospital. Arguedas, fearing for his life, took refuge in the Mexican Embassy.
On my next trip to Bolivia I found Arguedas still making news. He was still in the embassy, but was denied a safe conduct to leave the country, and there were indications someone was still trying to kill him even though he was supposed to be out of reach in the embassy compound.
It was impossible to get into the embassy. The rules of asylum in Latin America forbid those who have taken refuge in an embassy from talking to anyone other than embassy personnel. I began to think I might never have a chance to see Arguedas again. I remembered that Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, a Peruvian political leader, had remained in asylum in the Colombian Embassy in Lima for five years.
Months went by. The little news that I had about Arguedas was that he was well. Visitors to the Mexican Embassy reported he spent his time reading and cutting the grass at the embassy and that he took his meals with Ambassador Pedro González and his wife.
Amalia's candid question, "Do you want to see him?" brought an immediate reply. "Of course I want to see him," I told her.
"Well, then, we'll go this evening."
"Are you crazy?" I said. "We can't get in there."
Strange things happen in Bolivia, and this was one of them.
Before coming to Bolivia this time I had sent Amalia a cable asking about Arguedas. News agency reports said he was no longer at the Mexican Embassy. In her cabled answer to me, Amalia confirmed he was still in the embassy. Now she explained to me how she had just picked up the phone, dialed the embassy and talked to the maid, who formerly worked in her home and whom she knew very well. After a brief exchange of greetings, Amalia asked the maid if Arguedas was there. The maid had answered, "Yes, Señor Arguedas is here," and then with typical Bolivian politeness asked, "And when are you coming over to see me, Amalita?"
At dusk I went over to the Mexican Embassy with Amalia, who got a big greeting from the maid. Amalia offhandedly told her I wanted to see Arguedas and soon he came. Amalia continued talking to the maid. She said she would see me later as Arguedas led me to a small room.
Arguedas, as usual, was suspicious, especially since I was now in the embassy with him. I always suspected he sometimes had the feeling I was a CIA agent. Eventually he relaxed and began to talk.
The former Minister told me about the three attempts on his life. First a bazooka shell was fired through his upstairs bedroom. It tore the room to bits. Fortunately he was not there. A second attempt failed when a hand grenade booby trapped to the house door did not explode. The third attempt occurred after he had moved out of his house. It happened at night as he was walking back to his hotel along Socabaya Street with Pedro Sánchez Queriolo, a correspondent for Vanguardia of Barcelona.
He and Queriolo were walking down the steep street when a white Volkswagen that had been silently coasting downhill behind them started up its engine. At the same time, machinegun fire shattered the stillness. Lightning like flashes lit up the darkness. The bullets knocked Arguedas down. One hit him in the left forearm, another grazed his left leg. What probably saved Arguedas from being finished off as he lay on the sidewalk was a taxi that turned uphill at that moment. It scared off the assailants. Queirolo who had not been hit helped Arguedas into the taxi, which took them to the Clínica Americana. Fearing his days were numbered, Arguedas fled directly from the hospital to the Mexican Embassy, where he sought and received political asylum from Ambassador González. The Embassy's efforts to get him a safe conduct, said Arguedas, were getting nowhere. He said he even began to fear for his life inside the embassy after the embassy guards vanished and the white Volkswagen—he felt sure it was the same one—began to drive by the embassy regularly and slowly while the occupants peered suspiciously into the embassy compound. The alarmed ambassador, said Arguedas, finally got the guards back. Things got worse, Arguedas said, after General Alfredo Ovando threw out President Adolfo Siles Salinas and government people began accusing Arguedas of dealing in cocaine.
"They're trying to get the embassy to turn me over to them by claiming I am a common criminal," explained Arguedas.
We got back on the subject of Che Guevara, and again I explained that the only reason for my wanting more details about Guevara's death was to write a story—eventually—about Guevara's final days, that I knew it would have some inaccuracies but that I wanted to make it as factual as possible. Again Arguedas surprised me. Perhaps it was his fear he might never get out, perhaps he trusted me. I may never know. But he said:
"I have written some 80 pages about that. Why don't you come tomorrow at four." Then he added hurriedly, "Now you'd better get out. I see the secretary coming."
The secretary was Chargé d'Affaires Carlos Ferrer. The ambassador had left Bolivia since Arguedas had taken refuge in the embassy.
Late that night I dined with a Cabinet Member of the Constitutional Government thrown out by Ovando. We met at the Galley. The band was playing old American tunes and couples were dancing. We took a corner table away from the light and noise, and began talking of old times, Bolivian politics, and—eventually—about Che Guevara and Arguedas. I talked about the attempts on Arguedas, and my friend, in turn, told me why the military was opposed to giving Arguedas a safe conduct to leave Bolivia, confirming a strange, macabre story I was beginning to piece together.
His story concerned a heated cabinet meeting. He said a bitter argument ensued after President Siles asked if there was any reason why Arguedas should not be given a safe conduct to leave the country. Siles knew what he was letting himself in for. He knew the military were opposed and before the meeting had discussed the Arguedas matter individually and at length with some of his most trusted civilian ministers. The Mexican Government, Siles told his ministers at the meeting, was pressuring for Arguedas' permission to leave the country. He added he could not see why the request should not be granted and asked for opinions. All of the civilian ministers said they were in favor of granting the safe conduct. The two military ministers, however, said they were against it. Pressed for a reason, the ministers of defense and of government cited national security. The civilian ministers would not let up and finally forced the military men to give their reasons, arguing that if reasons of state were involved there was no better place to discuss them than at a meeting of the ministers of state. At this point, my friend continued, the two military ministers got off by themselves and discussed the matter. As the president's appointees they could hardly represent a state within a state, but the civilian ministers knew very well that in Bolivia—as in other places in Latin America—the state and the top military man is usually one and the same. But Siles' bluff worked. The two military ministers explained that Arguedas should not be given a safe conduct because he had in his possession Che Guevara's hands.
Guevara's hands were chopped off at the wrist just before he was buried in a secret location a few hours after he was shot. His hands were preserved in formaldehyde in order that two Argentine dactylographic experts could take his fingerprints later and corroborate his identity to disbelievers the world over who refused to accept the fingerprints taken by Bolivian authorities as definite proof that the man killed in Southeast Bolivia was indeed Che Guevara. I knew this only too well because it took me nearly a year to corroborate it. I finally tracked down one of the two men who took Guevara's fingerprints, then the chief of a precinct police station in la Boca. My attempts to see him when I passed through Buenos Aires were fruitless, but my Girl Friday, Nina Lindley, eventually caught him. He told her they had received the hands from high echelon Army officers in the presence of General Ovando on October 16th in the Miraflores Barracks in La Paz. They were cut off at the wrists and were brought in a tin can filled with formaldehyde. After they took the prints, the hands were put back in the can and taken away. The skepticism about Guevara's identity had been such in Washington that American Embassy officers in La Paz actually considered borrowing the evidence and sending it to the U.S. capital so that State Department experts could take the fingerprints off the severed hands themselves.
President Siles' angry civilian ministers didn't care about the hands. They were concerned about their relations with Mexico.
"So what?" they retorted, "Guevara's hands are no longer important. Have you asked Arguedas for the hands?"
"Yes. He told us, `I threw them into late Titicaca.'"
The civilians did not believe Arguedas had done that, but they kept pressing, insisting the hands no longer had any importance.
"What about the hands?"
The two officers finally conceded that the hands no longer had any importance and admitted the real reason for opposing the safe conduct. Arguedas, they said, had in his possession certain tapes considered damaging, especially to the armed forces of Bolivia.
The confrontation was acrimonious. The civilians resented the arrogance of the army officers and the latter the impertinence of the civilians. To pacify both sides, President Siles suggested the Armed Forces be given a month to find a solution to their problem of the tapes. After one month Arguedas would receive his safe conduct. Siles' compromise solution was accepted by both sides.
On September 26, 1969, four days before the month was up, General Ovando overthrew Siles.
More than likely the tapes the military knew Arguedas had were of his interview with Terán. The Bolivian Military have always maintained Guevara died of battle wounds. They adamantly refuse to admit they executed him.
We had another drink and I told my friend I had seen Arguedas earlier.
"No," he said. "How did you do it?"
I told him I had just gone up and asked to see him, that I was just as incredulous as he was and that Arquedas had invited me back to see him at four o'clock the next day.
Punctually at four, the following day, I showed up at the Mexican Embassy. The maid acted as though she had never seen me before.
"No, Señor, nobody can see Señor Arguedas," and she walked back inside the embassy. My efforts to reason with her over the telephone later were futile. She kept referring me to the secretary, and I knew it was he who had given the order and that it would be of no use to try to ask him to do something prohibited by international agreement.
When I got back to Rio I put the pieces together and cabled my story. I was sure Arguedas had the hands and feared he might not be able to get out of Bolivia alive. I knew from experience that embassies are not always respected. François "Papa Doc" Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes once broke into the Dominican Embassy trying to capture political enemies of the regime whom the suspicious Dominican Ambassador had fortunately hidden in his own home.
But Arguedas did get his safe conduct. In April, several months after he walked into the Mexican Embassy, he was taken to El Alto Airport by Chargé Ferrer and put on a flight for Mexico City.
I happened to be vacationing in Mexico City when Arguedas landed there and for the first time mentioned the hands. He told the Mexican press he had Guevara's hands and that he had hidden them among the Bolivian peaks. It was a weird story. The Mexicans raised their eyebrows. The Andean peak hiding place sounded fishy. For me, Arguedas' statements only reconfirmed what I already knew and had published about the hands. I took the mountain hiding place with a grain of salt, but I did know he used to spend weekends mountain climbing and skiing around La Paz and for this reason did not completely discard the story. I was intrigued, however, with a box the Mexican papers reported Arguedas was carrying on arrival and wondered if he might not have the hands in it. Next day I spoke with him by phone. He was staying at the Hotel Virreyes. We said hello and we talked a little while. He told me he was going to Cuba after spending a month in Mexico.
He got to Havana with his wife and family—and the hands. On July 26th, the anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, Castro himself—in a speech—announced Arguedas had brought to Cuba Che Guevara's hands—and his death mask!