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.

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink