Che Guevara Ordered His Father's Death, So Gustavo Villoldo Promised Payback
Ernesto "Che" Guevara's famous beret is gone. His iconic beard is filthy and matted against skeletal cheekbones. One bushy eyebrow arches over his half-open eyes.
As a Bolivian country surgeon methodically saws off his lifeless hands, Che appears vaguely amused.
Gustavo Villoldo, a stocky figure in green army fatigues, stands just inside the tiny laundry room where the Cuban revolutionary's corpse rests atop a sink. For five months, the CIA operative has led soldiers hunting Guevara through the rough crags and valleys of southern Bolivia. Less than 24 hours ago, his team had captured and executed him in a village called La Higuera, then brought his body here to Vallegrande.
Gustavo watches the slender doctor take notes in a small notebook: one bullet wound to the left collarbone; another in the right collarbone, causing a compound fracture; three slugs in the dorsal region around his rib cage; a ragged hole in the left pectoral; a bullet in the right calf; a graze wound on the inner thigh; a bullet through the forearm.
Several shots criss-crossed his asthmatic lungs and lodged in vertebrae. Che died, the surgeon notes, from hemorrhaging in the chest.
Gustavo stares at the body. He thinks of all the death Che has caused, from Havana to Bolivia to the Congo. He imagines all the Cuban patriots the revolutionary leader has killed.
Patriots like Gustavo's own father.
Gustavo has trailed Che for more than two years, from the steamy jungles of the Congo to the windy Bolivian altiplano. But looking at the bloody, emaciated corpse, he mostly feels tired and sad.
The surgeon finishes his autopsy. He lifts prints off Che's amputated hands —evidence of the kill.
It's a little after 8 p.m. In Havana, Fidel Castro is already planning a hero's funeral and martyr's welcome to greet Guevara's remains. Gustavo won't let that happen. He heads to a nearby safe house. A little after midnight, he changes into a dark sweater and jeans, then tucks a 9mm Smith and Wesson pistol into the waistband. Silently, he walks through the dark to the laundry room, where he meets two Bolivians. They hoist Che and two other dead revolutionaries onto a truck and cover the bodies with a canvas.
A light drizzle blows out of the mountains and glazes the grass as they drive to a jungle airport. A small bulldozer waits near a hole dug next to the pitch-dark landing strip; it's 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide.
Gustavo and the two other men throw the three bodies into the wet earth. A hard rain falls as the bulldozer pushes earth over the corpses. By morning, Che Guevara's unmarked grave is soaked and invisible.
Gustavo's mission in Bolivia is complete. But his personal war against the men who killed his father, stole his family's fortune, and drove him from his homeland is far from finished.
The story of his lifelong crusade against Castro and Che has never before been reported in full. It begins with a childhood among Havana's elite, continues with a narrow escape from the Bay of Pigs disaster, and includes a daring 1971 invasion of a Cuban fishing village. Recently he struck a new, resounding blow at Castro when he and his brother, Alfredo, won the largest civil judgment ever leveled against the Cuban government — for $1 billion. They had sued the dictator for stealing the Villoldo estate, tearing apart their family, and killing their dad.
After all this, Gustavo's legacy is still in dispute. Even though some exiles consider the South Florida resident a hero for his part in Guevara's capture, Che fans and scholars say Gustavo avenged his father's death on one of Cuba's most revered heroes.
Gustavo's mother and father, Gustavo Sr. and Margarita, each descended from wealthy Spaniards and grew up in Havana's high society. In the early 1920s, Gustavo Sr. graduated from the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania, moved home, and started a successful law firm in Havana.
By the time the younger Gustavo was born January 21, 1936, his family owned a General Motors plant and a 30,000-acre farm in northwest Cuba. Alfredo was born the next year.
When Gustavo was just 11, his papi taught him to fly a Piper airplane. The boy took the controls on just his third flight as Gustavo Sr. sat next to him. Just before the fourth ascent, the father said simply, "Well, come back soon," then sent his son up alone.
Later that year, Gustavo flew commercial to South Bend, Indiana, where he enrolled in the Culver Military Academy. Boys awoke at Culver every morning to military drills and tactical training. Between classes, they learned to fix Jeep engines, scale walls, and fire rifles. Gustavo thrived. At 16, he moved on to a boarding military school in Georgia for another two years. His roommate there was Roberto Garcia, another Cuban who would eventually serve alongside him in the Bay of Pigs.
"Even then, Gustavo was a leader among the cadets," said Garcia, who now lives in South Florida.
Gustavo returned to Havana in 1952 to join his father's GM auto empire. For the next six years, he worked at car dealerships during the day and attended business classes at the University of Havana in the evenings. He lived with his parents at a palatial waterfront mansion in the Miramar neighborhood. The home was among the first in Cuba with central air conditioning.
On weekends, Gustavo traveled three hours to the family's sprawling farm. He played baseball and tennis and swam at a private club.
Salvador Miralles, another Bay of Pigs veteran, competed against Gustavo on baseball diamonds and tennis courts. Though Castro arrived in Cuba in 1956 to jump-start revolution on the island, Gustavo wasn't concerned with politics, Miralles says. "[He] cared about getting drunk, chasing girls, racing cars," the diminutive five-foot-four-inch vet remembers.
Rebels broke into a Villoldo dealership in Santiago during late 1958 and stole more than 20 cars. Twenty-three-year-old Gustavo crossed the country to survey the damage. He was stopped eight times at guerrilla checkpoints and returned home shaken.
A few days later, Gustavo joined his father at the wedding of a top government minister. There he met President Fulgencio Batista and began describing the harrowing journey home. Before he could finish, though, Batista's defense chief, Gen. Francisco Tabernilla Dolz, burst out, "Don't believe this kid! It's not true."
Batista, perhaps, should have listened. A few months later, in January 1959, Castro's forces glided into Havana. Gustavo Sr. was interrogated about his ties to the United States and Batista.
One day in late January, Gustavo received a frantic call from his brother, Alfredo. Dozens of bearded guerrillas had surrounded his home. Gustavo ran over. When he arrived, the guerrillas yelled, "That's the older Villoldo kid!" and threw him in the back of a jeep.
For three days, the rebels interrogated Gustavo, trying to force him to implicate his father as an American agent or a traitor. The young man refused. Finally, he was released. The reason, he says: The rebels were disorganized, and the prison wasn't yet controlled by Che Guevara.
Over the next two weeks, guerrillas frequently stormed the Villoldo home. They pointed machine guns at Gustavo, assaulted his mother, and interrogated his father.
Before Castro's revolution, Villoldo GM dealerships were turning an annual profit of $15 million, and the family owned homes in Miramar, Baracoa, and Varadero, next door to the Kennedy family's property there. The rebels wanted all of it.
Che Guevara personally visited Gustavo's father twice. The second visit came on the morning of February 15, 1959. Gustavo was with his dad at the family's business headquarters in downtown Havana. Che entered with his bearded guards and closed the door of his father's office. "I knew he was a murderer and a thug," Gustavo recalls today in a gravelly Spanish drawl. "You can tell that just by how someone acts."
Gustavo Sr. was deeply disturbed by the visit. That evening, he took his son on a walk along the waterfront. He said Che had issued an ultimatum: Either Gustavo Sr. could die and forfeit the family's fortune to the state or it would be el paredón — death by firing squad — for his two sons.
Gustavo didn't realize it at the time, but his father was saying goodbye.
The next morning, the younger Gustavo awoke to his mother's frantic cries. He ran to the study and found his dad slumped over a spare bed; an empty jar of sleeping pills sat on the desk.
The young man wept. Then he vowed revenge. Che would die, and Castro would pay.
Gustavo strained against his parachute pack and the canvas straps holding him into the copilot's seat in the narrow B-26 cockpit. He stared at the starboard wing, painted the red, white, and blue of the Cuban flag. A three-foot torpedo filled with napalm hung there. It should have dropped to the ground by now.
"Try it again," Gustavo told the pilot, a tall American airman named Connie "Sig" Seigrist. Sig flipped the B-26 on its side and wagged the wing back and forth over the aquamarine waters in the Bay of Pigs thousands of feet below. Though they tried desperately to dislodge the bomb, it wouldn't budge.
"We've got two options, Gus," Seigrist said, looking Gustavo in the eye. "We can bail out, or we can try to land this thing. If we land, there's a good chance we could end up barbecue."
It was April 18, 1961, and on the ground below, hundreds of Gustavo's comrades were dying as the botched Bay of Pigs invasion spiraled out of control.
Villoldo and Seigrist decided parachuting out would be more dangerous than trying to land with the napalm. Almost everyone who jumped from a B-26 cockpit midflight got sucked into the tail and crushed.
"Let's land it," Gustavo finally said.
As the B-26 angled west over the Caribbean, Gustavo pondered how he had ended up in this cockpit. He had escaped Cuba a month after his father's death, bribing his way into traveling papers and a flight to Miami. Within weeks of landing, he met other anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
The small group talked a Cuban banker into lending them a Piper Apache for bombing runs over the island. Then they built homemade explosives.
Police arrested them before they could make a single run. As they awaited trial, CIA operatives asked if they wanted to train for a covert invasion of their homeland.
Charges were dropped, and they all signed up.
"I hated the men who had killed my father," Gustavo says today. "I didn't care about democracy because it didn't really mean anything to me at that point. It wasn't about politics. It was personal."
A few months later, in February 1960, Alfredo Villoldo fled Cuba for Miami. Gustavo's wife, Elia, also made her way to Florida with the couple's three young children — Gustavo Alfredo, Eduardo, and Elia Mercedes.
It wasn't easy to fight a war and keep a family together. Gustavo leaned on Alfredo for help. "His family didn't know everything he was doing, but I always did," Alfredo says today. "His wife did know the Bay of Pigs would be a huge risk, but Gustavo trusted me to watch over his family if he was killed."
Gustavo was a natural for the senior ranks of Brigade 2506, as the exile invasion force called itself. When the fighters relocated to Guatemala and then a U.S. base in Nicaragua for the final stages, Gustavo became the invasion force's head of security.
Villoldo was supremely confident of victory. In early 1961, he even allowed Elia and their three kids to move back to Havana. "I was stupid and blind," Gustavo says now. "I wanted them to be in Cuba when we liberated the country. It was all I could think about."
By April 15, 1961, the planned first day of the offensive on Cuba, the fighters began to realize that President John F. Kennedy had lost his nerve. But they went ahead anyway. At first, Gustavo stayed in Nicaragua. Three days later, a call went out for volunteers. Air crews were exhausted. "They'd already been giving us speed to keep us going," Miralles remembers. "We were totally drained."
American pilots were ready to fly, the officer told them, but each plane needed a Cuban copilot.
Six hours later, he found himself strapped next to Sig Seigrist, flying back to an uncertain landing with live napalm dangling from his wing. He didn't regret volunteering for the mission. But he already felt bitter at Kennedy's betrayal. Good men were dying.
Seigrist flew back to the Central American CIA base. He circled the runway, and Gustavo could almost feel the napalm exploding and burning away his flesh. When the wheels touched down, the loose bomb dragged on the tarmac, kicking up sparks.
But it didn't blow. Afterward, Gustavo sat on the jungle runway and cried — for the invasion gone wrong, for his homeland, for his family trapped in Havana, and for his father.
Gustavo was ready to give up the fight. He flew once more with Seigrist, on the last aerial mission of the invasion. Then he spent two weeks at the Nicaraguan base, nicknamed "Happy Valley," preparing to return home to Miami.
Before he could leave, a CIA officer approached him with an offer: Work for the agency and keep fighting. In exchange, Gustavo's wife and children would be smuggled from Havana.
Gustavo agreed. "I thought it could be a jumping-off point to what I wanted to accomplish," he says. He began as an Army second lieutenant, then officially joined the CIA in 1964.
Meanwhile, his family flew to Miami with CIA assistance in the mid-'60s and moved into a home in Hialeah. Gustavo and Elia had three more kids in the next few years — Ana Maria, Alejandro, and Patricia. "It wasn't easy keeping a family together with a life like this," Gustavo says with dry understatement.
He still declines to discuss much of his undercover work. He claims he successfully infiltrated Cuba 30 to 40 times for the CIA — an account that his former station chief, who recently died, confirmed to a Miami Herald reporter in 1997. Gustavo says he played a "significant role" in the Iran-Contra scandal. "I'm lucky I never got called to testify to Congress," he says.
One thing never changed, though. As Gustavo flitted from spying on leftists in Guatemala to rebels in Ecuador, he never forgot the role Che Guevara played in unraveling his family.
After the Cuban Revolution, Che was the public face of the revolution. Then in 1965, Castro appointed Che to spread Marxist revolution around the developing world. Che vowed to create "a hundred Vietnams."
When the CIA learned that the Cuban leader was assisting a Marxist revolution in the Congo, Gustavo quickly volunteered to track him. He spent three months in the equatorial backwater, listening to Guevara's radio messages and closing in on his position. But Che became sick and dispirited just a year into his conquest, then fled to Tanzania. "He got out of the Congo with pure luck," Gustavo scoffs.
Two years later, Che flew to Bolivia to try to inspire a peasant revolt. Gustavo followed, accompanied by Felix Rodriguez, another Bay of Pigs vet working for the CIA.
Rodriguez is often painted as the leader of the CIA's efforts in Bolivia. In the book Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, author Jon Lee Anderson writes that the CIA summoned Rodriguez to Washington to spearhead its effort in Bolivia and notes that Gustavo was already in La Paz.
But Gustavo maintains that he ran the operation. Rodriguez was just a "radio operator," he says. Their feud is legendary among older exiles — and in a way typical of the internecine squabbling that eventually divided the brigade. "If you talk to Felix Rodriguez for this story," Gustavo says, "you are not authorized to use my interview."
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 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."
A follow-up, larger invasion never happened. Gustavo blames political divisions in the exile community, "like those demonstrated by Juan [Tragedela]."
Gustavo claims that after Boca de Sama, he continued his work with the CIA around Latin America and the Caribbean through the '70s and '80s. But he declines to give details.
It's clearer that he built construction, development, fishing, farming, and banking businesses in Miami. He even imported spiny lobster from the Bahamas to Florida. The Florida Division of Corporations still lists Gustavo Villoldo as the registered owner of 21 firms. And he was named in 19 civil lawsuits between 1973 and 1999 related to his business ventures. Records of virtually all of them have been destroyed. "Every businessman has problems," he says. "I am no different."
Around this time, Gustavo established himself in Alaska, where he traveled on a CIA operation he won't discuss and fell in love with the rugged landscape. He started a fishing venture and began buying land on Amook Island, a remote spit of land in the Gulf of Alaska. He owns around 300 acres there today, worth about $150,000, according to Alaska property records.
As his businesses flourished, Gustavo's personal life suffered. All the years he threw himself into his fight against Castro left him distant from Elia, his wife, and their kids. He has built a hard shell around this part of his life. "My commitment to bringing down Castro was certainly a factor," Gustavo concedes. "But people also change. I changed a lot through all those years fighting."
In 1977, the strain was too much. Elia filed for divorce in the Dominican Republic, where Gustavo had temporarily relocated the family while pursuing a business venture. He remarried two years later to a woman named Maria. They had one son, Rafael, but that marriage too fell apart under the strain of a life at war. Gustavo and Maria divorced in 1983.
Court records of the divorces contain no indication of the reason for the breakups.
"I would say he was a good father to me," Rafael Villoldo says. "He cared passionately about what he did, and he taught us to do the same with our lives."
Gustavo withdrew from public life. He says he feared retribution over his CIA work, but all the personal tumult may have been a factor as well. In the mid-1980s, he bought a mango farm in far south Miami-Dade County and lived at the unlisted address. It was accessible only through winding dirt roads. He kept his phone number unpublished.
He says he left the CIA for good in 1988. The agency doesn't discuss former operatives, so the period of his service is difficult to verify. In 1990, he wedded a woman named Patricia, to whom he's still married.
Even as a gentleman mango farmer, Gustavo didn't give up his struggle. In 1998, after a Spanish judge arrested former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, he collected signatures to mount similar charges against Castro.
That effort failed. But it spurred Gustavo to look to the U.S. justice system as another weapon.
Last year, Gustavo sold his farm, and today he lives quietly in a new orange duplex in far west Kendall. Three blocks west of his home, the pavement ends and the waterlogged Everglades stretch off to the horizon. He's still not listed in the phone book or property records. Six months of the year, he fishes and hunts on Amook Island, where his nearest neighbor is more than 100 miles away by seaplane.
The mementos of a lifetime of struggle hang on the walls of his home: a framed display of yellowed photos from the invasion of Boca de Sama, a faded red-and-black "26 de Julio" armband taken from a Cuban prisoner, an oil painting of his last flight with Sig Seigrist over the Bay of Pigs.
Gustavo walks slowly around the house, staring through watery eyes at the memories.
Then he pulls out a manila file folder holding court documents. They're less impressive than the mementos from the Bay of Pigs — but they're the evidence of a much more successful operation.
"This is my fight for justice, for my father," he says.
Gustavo's legal battle traces back to 1959, when Castro seized businesses and bank accounts from thousands of Cubans. In response, President Eisenhower froze all Cuban funds and created a commission to sort through exiles' claims. It certified 5,911 of them — worth $1.85 billion at the time. But those first efforts were stuck in limbo until 1996, when Congress passed a law in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombings. It allowed suits against foreign governments for terrorist attacks.
Miami's exiles jumped on the law and have won several multimillion-dollar judgments for those killed in the Bay of Pigs and other incidents. Two years ago, Gustavo began totaling his family's holdings at the time of the revolution. The GM dealerships' repair and parts sales totaled about $20 million in 1958. A trading company earned about $411,000. The Villoldos' various properties — the three homes, 30,000-acre ranch, and 113-unit apartment building — were worth close to $100 million.
Add it all together, top it off with a 6 percent interest rate, and the value is $393 million. The decision to file suit wasn't easy. Both Alfredo and Gustavo still awoke to the images of their father, dead in his study. "I have this dream where my father is drowning in the sea and I'm racing on the beach, trying to get to him, but I can't get through the sand," says Alfredo, the more sensitive and vocal of the brothers.
"It was all about our father," Gustavo adds. "This is about justice, about holding them accountable for what they did to a human being."
On March 18, 2008, they filed an 11-page complaint demanding restitution. "Defendants Fidel Castro Ruiz, [and Che] Guevara... are liable for damages arising from the systematic physical and emotional destruction of [Gustavo Sr.] that culminated in him committing suicide," the suit claimed.
The brothers' case went to trial May 28. On the stand before Judge Peter Adrien, Gustavo wept as he showed photographs of his family. He broke down as he described the walk he took with his father the night before his suicide. As in all the other cases, the Cuban government did not defend itself.
The next day, on May 29, Adrien told a packed courtroom what he thought about Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's role in Gustavo Sr.'s death: "What the defendants did is torture this family and tear it apart."
Adrien awarded the Villoldo brothers the full $393 million for family assets, another $392 million for pain and suffering, and $393 million in punitive damages. In all, he gave them $1.178 billion, the largest civil judgment ever decided against Cuba.
Many laughed it off as the latest bit of anti-Castro extremism. Castro even dedicated his "Reflections of Fidel" column in the Granma newspaper on May 30 to Villoldos' judgment. The award shows that "chaos prevails" in America, he wrote, scoffing, "Such is justice in the United States!" Peter McLaren, a UCLA scholar and Che expert, asks, "When are the victims of U.S. imperialism going to get financial restitution? Who's going to pay the families of everyone who committed suicide because of the financial crisis?"
But Gustavo figures he can squeeze the cash out of Castro. Still, Cuban funds frozen by the U.S. government in 1959 are basically tapped out. "There's nothing left," says Joe DeMaria, a Miami lawyer who's worked on these cases. Exiles have now turned to American phone companies looking for Cuban money. AT&T, Sprint, and others sent more than $120 million to Cuba through long-distance calls in the last half of 2008. Earlier this month, a U.S. district judge ordered the companies to explain the practice, setting the stage for a battle over the money.
Gustavo is watching the case but has begun searching for Cuban accounts and property in Western nations like Spain that have long had relations with Castro. He hopes to persuade those governments to recognize his judgment and freeze Cuban assets. "It's a new strategy, but it's got a good chance of working," says Jeremy Alters, Gustavo's lead attorney.
Sitting in his den in west Miami-Dade beneath an oil painting of his father, Gustavo glances around at his mementos. He has no regrets, he says. Then his eyes flash.
"We are gonna collect," he says. "You don't know me, maybe. I'm telling you: We are gonna collect."
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