Published Friday, September 19, 1997, in the Miami Herald

The Man Who Buried Che


Juan O. Tamayo is a Herald staff writer.

Sometime next month, the fathers of the Cuban Revolution will flock to the city of Santa Clara for a special ceremony the likes of which the island has never seen. From Fidel Castro on down, they will gather at the base of a 22-foot bronze statue in a city square. There, with all the reverence and solemnity of a high Mass, they will lay to rest the long-lost bones of the legendary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, one of the founders of Cuba's revolution and an icon to would-be rebels the world over.

At the foot of his gargantuan likeness, 30 years to the day after his death, there will be speeches and tears. They will speak of Che's dreams, his Spartan life and stubborn courage, his revolutionary fervor. Perhaps they will even speak of his capture and execution in the jungles of Bolivia.

But in all those speeches, no one is likely to speak of an old man named Gustavo Villoldo.

The Cuban-born Villoldo will likely spend that day much like any other -- puttering in the red dirt of his 15-acre farm in far South Dade, strolling through groves of mangoes, bananas and oranges, making sure that tiny swim fins are ready by the side of his pool, for when his grandchildren come to visit.

If Villoldo were in Santa Clara on Oct. 9, what tales he could tell. But then, he might not make it out alive.

The Secret Garden

On a searingly hot day in South Dade, there is no clue to Villoldo's crucial role in the capture and death of the hemisphere's second-most famous revolutionary, and the subsequent disappearance of his body. Wearing loafers, chino pants and the kind of bright baseball cap that fertilizer companies give away to valued customers, he boasts of his okra crop and bemoans a fungus putting brown splotches on his avocados.

"This one is my fault,'' he says, fingering the beetle-ravaged leaves of a mamey tree. ``The man who works for me went home to Mexico for two months but came back after six, and to tell the truth I didn't pay attention.''

Gustavo Villoldo says he offered to lead the Cubans to Che's grave so Fidel Castro could not claim a propaganda triumph from the discovery of his old comrade's remains.
At 61, a trim five-foot-nine, balding, so fair-skinned that he looks almost Scandinavian, Villoldo is the perfect picture of a grandfather and gentleman farmer. But if one looks closely, there are hints of another, very different Villoldo:

There is the remoteness of his farm -- at the end of a crazy string of left- and right-hand turns and a hidden driveway so overgrown that it looks more like a cow pasture. There's his unlisted telephone number, and his collection of books on Che. When he is persuaded to talk about ancient history, his eyes fix on something far away.

This is the CIA agent who hunted Che.

It was Villoldo who hounded him from the Caribbean to Africa to Latin America to avenge his father's death and fight Castro's brand of communism.

It was Villoldo who caught up to Che's corpse in the laundry room of a Bolivian jungle hospital in 1967, then buried it in secrecy to deny Havana the chance to enshrine the remains as a monument to revolution.

And it was Villoldo who offered to unearth the remains this summer, sparking a three-way race for the prized bones -- a contest between Villoldo, Cuban grave diggers bent on winning a historic propaganda war and Bolivians who wanted a tourist attraction. Would Castro be first to the remains of the man at the center of the ``Che-mania'' sweeping much of the world on the 30th anniversary of his death? Or would he be beaten, humiliated even, by the very CIA agent who had buried Che in the first place?

Villoldo, a nondescript man in a distant Redland mango grove, has now shed his cloak of secrecy and, in his first public description of Che's burial in three decades, tells a tale that contradicts the Cubans' version of how they recovered Che's bones. It is a tale of a midnight burial by bulldozer, of an anthropologist's lucky guess, and of too many bodies in one grave. It is a tale that winds up a mystery.

``As sure as I am sitting here, I can tell you that I know exactly how many people I buried and exactly where I buried them,'' says Villoldo, his normally lively eyes narrowing to tiny slits as he moves up to the edge of his living-room couch and begins his beguiling story.

``And I cannot conceive how the Cubans found what they found.''

A Swatch of Che

Recovering Che's remains was a propaganda triumph for Castro, whose ideology has all but keeled over since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Che was, literally, the poster boy for the Cuban Revolution. He was an asthmatic, Argentine-born physician who joined Castro in the war against the Batista dictatorship, then rejected Soviet orthodoxy, and gave his life trying to export an ideology that he regarded as more humanitarian than communist. A 17-ton, five-story steel profile of Che covers the facade of the Interior Ministry headquarters in Havana's Revolution Plaza. It is a frequent backdrop to Fidel's most important speeches, a virtual logo of the Cuban capital.

To this day Che remains a worldwide icon for radical change, his many political and economic blunders and guerrilla defeats mostly forgotten and largely overshadowed by his huge cultural impact. His romantic image, amplified by his early death and unorthodox communism, allowed his appeal to transcend ideological lines.

A 17-ton, five-story steel profile of Che covers the facade of the Interior Ministry headquarters in Havana's Revolution Plaza. It is a frequent backdrop to Fidel's most important speeches, a virtual logo of the Cuban capital.
``Che has become a universal, multigenerational symbol of the '60s, like the Beatles, a man sufficiently political to capture the politics of the times in a broad sense without getting bogged down in the whole Cold War issue,'' said Jorge Castaneda, a Mexican who authored one of three Che biographies published this year. But Che's story is all about money, too. Cuba bought 10,000 Swiss-made Swatch watches carrying Che's beret-clad and bearded visage and sold them in Havana boutiques. Former Culture Minister Armando Hart authored a multimedia CD-ROM on Che, priced at $60.

Havana music historian Santiago Felu has put together an anthology of 135 songs about Che, to go on sale in October. Felu said the songs will include traditional Cuban rhythms as well as rock and blues, and some whose lyrics are ``critical of those who have misused and vulgarized Che's image.''

Perhaps he means the Cuban street peddlers who offer tourists Che's image on everything from wood carvings to hammered leather, and even dried sea grape leaves inscribed with some of his famous sayings.

It's doubtful he means the key chains, posters and T-shirts with Che's image always sold in Cuban government shops at $6 to $10 a pop.

Cuba drew the line on commercializing Che's image last year, going after a British brewer that briefly manufactured a ``Che'' beer carrying his image and the captivating slogan, ``Banned in the U.S. It must be good.''

Of course certain Che artifacts -- the authentic ones, like rusty old rifles, rucksacks and yellowed photographs found in Bolivia and quietly brought back to Cuba by Cuban agents for years -- cannot be mass produced. But they can still be exploited.

That applies especially to the ultimate Che artifact: his long-lost bones.

In the Name of the Father

At the core of Villoldo's story is the death of his father.

Only days after Castro toppled Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, the younger Villoldo was jailed for 10 days on trumped-up charges brought by a dismissed employee of his father's car distributorship and assembly plant in Havana. And only days after that, Che personally ordered the seizure of the firm, Villoldo GM, and its stock of about 360 vehicles, alleging that it had received unfair tax breaks from Batista.

``On Feb. 16, 1959, my father, Gustavo, killed himself,'' Villoldo recalled. ``He downed an entire bottle of sleeping pills and left behind a series of notes to his family, accusing the barbudos [the bearded ones] of ruining him, that we still keep.''

Villoldo left Cuba 29 days later and immediately joined the anti-communist exiles in Miami. As intelligence and security chief of Brigade 2506's air wing, he took part in two B-26 strafing runs over the Bay of Pigs, but escaped being shot down and returned safely to the secret airstrip in Nicaragua code-named ``Happy Valley.''

An English speaker since a pre-Castro stint at the Culver Military Academy in Indiana, Villoldo then won a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, to train in guerrilla and counter-insurgency tactics. He moved to the CIA in 1964.

Villoldo prefers to say he worked ``with'' the CIA, not ``for'' it, and laughs when he recalls having to work part time in The Miami Herald's circulation department because his CIA monthly salary of $100 was not enough to feed his wife and eight children.

Villoldo infiltrated Cuba 30 to 40 times for periods ranging from a few hours to 20 days on CIA and other intelligence and sabotage missions from 1959 to 1971 -- a count confirmed by a former CIA official who knew him at the time.

He did clandestine work against leftist insurgencies in Guatemala, the Belgian Congo, Bolivia and Ecuador.

He retired from the CIA in 1970, and the next year led one of the last large-scale exile attacks on Cuba, a sea raid by 50 men who occupied the northeastern fishing town of Sama for 75 minutes. The raiders withdrew and claimed a major propaganda victory against the Castro regime.

``I was always fighting the system that ruined my country, against people who represented Castro's interests,'' he said. ``I never had a personal rancor against Che, although of course I always had this idea in the back of my mind that he and Fidel were the men responsible for my father's death.''

Dead and Buried, Found and Lost

In early 1965, the CIA began to hear whisperings of Che's plan to export the Castro Revolution -- he considered it Cuba's duty to encourage other ``national liberation movements'' around the world. CIA officials immediately put Villoldo and other Cuban Americans on the scent.

Villoldo crossed a river in the dead of night to infiltrate the leftist side of a bloody civil war in the Dominican Republic to check out rumors that Che was there. The Argentine was nowhere to be found.

He led a group of Cuban-American CIA agents into the Congo later that year, just missing Che as he escaped to neighboring Tanzania with 120 other Cubans after the government squashed rebel forces.

``We had him identified there and were there for 28 days, but all was lost for Che already, and he escaped,'' said Villoldo. ``A few more days and we might have closed in on him.''

His CIA orders were to locate Che, Villoldo recalled, ``but my intention was to get him, dead or alive.''

Che went into hiding for months after the Congo, licking the wounds to his fighting psyche and searching for another country where he could try his hand at subversion. After discussions with Castro, he settled on Bolivia.

Che lasted barely 12 months in the jungles of Bolivia, the first eight in hiding while preparing his guerrilla campaign, the last four running from a battalion of Bolivian Army Rangers, trained by U.S. Army Green Berets and advised by a team of three Cuban exiles working for the CIA. A CIA official who directed the Bolivia mission has confirmed that Villoldo was the ``lead agent in the field.''

Two of the three CIA men, radio operator Felix Rodriguez and urban police adviser Julio Garcia, later were featured in books that gave their own, sometimes embellished stories on the hunt for Che.

But the team's leader, Villoldo, has kept his version of events to himself, until now.

Villoldo carried Bolivian army credentials identifying him as Capt. Eduardo Gonzalez. He wore Bolivian army fatigues and was so discreet that several Bolivian officers who worked with him for several weeks never realized he was a CIA man.

Among his tasks: evaluating information from the interrogation of French socialist Regis Debray, who had written a glowing book on the Castro guerrillas' ideology. Debray had been captured after visiting Che in the Bolivian jungles.

In an ugly dispute that continues to this day, Che's family has accused Debray of betraying him. Debray denies it. Said Villoldo, using Cuban slang for someone who confesses all: ``He talked through his elbows.''

Che, 39, was wounded and captured during a jungle firefight on Oct. 8, 1967. He was executed by two Bolivian Rangers the next day in the mud-brick schoolhouse in the village of La Higuera, on orders from Bolivia's military dictator, Rene Barrientos.

``At no time did I or the CIA have a say in executing Che,'' said Villoldo. ``That was a Bolivian decision.''

Che's corpse was strapped to the skids of an army helicopter on Oct. 9 and flown to the nearby farm town of Vallegrande, where the Rangers tracking Che had set up a base near an airstrip. The body was displayed for peasants and journalists for the next 24 hours, on a stretcher placed atop a cement washstand in the laundry room of Our Lord of Malta Hospital, really a lean-to attached to the back of the hospital. And then it disappeared for 30 years.

Where the Bodies Are Buried

Gary Prado, the captain who commanded the Ranger company that captured Che, and who later rose to the rank of general, insisted for years that the body had been cremated and the ashes scattered. Others whispered that it was thrown from a helicopter into the deepest jungle, or fed to wild dogs.

But then in late 1995, retired Bolivian Gen. Mario Vargas told American author John Lee Anderson, who was writing a Che biography, that the body had been buried near the Vallegrande airstrip. Vargas later admitted he had based his story on hearsay -- which happened, ironically, to be correct.

Suddenly, the little town of 8,000 people was awash in Cuban forensic anthropologists and geologists. They managed to locate five remains, only a fraction of the 32 guerrillas, including Bolivian and Peruvian leftists and Cuban Sierra Maestra veterans, killed in the area in 1967 and buried in unmarked graves.

But for the next 16 months there was no sign of Che's body. And Che, for all the Cubans' talk of the importance of giving proper funerals to all of the dead guerrillas, was the real prize.

And then this spring, Villoldo surfaced and made a bombshell offer.

In an April 23 message clandestinely delivered to Che's daughter Aleida, a Castro supporter living in Havana, Villoldo offered to personally dig up Che's remains and turn them over to her for humanitarian reasons.

Villoldo wrote that only two years earlier, he had believed that Che's body should remain hidden. But several factors, he added, had led him to ``a profound reconsideration.''

``I have not renounced the personal, ideological and political principles that drove me to fight against Ernesto `Che' Guevara,'' he wrote Aleida. ``But in the same way the United States wants back its dead in Korea and Vietnam, Guevara's widow and children have the right to demand his body.''

He set two conditions:

No politics or propaganda, because he did not want to expose himself to attacks by exiles in Miami who might begrudge his decision to cooperate. ``I am a political exile and live in a very difficult society of exiles, loaded with multiple pressures.''

And he wanted sole control over all publicity proceeds. Any profits derived from the fanfare almost certain to erupt, he said, should be donated to scholarships for Bolivian medical students.

Villoldo now acknowledges he had another concern in mind: Since it was likely that Che's bones would eventually be recovered -- after all, the Cubans were digging in the correct area -- injecting himself into the excavations would take the edge off Castro's likely triumph. ``There were still politics and propaganda involved, and I still did not want Castro to capitalize completely on this,'' he said.

Cuban officials would later charge that Villoldo was only trying to throw the search off-track, and would attack his demand to control all publicity as a crass effort to capture the limelight and cash in on Che's bones.

But Villoldo's offer in fact unleashed a race for the remains between the Cubans, Villoldo and even Bolivians who wanted to keep Che's grave in Vallegrande as a tourism draw and political memorial.

``I was told Fidel pitched a fit because he could not allow the gusano [exile worm] who advised the Bolivian army in the hunt for Che, and the man who he knew had buried Che, to be the man who returned him to Cuba.''

Meanwhile, Vallegrande municipal officials declared Che's remains a ``national patrimony'' and slapped a moratorium on digging until mid-June. Then the town started promoting a ``Che's Route'' walking tour at $70 per day and planning a museum.

Loyola Guzman, who as a young woman was treasurer of the Bolivian Marxist faction that followed Che into the jungles, argued that if Che gave his life for Bolivia, his remains rightly belonged under Bolivian soil. ``His life was an example of heroic internationalism that no single country should monopolize,'' said Guzman, now a human-rights campaigner.

Villoldo meanwhile had hired a South Florida firm whose ground-search radar could locate Che's burial site in case Villoldo's memory failed him, contacted a book agent and negotiated with a three-man TV crew in Miami to record his search.

He denies that he wanted publicity for himself. ``I wanted history to know exactly how things happened,'' he said.

Villoldo had made reservations on a June 26 flight from Miami to Bolivia, and after much lobbying, won permission to search from Bolivian Human Resources Minister Franklin Anaya, a former ambassador in Havana and author of a sympathetic book on Cuba who was acting as the Bolivian liaison with the Cuban anthropologists. ``I had my bags packed,'' said Villoldo.

Media accounts later alleged that Anaya and Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada had made a deal with Castro to favor the Cuban team.

The accounts could not be confirmed, but Anaya suddenly canceled Villoldo's plane reservations. Villoldo appealed to President Sanchez de Lozada and was again cleared to fly to Bolivia. But Bolivian friends counseled him to stay in Miami, Villoldo said.

``My friends told me that Castro knew of my planned arrival, and that there was some possibility the Cubans would take some action against me,'' Villoldo said. ``Based on the warning . . . I decided to wait and see what happened.''

What happened was a Cuban dash to find the body.

Just 18 days after Villoldo's letter reached Aleida Guevara, and one day after the municipal ban on digging ended, the Cubans launched a search for Che's remains with an intensity unseen in the previous 16 months of digging. They worked from sunup to sundown, virtually nonstop. They were in such a hurry, they used the one excavation tool considered anathema by all experts in their field -- a bulldozer.

By June 27, a Cuban team led by Jorge Gonzalez, head of the Havana Institute of Legal Medicine, had dug several test trenches and pits in the area described by Gen. Vargas, but came up empty-handed. Time was running out.

President Sanchez de Lozada's government had ordered all digging stopped on June 28, apparently because of the June 2 election of a new Bolivian president, Hugo Banzer. A former military dictator in the 1970s, Banzer is known to have little liking for Che, Castro or Cuba. Sanchez de Lozada might have correctly presumed his actions might come under unsympathetic examination by his successor.

Indeed, Banzer, sworn into office in August, has vowed to investigate his predecessor's role in helping Cuba dig up Che's remains, and to investigate press reports that Anaya might personally profit from the publicity rights to the excavation story.

No Hands

The Cuban diggers met until 4 o'clock the morning of June 28 to decide where to focus their last day of digging, recalled Alejandro Inchaurregui, one of a team of Argentine Forensic Anthropologists called in to help the Cubans.

What are believed to be the long-lost bones of Che rest on an examining table at a small hospital in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on July 8 of this year.
Ground radar surveys conducted by the Cuban-Argentine search team in early 1997 had revealed a dozen spots of disturbed earth that could be secret grave sites -- or maybe displaced rocks or fallen trees. Of these, three in particular had all the characteristics of being man-made. This is where they set to work. With a bulldozer.

In the first spot, they set the bulldozer blade to scrape away four inches of dirt with each pass. Nearly two hours later, they hit rock and no sign of any bones. They moved on to spot No. 2.

Eighteen scrapes of the bulldozer later, almost exactly six feet down, the blade uncovered and broke parts of a human skeleton.

What the Cubans had found were seven bodies, in two groups of three and four, separated by 2 1/2 feet, buried in a pit wedged between Vallegrande's old dirt airstrip to the north and the nearby cemetery to the south.

Jubilation erupted when the second body was uncovered, the middle one in the group of three, and was found to have no hands. Che's hands were amputated after his death as proof of his demise.

But Che's remains still had to be officially identified by Bolivian government officials so that they could be released and flown to Cuba.

One of the skulls found at the Bolivian site
``Ministry of Interior people were telling us to move fast. As the inauguration of Banzer approached, the screws tightened,'' said Inchaurregui.

And so in the dead of night on July 5, a convoy of 10 vehicles made a five-hour, 150-mile dash at breakneck speeds along treacherous mountain roads to transfer the remains to the provincial capital of Santa Cruz.

There, the handless remains were quickly identified. The excavated teeth perfectly matched a plaster mold of Che's teeth made in Havana before he left for the Congo so that he could be identified if he died in combat.

And there was a clincher, revealed to Tropic by Jaime Nino de Guzman, who had been a Bolivian army major and helicopter pilot in 1967, and who had seen Che alive as a captive in La Higuera as he flew officers and supplies in and out.

Che looked dreadful, Nino de Guzman recalled last month from his home in La Paz. He was shot through the right calf, his hair was matted with dirt, his clothes were shredded, and his feet were covered in rough leather sheaths. But Che held his head high, looked everyone straight in the eyes and asked only for something to smoke. Seldom seen without a Cuban cigar in hand after Castro triumphed, Che had switched to a pipe for the guerrilla war.

``I took pity, he looked so terrible, and gave him my small bag of imported tobacco for his pipe. He smiled and thanked me,'' the pilot recalled in a telephone interview.

Thirty years later, Inchaurregui said, he was inspecting a blue jacket dug up next to the handless remains when he found a tiny inside pocket, almost hidden and apparently missed by the soldiers who searched Che's body. Tucked away inside was a small bag of pipe tobacco.

``I must tell you I had serious doubts at the beginning. I thought the Cubans would just find any old bones and call it Che,'' said Nino de Guzman. ``But after hearing about the tobacco pouch, I have no doubts.''

Neither do most others familiar with the search.

``Just seeing the genuine excitement, the genuine euphoria on the face of the Cubans there makes me certain this was Che's remains,'' said John Lee Anderson, the American author. Anderson witnessed the final stages of the dig. ``They were simply overcome, crying and hugging each other.''

A Final Enigma

Even Villoldo now acknowledges that these are probably Che's remains. ``Although I initially doubted it, all the evidence points to that,'' he said after reviewing the evidence.

Yet another mystery remains, for the grave where the Cubans found seven remains does not match in significant details the grave where Villoldo says he buried Che and two other guerrillas.

``I cannot explain that at all,'' he said. ``That was the single most important moment in my life, and I can remember the details as though they are happening right now, right here. And they just don't match.''

Villoldo heard of Che's capture while he was in the Ranger's advance command post in a nearby town. Villoldo rushed to Vallegrande, arriving on Oct. 9, just two hours before the helicopter with Che's body landed at a dirt airstrip jammed with hundreds of journalists and curious townspeople.

``I never saw him alive, but I had no interest in that or in talking to him," he said. "It was never personal to me, even though the fact that Che had contributed to my dad's death was always in the back of my mind. It was just a job."

The following day, Oct. 10, the top Bolivian military commanders and Villoldo gathered in the restaurant of Vallegrande's lone hotel, the two-story Hotel Teresita, to discuss how to dispose of Che's body, he recalled.

As in Che's exhumation 30 years later, it was a race against the clock: The army officials had received word that some of Che's relatives were on their way to Vallegrande to claim the body.

But both the Bolivians and Villoldo wanted to ``disappear'' it.

``We thought it was important to dispose of it in utmost security to deny Castro the bones and the possibility of building some sort of monument that he could exploit both ideologically and commercially,'' recalled Villoldo.

Someone suggested cremating it, Villoldo said, but he argued that in the absence of a true crematorium in Vallegrande, ``all we would be doing would be holding a barbecue. I told them that they had written a pretty page in the history of the Bolivian army, and that they should not end that way.''

Army commanders eventually settled on amputating the hands for future identification and then burying the body in secret. Army Chief Gen. Alfredo Ovando assigned Villoldo to carry out the decisions. Villoldo was photographed by Bolivian journalists looking over the shoulders of the two doctors who performed a quick autopsy of the corpse and later -- after the journalists were gone -- amputated its hands.

That's when Villoldo clipped a lock of Che's scraggly hair, at least initially for a U.S. Green Beret who had asked him for a keepsake. But, he ruefully acknowledged, he did keep a few strands.

``I don't even recall if I cut it with a knife or scissors. I was not interested and I had no intention to keep it. I am not that kind of person. But in time, I figured, well . . .'' He still has it, though he has never shown it in public.

Villoldo said he was provided with a security guard, a driver for a truck to transport the body and a second driver for the bulldozer that would bury it.

He took a nap, awoke at about 1:45 a.m., and went to the hospital laundry room. Che's body was laid atop a laundry basin. On the dirt floor, a couple of feet away, were the rapidly decomposing corpses of two other rebels.

It's the same scene described by helicopter pilot Nino de Guzman and by Alberto Suazo, who in 1967, as a young reporter for United Press International, saw Che's corpse in the hospital. But Suazo recalled seeing ``another three or four guerrilla corpses'' laid out somewhere in the patio behind the hospital, which is consistent with Guzman's account of flying in seven corpses.

Villoldo insists he saw only Che's and two other bodies.

He ordered his helpers to load the three corpses on the truck. They drove to the airstrip in total darkness until he saw a likely spot near the walled Vallegrande cemetery, Villoldo recalled. He told the driver to stop.

The spot was south of the airstrip and west of the cemetery, in an area where a bulldozer had already been working nearby so that a fresh grave would not be apparent, Villoldo says.

But the mass grave dug up by the Cubans was north of the cemetery.

Villoldo says that while he sent one of his men to get the bulldozer, he took compass readings and paced off distances from four points that would allow him to find the exact spot again. He wrote nothing down, he says, but committed the measurements to memory.

Then they backed the truck to the edge of a natural depression in the ground and unloaded the three corpses. Villoldo ordered the bulldozer driver to cover them up.

Both Villoldo and the bulldozer driver, who still lives in Vallegrande and was interviewed by Inchaurregui, recall that it began to rain toward the end of the burial.

The bulldozer driver said he did not remember exactly how many bodies he buried or whether the site was north or west of the cemetery. He cannot even say for certain that Che was among the bodies, Inchaurregui told Tropic.

Inchaurregui said he believes Villoldo is lying or mistaken about burying only three bodies. ``He obviously has political considerations for saying what he says. I am not surprised that after 30 years he would still be trying to lead everyone astray,'' the Argentine said.

Villoldo's CIA supervisor for the Bolivia mission, now retired in North Florida but still speaking only on condition of anonymity, said this: ``Gus does not exaggerate. I would believe him if he says he buried three.''

So how about those seven remains? Could the truck or bulldozer drivers have buried the other four guerrillas earlier in the day and then led an unwitting Villoldo to the same spot to bury Che and the two others?

``No way. I told them where to go, where to stop. I picked the spot all by myself,'' Villoldo said.

Could the drivers have buried the other four bodies in the same spot as Che and the two others the next day, perhaps returning to where they had left the bulldozer after the rains came?

Not likely, said Inchaurregui. The pattern of digging marks in the pit from which the seven bodies were excavated indicated that a bulldozer had dug it with back-and-forth passes -- not simply moved dirt atop bodies in a natural depression as Villoldo described.

Analysis of dirt hardness also showed the grave had one common floor of hard-packed dirt under all the bodies, and that all the seven bodies had been covered with the same dirt at the same time, Inchaurregui added.

``It looks to me like one opening and one closing of the grave. It's seven bodies, not three. That's the empirical evidence,'' the anthropologist concluded.

Could Villoldo, by a zillion-to-one coincidence, have buried the three bodies in the same natural depression where some Bolivian army officer had earlier simply dumped four unburied corpses?

``I looked down into that depression and saw nothing,'' said Villoldo. ``I buried and covered three bodies. I know that for sure. I never saw seven bodies, I never even knew of seven bodies until much later.''

Today, a reduced team of Cubans working at a slower pace remains in Vallegrande, looking for some 23 more guerrilla corpses believed buried in unmarked graves around the region.

Still missing is the body of the second most notorious guerrilla: Tamara Bunker, a pretty, young Argentine of German descent code-named Tanya, a reputed KGB agent.

Villoldo remains determined to fly to Bolivia to visit the site where the handless remains were dug up and compare it to the compass bearings and distances he recorded the night he buried Che.

In the meantime, Villoldo tends his farm, pores over large scale maps of Vallegrande, re-reads his books on Che and tries to figure out how it's possible to bury three bodies and dig up seven.

``Maybe you can headline this story Che: The End of the Myth,'' he suggested.

But perhaps it is only the beginning of another.

Copyright © 1997 The Miami Herald