Rodriguez, who lives in Miami, declined to comment. Declassified CIA documents confirm that both men worked with the Army Ranger-trained Bolivian team hunting Che's band of rebels. "I don't know which was more important on the ground," says Bria Latell, a former CIA analyst. "But certainly their efforts on behalf of the U.S. were key to Bolivian forces capturing Che."

Gustavo says Bolivia's president, Rene Barrientos, gave him his full blessing in his hunt for Che. In fact, at a dinner with Barrientos, Gustavo says he retold the story of his father's death. He recalls telling the recently elected president: "If you tell me now that you plan to return Che to Cuba after you capture him, I'm boarding the next plane back to Miami."

Barrientos was quiet for a moment. Then, according to Gustavo, he said: "You have my word, from the president of Bolivia, that if we capture Guevara, he will not leave Bolivia alive."

Gustavo (right) stands over the lifeless body of Che Guevara.
Courtesy of Gustavo Villoldo
Gustavo (right) stands over the lifeless body of Che Guevara.

Gustavo spent the next two months tramping through the desolate Andes of southern Bolivia, posing as a Bolivian army officer named Capt. Eduardo Gonzalez. He passed intelligence to Langley. He lost nearly 40 pounds. On October 7, a unit finally cornered Che in a canyon outside the town of La Higuera. They captured him alive.

Gustavo was on the road back to Vallegrande — where top Bolivian officials were coordinating the hunt. Felix Rodriguez was with the team that took Guevara into custody and interrogated the rebel the next day. On October 9, Bolivian soldiers acting on Barrientos' order executed Guevara, riddling his body with a semiautomatic rifle fire.

Che's body was then flown by helicopter to Vallegrande. As Gustavo stared at the lifeless frame in that tiny laundry room, he thought back to that conversation with Barrientos.

"I like to think the president remembered my story of what happened to my father," he says. "I like to think it influenced him to kill Che."

By 1971, Gustavo was back in Hialeah, living with Elia and his six kids. As winter turned to spring, an old CIA contact in Washington called Gustavo in for a meeting. (He declined to name any of these contacts.) The Vietnam War was winding down. Soviet interest in Cuba was waning. The embattled Nixon administration needed a victory against Communism. To both Gustavo and the agent, it seemed an opportune time for a plan they had been hatching for years: an armed invasion of Cuba. The aim would be to take over a small town as a trial run for a larger attack and as a propaganda coup against Castro.

"Remember that mission you've always wanted to make happen?" Gustavo remembers the contact asking. "Consider this the famous 'green light' to go ahead."

The then-35-year-old exile wasted little time. Within three months, he'd raised $350,000, recruited 50 men for the mission, and chosen a target: Boca de Sama, a tiny fishing village in eastern Cuba. Only one road ran into the jumble of wooden shacks, which housed just a few dozen people. It figured to be an easy target.

On October 12, 1971, Gustavo led the men out of a Key Biscayne harbor on two fast boats and a 177-foot frigate the crew nicknamed El Melón for the way it rolled side to side in the slightest chop.

As Gustavo organized the operation from the boat's deck, a 20-commando team raided the village. They killed at least two men, a 32-year-old local official and a 24-year-old militiaman. According to a Cuban radio report, the team also wounded two other men, and two teenaged girls were hurt in the crossfire.

About 75 minutes after they landed, the Miami exiles hauled out of town and back to sea. None was killed.

Seaweed saved them during the retreat, Gustavo says. The slimy plant entangled the rotors on all of the boats, slowing them to a crawl as they fled back to Florida. Castro assumed they were cruising north at full speed. Helicopters and planes searched for the men far into the Cuban straits. Nightfall concealed their escape back home.

A Miami Herald story filed the day after the raid confirms Gustavo's version of the operation. Fidel Castro also personally condemned the Boca de Sama invasion in a fiery speech on November 23, calling it a "pirate raid," noting one of the wounded teenagers had her foot amputated, and pledging that "the responsibility for these cowardly and bloody incidents falls on the U.S. government and its confederates."

None of the reports mentions Gustavo by name. He was still an undercover CIA operative at the time, he says, and so he stayed out of the limelight. Juan Cosculluela, another member of the team, confirms that Gustavo planned and oversaw the operation. "I served in the Navy, and I can say that Gustavo was as good a leader on this team as I've seen in any operation," he says.

Others dispute his role. José Garcia, another volunteer, says only that "Gustavo abandoned all of us" before hanging up the phone.

"It was a successful mission in every respect," Gustavo counters. "Especially in the sense that it was funded, planned, and executed completely by Cubans."

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