Where Are Che’s Bones ? / 14ymedio, Bertrand de la Grange

Pit where the remains where, in 1997, the remains of 'Che' Guevara and several of his colleagues were found in Vallegrande, Bolivia.(BdG)
Pit where the remains where, in 1997, the remains of ‘Che’ Guevara and several of his colleagues were found in Vallegrande, Bolivia.(BdG)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Bertrand de la Grange, 1 December 2016 – In the Santa Clara mausoleum everything is genuine. Except, perhaps, Che’s bones. Thousands of people are making pilgrimages lately to this giant stone building to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Ernesto Guevara’s death. Official history says that a team of Cuban forensic scientists found his skeleton in eastern Bolivia and repatriated it in July of 1997. Ten years later, however, there were the first indicators that cast doubt on this version.

Three European experts – Dr Jose Antonio Sanchez, director of the School of Legal Medicine at the Complutense University of Madrid; his colleague José Antonio García-Andrade, from the same university, and a French physician specializing in forensic anthropology and archeology – have analyzed the technical documentation used by the Cubans.

“Scientific Accomplishment.” Thus, Havana classified the discovery of Che’s bones, made by a team directed by Cuban forensic scientist Jorge Gonzalez. He was buried with six other guerrillas – three Cubans, two Bolivians and a Peruvian – in a pit a few yards from the airstrip of Vallegrande, a town of 6,000 inhabitants near La Higuera, the village when the Argentinean was murdered by the Bolivian Army on 9 October 1967.

The triumphal arrival of the coffin in Havana, on 13 July 1997, gave the communist government a great political victory a time when Cubans were suffering from hunger following the collapse of the USSR, the country’s principal ally and supporter. The guerrilla’s capacity for sacrifice, despite his failure of his stated aim to create “many Vietnams” in Latin America, was an example that every Cuban should follow to endure hardships. The timing of the discovery of the grave could not have been more opportune: a few days from the most emblematic date of the Cuban Revolution, 26 July, and a few weeks from the Fifth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party and the 20th anniversary of the death of the “Heroic Guerilla.”

Operation Che was directed personally by the two Castro brothers through the men in whom they had the most confidence, Ramiro Valdes, Jorge Bolaños and General Fernando Vecino Alegret. Fidel Castro himself asked Bolivian president Gonzales Sanchez de Lozada directly, and he entrusted all responsibility for the operation to a common friend, Franklin Anaya Panka, then Bolivian Ambassador in Cuba. In a meeting we had at his home in La Paz, Panka bragged about the matter while showing me a letter from the Cuban president addressed to Sanchez de Lozada, who had gladly accepted the proposal from his “friend Fidel.”

In their desire to demoralize the guerrillas, the military used to bury the rebels in secret graves. It was known that most of the 36 dead guerrillas, from a troop that never exceeded 50, had been buried on the outskirts of Vallegrande. At the end of 1995 General Mario Vargas Salinas, who had fought the insurgency, broke his silence and said that Che’s body was near the airport runway. He didn’t know the exact place. The person charged with burying the guerrillas, Lieutenant Colonel Andres Selich, had taken the secret to his own grave when he was murdered in 1973. “Che was buried separately from the rest,” said the official’s widow from her house in Asuncion, Paraguay.

According to Vargas, six of the seven guerrillas killed in La Higuera were in a single grave, confirming that the Argentinean had been buried separately. However, when the Cubans, overseen by a “special commission” led by Panka Anaya, finally found the grave on 28 June 1997, they found seven skeletons. There was no time for digressions. Doctor Jorge Gonzales, then the director of the Havana Institute of Legal Medicine, designated one of the seven skeletons as Che’s, before subjecting it to any scientific proof.

“As of 29 June we were convinced that E-2 was the skeleton of Che,” Doctor Gonzalez and his colleague Hector Soto told the official newspaper Granma. “I told Soto to check to see if it had hands [the Army had amputated Che’s hands to check his fingerprints with the Argentine police]. He told me, ‘Negative the interested party,’ which is police language that we use. And indeed, it didn’t have hands.” Something, however, clouded the joy of Doctor Gonzalez. The doctor agreed to an interview with Granma which “worried” him when he saw a jacket and a belt on skeleton E-2. And that was because, according to the historic investigation undertaken by the Cubans and confirmed by other sources, Che had been buried without his clothing, which had been removed before the autopsy.

The last thing Doctor Moises Abraham expected was that the past would pursue him to a refuge in the Mexican city of Puebla. Abraham was the director of Vallegrande Hosptial in 1967 and was in charge of amputating Che’s hands, after completing the autopsy. The visit of the Cuban historian Froilan Gonzalez must not have given him much pleasure. “It was surprising, he never imagined it,” remembers the historian. “However, he tried to be courteous.” It was in the eighties. Froilan Gonzalez was immersed in the mission to find the bones of the guerrillas and rescue the history of the insurgency. His investigations had taken him from Bolivia to Puebla.

What did the Cubans want? Two things: the testimony of the doctor about his experience with the corpse of Che and, most importantly, to convince him to deliver Che’s corpse to Cuba. “On the first point there was no problem, although he didn’t give us authorization to publish his statements about the death.” However, there was no agreement on the other issue: “He set unacceptable conditions,” says Froilan Gonzales. What conditions? Money, a lot of money. On a visit to Puebla, where Abraham had his cancer surgery practice, he was able to confirm it. That time, it wasn’t as friendly. On the defensive, cantankerous, the Bolivian doctor only wanted to talk money: “How much are you going to pay me?”

In any case, Froilan Gonzalez did not reach an agreement with Abraham. Thus, the Cubans were “concerned” when they opened the grave in Vallegrande and saw a jacket on skeleton E-2. The forensic team, with aplomb, decreed that it was Che was because no one, apart from them, knew that Che’s jacket was in the possession of the Bolivian doctor. No one except a German citizen, Erich Blössl, who had arrived in Vallegrande in the sixties, as an agronomist before buying a restaurant. Blössl was a friend of Musa, as Dr. Abraham is called.

“Musa had kept Che’s jacket, all bloody. He showed it to me,” says the German. “It had a broken zipper, and was tied with a rope, exactly like in all the photos taken. There were several bullet holes. He took it to Mexico in the late seventies.”

Witness to the exception, Blössl was there when Cubans opened the pit and saw the jacket, and he sensed something was wrong. “Marcos Tufiño, Deputy Commissioner for Panka Anaya to monitor the excavations, came to my restaurant and asked about the jacket. I said it was not Che’s. He insisted I go to see it again and handed me a safe-conduct for the soldiers to let me pass. I went back. There was Tufiño. I went down to the pit and confirmed that it was not Che’s jacket. It was a waterproof, poncho type, like the Army had.”

After conducting several tests on the seven skeletons in the Japanese Hospital of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivian authorities authorized the departure of the remains of the guerrillas to Havana.

What does the forensic report about the bones said to be Che’s say? In the Japanese Hospital there is no trace of the document. When the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) that collaborated on the exhumation in Vallegrande was asked for a copy, its president, Luis Fondebrider, said that only the Cubans could provide it. Jorge Gonzalez didn’t respond to a request. “The Cubans took all the papers. I was left with only this copy of the final report,” says Cueller, who specialized in surgery in Madrid and forensic medicine in Havana. “They have the pre-mortem reports on Che, his dental history, and the 1967 autopsy, and there is no reason not to trust them.”

A comparison between the forensic report edited by the Cubans and Argentineans in 1997 and the autopsy performed on Che at the time of his death is disconcerting for three doctors consulted in Madrid and Paris. Jose Antonio Sanchez, director of the School of Legal Medicine at the Complutense University of Madrid, said some wounds are consistent and others are not, but he believes the documents are insufficient to come to a conclusion. On the other hand, his two colleagues find clarifying elements. “It is two different bodies and they correspond to two different people,” says Jose Antonio Garcia-Andrada, who has had a long career in forensic medicine.

Both he and the French expert, who currently prefers to remain anonymous to not prejudice his own investigation on the matter, highlight the same discrepancies. “The 1997 reports describes fractures on the 2nd and 3rd left ribs. These fractures were not mentioned in the 1967 autopsy, which shows, instead, an injury between the 9th and 10th left rib, which is not in the other report,” they both say.

In addition, the cadaver analyzed in 1967 presents “injuries in both clavicles,” while the skeleton found in 1997 has “an injury only to the right clavicle,” says the French expert. The same is true for the femurs: Che did not show the wound on his right femur “measured at 11 by 13 millimeters” which appears on the 1997 skeleton. Garcia-Andrade added that “the spinal injuries are not consistent.”

The two experts also noted discrepancies in the analysis of the mouth. Che lacked a “lower left bicuspid,” according to the autopsy of 1967. The 1997 report does not indicate this detail, but it does indicate, however, the presence of a “third molar upper left” (wisdom tooth), which Che’s corpse did not have. Both the French physician and Dr. Sanchez were greatly surprised at the absence of references to the surgical removal of Che’s hands by Dr. Abraham. “This operation always leaves visible marks and yet, it is not mentioned,” says the professor from Complutense. One might suspect that the bones of the hands were removed when the skeleton was exhumed, adds the French doctor.

Plaque put in place in 1997 in Vallegrande, Bolivia. (BdG)
Plaque put in place in 1997 in Vallegrande, Bolivia. (BdG)

In these circumstances, experts agree, only a genetic analysis would allow the “accurate” identification of the remains attributed to Che. Only an independent and reliable analysis, conditions not met by the supposed DNA test that Cuba now claims was done. “I proposed not to do a DNA test and the decision was consensual,” Alejandro Inchaurregui, one of the Argentinean forensic anthropologists who was in Vallegrande, explained in March. “There is overwhelming evidence. There were anthropomorphic and dental records collected before he left Cuba, to be able to identify his remains if he died.”

So, does the documentation submitted by Havana really correspond to Ernesto Guevara, or does it correspond to another of the Cuban guerrillas buried in Bolivia? In a telephone conversation recorded in September, Inchaurregui was furious when asked this question. “You are a miserable person for arguing that the identification of the remains of Che is a falsehood. Sure, I’m that stupid that the Cubans took me by the nose and I ended up signing a document that says they are the remains of Che when in reality they are not.” The forensic anthropologist who no longer works for the EAAF concluded our conversation this way: “Where are you?” In Madrid … “In Madrid, what a pity! Because if you weren’t, I would kill you.”

Obviously, Inchaurregui is not “that stupid” but he seems to favor expeditious methods to solve problems. Che had to be in Havana before July 26, 1997 to celebrate the big homecoming of the prodigal son and give a little morale boost to the Cubans. It was Fidel Castro’s orders. That it wasn’t true would be, after all, a lesser evil.


Editor ‘s note: This article was published on 7 October 2007 in the newspaper El País.