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The Local Deity

Bones or not, Vallegrande's a must stop on the 'Che Route.' by

Joshua Hammer

Ernesto Che GuevaraNestali Ocinaga will never forget the afternoon the soldiers brought in the bullet-riddled corpse of Che Guevara. Ocinaga, then 19, was trimming rosebushes in the garden of Vallegrande's hospital when the excited troops carried the guerrilla on a stretcher to a laundry shed behind the main building. They laid the body out for display on a concrete washstand. "His eyes were wide open," Ocinaga recalls. "And his wounds were covered in blood." Ocinaga knew little about the rebel leader or his quixotic attempt to foment Marxist revolution in the mountain hamlets of Bolivia, but he sensed that the military government still feared the power of Che. "That night he was taken away by the soldiers," recalls Ocinaga, standing inside the decrepit laundry shed, now a graffiti-covered shrine. "Everything was done in secret."

Last month the truth finally came to light. Watching forensic anthropologists brush away dirt from seven skeletons embedded in the packed earth near Vallegrande's airstrip, Ocinaga felt a chill of recognition: wrapped around the remains labeled "Skeleton No. 2" was the black leather belt the guerrilla leader wore that day in October 1967. "I knew at that moment that it was Che," he says. For Ocinaga and many of his neighbors, the discovery of the guerrilla's remains after an intensive two-year search was a cause for celebration. During the past 30 years, Che Guevara has become an object of mystical reverence in this remote mountain village of 5,000 people, and the multiple stories surrounding his final resting place have only heightened his allure. "He is a great man—a god," Ocinaga says.

Che wasn't always so lionized. During his ill-conceived guerrilla campaign between March and October 1967, locals denied food to his ragged band, fled from them in terror and often reported their movements to the army. But the cult of Che began to grow from the day his corpse was flown by helicopter from La Higuera, where he was captured and executed, to Vallegrande, site of a military base. Many villagers said the half-clothed, bloodied corpse resembled the crucified Jesus; he was soon worshiped as "Santo Ernesto," the patron saint of Vallegrande. Discouraged by a series of right-wing regimes from public veneration, residents secretly held masses and lit candles in Che's memory; young people gathered to read his prolific writings and pore over details of his Bolivian adventure.

Vallegrande's fascination with Che intensified two years ago, when the search began for his remains. In November 1995, Che's American

biographer, John Lee Andersen, was told by a retired Bolivian general that Che and six comrades were buried in a mass grave near Vallegrande's dirt airstrip. A bulldozer operator who had participated in the burial confirmed the general's tale. The Bolivian government, facing pressure from the dead guerrilla's family members, ordered an investigation. An initial search of the area by Argentine and Cuban forensics experts and Bolivian soldiers uncovered the skeletons of four rebels — but no Che.

Late last year the Cubans resumed their search. A team interviewed 100 villagers and soldiers who had served in Vallegrande's battalion in 1967. They also conducted geothermal and geomagnetic studies and topographical surveys of a 10,000-square-meter area to test for disturbances in the earth caused by a bulldozer. After a two-month delay in the spring—Vallegrande officials ordered the work stopped to protest the town's likely loss of Che's remains— the team returned to work and unearthed the skeletons on June 28.

Last week the reassembled, washed skeletons lay in metal trays on gurneys in the brightly lit morgue at a Japanese run hospital in Santa Cruz, a regional capital 250 kilometers northeast of Vallegrande. Moldy camouflage jackets, belts, shoes and sandals were piled neatly at the foot of each gurney. One forensics expert hunched over a computer screen, superimposing premortem photos of the guerrillas on images of their skulls. Others X-rayed the bones for bullet fragments and compared the results to detailed 1967 autopsy reports prepared by the Bolivian Army. Skeleton No. 2 was missing its hands, a vital clue:

Che's had been amputated before his burial. It was also the only one of the seven whose skull had not been shattered by a bullet — consistent with the way Che died. Teeth were checked against dental records; on July 10 the team determined that No. 2's and those of Guevara were a perfect match. Final preparations got underway to repatriate the bones to Cuba.

In Vallegrande, meanwhile, euphoria over the discovery has given way to more complex emotions. Many locals believe the international publicity will give a huge boost to their growing tourist industry;

Bolivian travel agencies have begun offering tours of the "Che Route," including stops at the gravesite and laundry shed. Other locals are glad that their patron saint can now be properly laid to rest. Still, many admit to feeling a profound sense of loss—and indignation over the highhanded way the Bolivian government snatched away the bones from the village. On July 5 officials ordered the remains boxed and secretly driven to Santa Cruz after midnight, reportedly concerned that some Vallegrande zealots would try to block their removal. "They spirited them away under cover of darkness, just like they did 30 years ago," says Gerardo Carrasco, a member of the town civic committee. Still, for members of the Che church, Vallegrande will always be sacred ground.

Newsweek july 21, 1997, p.20

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