Chapter 1: Ambush
Captain Augusto Silva Bogado felt a trickle of sweat run from his collar down his backbone. The morning sun was pushing the shade out of the steep valley, shining off the river and turning the jungle into a steam bath. His men walked along the banks below, while he and the higher ranks stayed among the trees on the hillside.
Silva and his men were part of the Bolivian Army Fourth Division, based in the oil town of Camiri. The men below, thirty-five conscripts under his command, were looking for suspicious foreigners, men with guns and money. They were following up a tip uncovered by Silva himself. It would probably turn out to be nothing, Silva thought. Troublemakers stayed up north near the tin and copper mines. There wasn't much to occupy a foreigner down here in the southeastern scrubland.
But no one could afford to ignore rumors repeated several times, in several places. He had to be prepared.
The men spread out across the valley. Slowly, carefully, the soldiers walked in a jagged line along the Rio Nancahuazu. They wrestled with thick vegetation that lined the valley floor, and they cradled their Mauser rifles as they walked, occasionally splashing into the water and swearing. Silva thought they looked more like reluctant hikers than soldiers. They'd been trained for war, but none of them had ever smelled gun smoke.
Most of his men were campesinos — poor and mostly illiterate Indians doing their required year of military service. It was their duty to serve, and they were resigned to it. Some even seemed to enjoy army life, and why not? There was no war. Food, shelter, and wages in the barracks usually far exceeded what they had at home, and they received technical training they could use after leaving the military. For the soldiers, this was a routine reconnaissance mission in Bolivia's remote badlands. The only real danger was a backwoods cocaine producer, or a poisonous snake or spider.
From his position near the front, Silva scanned the brush on the rocky slopes. So far, he saw nothing. It had been like that for days. He pushed forward.
He made a mental review of the report he'd turned in:
9 March, 1967. Dropped off by an army patrol near property owned by Segundino Parada near the village of Tatarenda.
Assignment: Determine whether there were enough ovens, water, and firewood on the land for turning local stone into calcinated lime, a possible explosive.
After examining the property, Silva was ready to return to Camiri. There were few army vehicles in the area, so the soldier hitched a ride back with a Bolivian State Oil Deposits truck. During the ride, oil workers told about the strange men with foreign accents roaming the area, "big, bearded men carrying backpacks and with plenty of money," "forty to fifty million pesos."
Silva still smiled at the memory.
That seemed highly unlikely. Few men in rural Bolivia carried that kind of cash. When Silva told his commander about the rumor, a pilot was sent up for an aerial reconnaissance. Four men were spotted along the Grande River, so Silva and his men were sent out here to gather more information. On the way they learned that in Tatarenda, two men dressed in olive-drab trousers and jackets had bought and cooked two pigs and taken canned food and cigarettes with them into the jungle. Police in the nearby village of Lagunillas arrested two "paramilitary types" for trying to sell weapons. Not a good sign.
Silva shook his head. Who were these men? What were they doing?
The army thought it important enough to send another unit to help Silva. After the two units joined forces, they marched on an isolated farmhouse with a tin roof. Inside they found food, blankets, and the key to a Jeep parked outside. A fire was still burning in the kitchen. If the men in the olive-drab trousers had been at home, they'd left in a hurry.
The dirt paths surrounding the house were worn — a sign that there had been plenty of organized activity.
Silva had to find these men. They were probably drug dealers, and the army would have to shut them down. First, though, Silva called for more reinforcements — just in case they needed to use deadly force.
The extra men arrived with Major Hernan Plata, a mixed blessing — Plata had little on-the-ground experience. Silva and Plata organized the morning patrol along the Nancahuazu, with Silva taking the first section and Plata's men following about forty-five yards back. A well-armed third section, led by Lieutenant Lucio Loayza, took up the rear with 60mm mortars and a .30-caliber machine gun.
The plan was to advance up along both sides of the Nancahuazu. If they found the foreigners or ran into trouble, they would call for air support.
On March 23, they commenced at dawn. Silva had just brought his mental report up to date when one of his soldiers called him forward.
"Footprints," the man called to him. "They head up the path cut along the canyon."
Silva came up to where the soldier was standing on the bank. In the mud he could just make out the waffle-prints of boots leading down a path that went farther into the canyon.
"Good job," Silva said.
Signaling the point man, he gave the order to move forward.
The path meandered deeper into the V-shaped valley. Boulders and brush thickened as the walls grew steeper on each side. Silva and his men walked in the brush along the bank for a few minutes before the zigzagging riverbed straightened itself into a narrow arroyo. Boulders dotted the banks. A small stretch of woods stood where the river once again curved away out of sight. The valley was strangely silent.
Silva glanced upstream at his men. Lieutenant Ruben Amezaga and Epifano Vargas, a civilian guide, stood in the water, cooling themselves in the weak current.
Someone shouted. A man's voice in a foreign accent: "Viva la liberacion nacional."
A gunshot cracked from the ridge high above. A second later the valley exploded into confusion. A barrage of gunfire made it impossible to hear anything. Rounds sliced through the brush, wood slivers and mud flew upward and perfumed the air. Silva's men shouted and screamed as the patrol scrambled for cover.
Lieutenant Amezaga charged forward from his exposed position in the river, firing his weapon toward the woods. Several rounds smashed into him, and the young officer fell headfirst into the water. Vargas turned away from the barrage, but he, too, crumpled into the brown river.
Silva knew he was in trouble. He and his men were between the hillsides with the enemy above them. They were trapped in the kill zone. They couldn't move forward — the fire was too intense. Behind them Plata's men were also pinned down. Bullets raked the path. They were trapped.
Silva tried to fire back, but it was impossible to get a clear shot at the shooters' concealed positions in the rocks. He could hear the wounded men screaming. Several lay along the bank, blood pooling around them. Glancing down the path he'd just traveled, Silva saw another of his men stagger to the earth.
Over the gunfire he could hear the foreign voice calling him to surrender. The accent was not Bolivian, he thought. Cuban, maybe? Silva's brother was studying in Cuba. He knew the accent.
With no response, more rounds from the guerrillas' guns cracked ahead and behind. There was no escaping the cross fire. Silva shouted to his men to cease firing. He glanced at his watch. Six minutes after the first shot, the gunfire stopped.
From Hunting Che: How A U.S. Special Forces Team Helped Capture The World's Most Famous Revolutionary, by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer. Copyright 2013 by Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group USA.