His entire life is summed up in an instant. Mario Terán Salazar, a Bolivian military man, once had a very tall bearded guy in front of him, enormous, he would remember him, with eyes that shone brightly. Terán was sheathing a weapon that at times he feared the giant might take from him. He felt a vertigo that he was to remember for the rest of his days. “Be calm,” he told me, “and aim well. He is going to kill a man! So I took a step back, towards the threshold of the door, closed my eyes and fired, ”he would later recount. It was 1967 and Terán had just executed Ernesto Che Guevera.
The soldier, who had an anonymous existence, died this Thursday in Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the age of 80, suffering from prostate cancer, his son confirmed to AFP. Terán did not elaborate much more on what happened that morning, in the middle of the Cold War, except for that somewhat dramatic explanation that he gave about the way in which he ended the legendary revolutionary. Moreover, after 30 years of service he retired and even said that he was not the executioner, but someone with the same name and surname. Nobody believed.
For Terán and Che Guevara to meet face to face in La Higuera, a tiny town near the Andes, a series of cosmic coincidences had to occur. One was wounded, ragged, defenseless, as seen in the last photo taken before the shot. The other, dressed as a soldier and armed. The CIA wanted him alive for interrogation, but the Bolivian president at the time, René Barrientos, ordered him to be killed immediately, without trial. Barrientos was a furious anticommunist. The person in charge of carrying out his orders was Terán, who was then 25 years old and had a small square mustache on the corner of his mouth.
The day of the execution was October ninth, Monday. The morning of the previous day, Guevara had been captured on a nearby mountain. Hours earlier, a detachment led by Captain Gary Prado had received information that the guerrillas commanded by Che were hiding in an area known as the Quebrada del Yuro. The soldiers annihilated most of the insurgents during the surprise attack and wounded Che in the left leg. When they went to capture him, according to the version of the soldiers, he yelled at them: “Don’t shoot, I’m Che. I’m worth more alive than dead.”
Thus, alive, they transferred him to an abandoned school in La Higuera. They locked him in one of the rooms that had once been a classroom. It was the moment of greatest defenselessness of the man who had tried to light the flame of a guerrilla focus in the Bolivian jungle, against all logic. He commanded a poorly armed, hungry and inexperienced troop against a professional army backed by the United States and its intelligence agencies. His lucky star was about to go out.
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Guevara had met Raúl and Fidel Castro years before in Mexico and with them he ended up overthrowing Fulgencio Batista in Cuba by force of arms in 1959. That revolutionary desire spread throughout the world. Che held various positions in the new Cuban government, but left it and once again wielded a rifle. He first failed in the attempt to carry out an insurgency in the Congo and, later, the same thing happened in Bolivia. There he met his death at 39 years of age.
His rigid body, with open eyes, bare chest, was exposed to the public the next day in a nearby municipality, Vallegrande. The locals watched in amazement. When Marc Hutten, an AFP reporter, photographed him at that moment, he surely had in his head the Lamentation over the dead Christ, of Mantegna. The myth had just been born.
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