«…not if they burn you / not if they bury you underground, / if they hide you / in cemeteries, forests, wastelands, / are they going to stop us from finding you/ Che Comandante, / friend. / You are everywhere, / alive, like they never wanted»
When on July 12, 1997, the remains of the heroic guerilla arrived in Cuba, and those of four of his comrades, a veritable feat had been accomplished by Cuban science, according to Dr. Jorge González Pérez, who had the responsibility of leading the team that searched for, found, and identified the remains of the guerillas who fought in Bolivia.
The work was based on the exemplary integration of experts in historical investigation and other social sciences, and those in technical disciplines like geology, geodesy, geo-chemistry, and cartography, as well as informatics, botany, soil science, geophysics, physical anthropology, and medical forensics – with the most modern molecular techniques – without which the mission’s success would not have been possible.
Taking advantage of their presence in Villa Clara, Granma interviewed doctors Jorge González Pérez and María del Carmen Ariet García, who played leading roles in the effort, and were in town to participate in a colloquium at the Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara Memorial Sculpture Complex entitled: The return of Che and his comrades, 20 years later.
When did the search begin?
Cuba’s first steps to locate and repatriate the remains of the heroic guerilla began as soon as the news of his death was known. There is a basic premise in our country, inculcated by Fidel, that we never abandon one of our sons. There’s the case of Roberto Roque, a member of the Granma expedition who fell into the water. The boat did not continue its crossing until he was found. And more recently, Operation Tribute, through which more than 2,000 Cuban combatants were brought home from Africa and other regions of the world. (Dr. González)
But a turning point in the process occurred in 1995. Why was that a decisive year?
That year, an important revelation was made by retired Bolivian General Mario Vargas Salina who led the ambush at Vado del Yeso, assuring U.S. journalist Jon Lee Anderson in an interview that Che was buried in Vallegrande.
At that time, a work group was created, led by Army General Raúl Castro, then second secretary of the Party Central Committee, and an executive committee headed by Comandante de la Revolución Ramiro Valdés, to take charge of coordinating the work involved in the search, exhumation, and identification. (Dr. Ariet)
So the news published in the New York Times by Lee Anderson was key to launching the search?
This journalist cannot be denied credit. The fact that it was published in such an important medium, by a recognized professional like him, was decisive. Take note, it was. Three days later, in the middle of the huge international furor caused by the news, Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada signed a decree authorizing the verification of the information, and indicating that if it were confirmed, the remains would be returned to family members. The search itself began when
General Vargas Salina was not able to identify the exact spot of the burial, and given the presence there of Cuban experts who were determined to carry out the task.
With the statement, the many official versions that existed regarding the final resting place of Che’s remains were refuted. Some said that the cadaver had been burned and the ashes dropped into the jungle from an airplane, others said they were in the CIA’s headquarters in Langlely, Virginia, or at a U.S. military base in Panama, among other lies.
Nevertheless, it should be clarified that, well before this, there was an awareness that Che could be buried in this place, and even just a few days prior to the information in the New York Times, a Bolivian newspaper called La Razón published the same story. (Dr. Ariet)
So why wasn’t the search initiated earlier?
Remember that the context was very different, with governments hostile toward Cuba, and a much more complicated international situation, and without the authorization of the Bolivian government nothing could be done. An example of this was that, in 1989, the Jaime Paz Zamora administration prevented Cuban scientists from entering Bolivian territory to search for Che’s remains. (Dr. Ariet)
How did you two become involved in the scientific expedition?
That November morning of 1995, I was going to work, and I heard on the Haciendo Radio program, on Rebelde, the news that Che was buried in Vallegrande, according to what had been published in the New York Times. Within just a bit, the Ministry of Pblic Health called me on the telephone to tell me I needed to be in a specific place, because a leader of the Revolution wanted to talk with me. I was making a thousand guesses along the way, because I suspected it had something to do with Che. In fact, it was Ramiro Valdés to give me the mission, and tell me I had three days to prepare everything. So that’s how in December of 1995, I was already in Bolivia. (Dr. González)
I was in Argentina. I was also called immediately to join the group, and lead the historic investigation, among many other tasks that needed to be done. (Dr. Ariet)
What were the most difficult moments during the process, before the discovery and identification of the remains.
At the beginning, everything was very complicated. The areas to be searched were large and included, in addition to the landing strip, adjoining fields, the trash dump, a garden, the cemetery, the headquarters of the former Pando regiment, the hospital, the Rotary Club, and the Arroyo ravine. Remember that by March 31 of 1996, we had opened more than 200 graves, because a serious historical investigation had not been conducted yet. At that point, it was dig wherever people said something might be.
Between April and October, that year, we conducted a period of historical investigation, focused on comparing and studying the extensive testimony available about the guerilla struggle. Since Che’s death, 13 accounts on possible locations of the guerilla leader’s remains had been collected in Cuba, and within a bit more than a year in Bolivia, we gathered more than 80 different versions. To get an idea of the work done, it’s enough to say that the Cuban group conducted more than 1,000 interviews, 300 of which turned out to be the most valuable. (Dr. Ariet)
Another important moment, was the arrival in Bolivia, in December 1997, of a Cuban multi-disciplinary team to expand the scientific investigations, which conducted geological studies through March of 1997. Then, what would be the last phase of the search began, starting in May of that year, when archaeologist
Roberto Rodríguez was there, too, plus forensic anthropologist Héctor Soto and the geophysicists Noel Pérez, José Luis Cuevas, and Carlos Sacasas, among other colleagues who played decisive roles, because, remember, the Argentine investigators had returned to their country in March of 1996. (Dr. González)
Is it true that the final phase was the most tense for the Cuban experts?
We were in a race against the clock, because Hugo Banzer, the Bolivian dictator responsible for so many deaths and disappearances, had been elected President of Bolivia, which put the search in danger, since given who he was, at any moment he could make a decision that would disrupt the process in which we were immersed.
Plus there were many attempts to misinform us. An example was the visit by the CIA agent of Cuban origin, Félix Rodríguez, who just prior to the discovery, appeared in Vallegrande on a small plane, saying that the burial was in a place opposite from where we were looking. (Dr. Ariet)
So what did you do?
We accelerated the work. (Dr. González) The night before the discovery of the mass grave where Che was, that is June 27, the head of State Security came to remind us that we had two days to finish, which we took as a positive sign, giving us more strength to conclude the job.
What happened on June 28, 1997.
It was Saturday, and we had as evidence the story of the tractor operator who dug the pit where Che was buried. (Dr. Ariet) Just as we had decided, we continued the work, but at this point using an excavator that belonged to a company laying pipe in Vallegrande , which allowed us to go down at least a meter and a half with the machine, of the two we needed to dig. From there we continued working by hand
We were into these efforts when right around 9:00am, while digging up the pit, the excavator’s bucket caught Che’s belt, that had been buried with his uniform, and thus the remains of his bones emerged.
Were they petrified?
Just imagine how I felt. (Dr. González) I was only able to shout to the operator: Stop, stop! And immediately told Héctor Soto to come down to the bottom of the pit where I was. Look, Soto, there, there, I said, pointing to the place where I had seen a bone. I said to him, it’s a radio, a radio, while the anthropologist disagreed, saying it’s a little bucket, a bucket, because he was looking at another spot inside the mass grave. We later learned that those first bones belonged to the Bolivian Aniceto Reinaga.
At what point did you suspect that you had found Che?
At the end, since at that initial moment we didn’t know anything. (Dr. González) There were seven skeletons in all that were found there, which matched the story. That of Che was the second to be found. We suspected from the beginning that this was him, because his were the only remains covered with an olive green jacket and we later determined that there were no hands.
Remember that we knew that the only body buried without hands was that of Che.
Héctor Soto contributed a great deal. Given the information that the grave could possibly have been dynamited, he asked for a scalpel and cut the cloth, to make sure that there was bone underneath, verifying that it was a skull.
Later as we advanced further in the excavation, he put his hand under the jacket to
check the pronounced brow ridges, which matched this feature on Che’s forehead, and the absence of an upper right molar that also matched his dental records. Also observed were a little bag of cut pipe tobacco in the pocket and residue of the plaster used on the mortuary mask made of Che, stuck to the jacket.
These pieces of evidence indicated that is was the guerilla leader. We continued working there to remove the seven skeletons, a period when we had the collaboration of Argentine anthropologists, who had returned on the request of Cuba.
They were very intense days, with much tension; we didn’t leave that spot or the Japanese hospital where the remains were taken after their exhumation July 5, to be identified. I can tell you that no one slept, so we could keep watch on those remains, so that nothing could happen. We took turns resting every two or three hours, and returned to where the remains of Che and his comrades were.
What did you feel at the exact moment of the discovery?
Great relief. (Dr. González) I was stunned. Just imagine, it was the ultimate moment after so much effort. Knowing that from the scientific point of view we finally had a result, and the feeling of having been able to contribute to restore a piece of your homeland’s history, and that of the world, was something huge, indescribable. Plus knowing that we were men and women trained by the Revolution, who made the discovery, gladdened us very much.
What can you say about the remains that have not yet been located?
Thirty-one of the 36 guerillas who disappeared have been found. Still missing are those of Jesús Suárez Gayol, the first to die. Several search attempts have been made, without finding them thus far. Also to be located are those of Jorge Vázquez Viaña, Loro, whose cadaver was thrown into the jungle from an airplane; Raúl Quispaya Choque, Raúl in the guerilla, very difficult to find because a community has been built where he was buried; Benjamín Coronado Córdova and Lorgio Vaca Marchetti, who were drowned which makes the investigation very complex. In any event, we are never going to say the process has been concluded, (until they are all found). This is our position. (Dr. Ariet)
There are three Bolivian combatants, Inti Peredo, Antonio Jiménez Tardío, and David Adriazola, who in accordance with their families’ wishes remain in the Andean country. (Dr. González)
On July 12, 1997, Jorge González Pérez traveled home with the remains of Che and his comrades. How did you perceive the Fidel’s reencounter with his brother in the struggle?
Although I wasn’t able to talk with Fidel that day, given the solemnity of the moment, I did feel the pain of the reencounter and the memory of the loss. It was as if he relived the times he had spent alongside Che.