The Effects of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces in Bolivia during Che’s Foco
Alan C. Cunningham
The U.S. Army Special Forces, the “Green Berets”, are the premier special operations unit of the United States Army. Born out of a need for a covert force dealing with Cold War-era operations, the Green Berets were trained as both a military and diplomatic force. The forces are trained in a variety of military tactics, ranging from intelligence gathering to direct action to counterinsurgency (COIN). However, the most important core activity that the Green Berets undertake is that of foreign internal defense (FID), defined as being “the participation by civilian agencies and military forces of a government or international organization in any of the programs or activities taken by a host nation government to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, violent extremism, terrorism, and other threats to its security ”. The goal of this strategy is two-fold: to better preserve the national security state of the United States and to improve the national security of foreign nations as well as to solidify the bonds made with the host nation and/or Indigenous groups in the country. This tactic of FID is paramount to how the Army Special Forces conduct operations in the field and has been conducted time and time again in various locations throughout the globe, with varying results. To prove that this type of covert, special operations aid is far more beneficial than sending regular military units to train or conduct operations, I will be examining the United States’ military efforts at defeating Che Guevara’s insurgency in Bolivia.
Background to Che’s Foco
While the Green Berets had been around since 1952 and their first (known) operations occurred in Vietnam, their first FID measure in Latin America occurred in Bolivia in the late 1960’s. The landlocked country had been undergoing a number of changes in the preceding decades, having been the victim of European companies and costly wars with foreign nations which in turn resulted in public revolts and multiple coups and juntas. While these incidents created instability, they did allow for the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR, a centre-left, Bolivarian nationalist party) to attain power and move the country towards a more cohesive, democratic, and fair society. This was short lived however, as the military’s influence in the country was massive and played a heavy role in all political and national decisions. Going into the 1960’s, the country seemed to be holding onto power with a light grasp. In the mind of Che Guevara, the country seemed ripe for a socialist revolution.
Che Guevara was one of the main figures in the Cuban revolution of 1959 and, later, the primary force behind Cuba’s exportation of revolution and Socialist ideology throughout Latin America and the world over. Guevara’s 1961 book Guerilla Warfare laid out his thoughts on warfare and how one can overthrow a government for socialism. His book had three key points, these being “[the] establishment and adaptation of the guerilla lifestyle for rebel forces, push out the local forces to establish territory for the guerillas, and attack the enemy out in the open with special emphasis placed on communication and bases”. These form the core tenants of Che’s ideas on the tactic and had come from the success he experienced during the Cuban revolution. His desire was to create a Latin America free of American imperialism and promote the socialist ideas that had been attempted in Cuba; these ideas could be accomplished through this tactic of guerilla warfare. Though Che had tried and failed to replicate this in the Congo, he had his eyes next set on Bolivia as a prime location for the next socialist revolution.
Naturally, this idea was highly threatening to the United States. Through this ideology, the Soviet Union could potentially be able to expand their reach into the western hemisphere and the socialist methods put in place by the new governments could be dangerous to America’s economic interests. For these reasons, the United States decided that their only option was to intervene. The U.S. believed the best way to intervene was militarily.
U.S. Military Efforts in Latin America
The best method was through using the U.S. Army’s Special Forces. Being that their main goal is FID, they were (and still are) frequently sent to various locations across the globe to train military personnel. The Green Berets are taught the language and culture of a specific region before being deployed there, in order to effectively train the soldiers of a host nation in complex infantry and SOF tactics. Furthermore, the Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs, Corporals through Sergeant Majors) embed themselves within the unit, getting to know the men they are training on a personal level, cementing the bond between both nations via their military personnel. This helps the U.S. (on a broad scale) to gain the trust of the military and shows, to the host nation, that these foreigners are willing to risk their own lives and well-being for a democratic, pro-U.S. country. This is an extremely useful tool and has been proven time and time again to be highly successful when applied properly.
Another method of establishing a foothold in the region was through the establishment of schools throughout the South and North American continents, the most notable schools being at Fort Benning, Georgia (the School of the Americas) and Fort Gulick in Panama. These two schools provided the ability to train foreign military officers and NCOs in combat tactics, counterinsurgency, intelligence gathering, and more mundane (but important) tasks such as learning to operate specific equipment and coordinate operations.
Additionally, the students who attended these schools were taught anti-Communist rhetoric and instructed on how to deal with and ferret out Communists.
While these tools were available to the Bolivian military, they did not seem to take advantage of them on a broad scale, sending only a few soldiers to the various schools throughout the 1960’s. Instead, officers were “trained in [domestic] military academies modeled after U.S. service schools”. While the Bolivian military did accept U.S. military aid, they seemingly did not see the point in sending a great majority of their military to these specialized schools, instead preferring to deal with things internally, sending only 65 students to counterinsurgency schools from 1961 to 1964. While a noble and nationalist effort, this would have extreme effects upon the Bolivian military’s capacity to wage counterinsurgency (a very vital tool in modern day warfare that many militaries, including the U.S. military, get wrong frequently).
Bolivia had a strong military and one that had the ability to maneuver almost at free will, independent of the state, frequently appointing military officers to the highest position of power. In 1966, the year when the U.S. began to look more closely at Bolivia, former General René Barrientos Ortuño was officially declared president (having been a co-president with another general since 1964). The placing of a former military branch commander as president gave the military a very strong pull in the country’s policies and overall decisions.
In November of 1966, Guevara arrived in Bolivia from Cuba, having sent an advance team to prepare a forward operating base in the mountains to conduct operations from. In March of 1967, the Bolivian military unit found that a rebellion was brewing in the countryside after having spotted a recon team. Interestingly, despite the Bolivian military’s training and having received abundant amounts of U.S. aid (weapons, combat training by SF units) from the U.S., they were still heavily unprepared.
The Green Berets in Bolivia
In a Memorandum from National Security Advisor Walt Rostow to President Johnson on 23 June 1967, Rostow writes, “The Bolivian forces have come off poorly in these engagements, losing 28 of their men to 2 or 3 known rebels killed...they have so far clearly out-classed the Bolivian security forces. The performance of government units has revealed a serious lack of command coordination, officer leadership, and troop training and discipline,”. From a high ranking White House official, this is a scathing indictment of how the U.S. has failed in providing adequate support to the Bolivian military. Additionally, it speaks to how the military has failed to take advantage of the U.S. aid offered to them.
In response to this, Rostow mentions in the same document that a “special team” and other equipment had been sent to Bolivia to assist the military. This “special team” was a 16-man unit from the 8th Special Forces Group (a battalion from the 7th Special Forces Group), consisting of five officers and led by Major Ralph Shelton, a former NCO who went through officer candidate school and Ranger School, becoming a highly skilled Special Forces Officer. A more skilled team of operators could not have been asked for as these men had combat experience in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam, a variety of skillsets centered in intelligence, medicine, and demolition as well as being fluent, if not familiar, with the Spanish language, exhibiting the best of the Green Berets and the best the Army had to offer.
The American advisory team accepted 560 military officers and NCOs from the Bolivian Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion, Bolivia’s premier special operations unit which modeled itself off of the various iterations of Ranger regiments throughout U.S. history. Throughout the eleven weeks of training, the Green Berets trained the Rangers in basic U.S. Army techniques before moving onto advanced schooling in communications, medicine, advanced weapons, or demolition operations. The Rangers then received counterinsurgency education by the Americans before participating in a two-week long exercise. While the entire program was short, it would prove highly beneficial in the Bolivian Army’s operations against Che Guevara’s insurgent force.
The Hunt for Che
Within a short time after the Battalion was deployed to combat Guevara’s guerillas, a drastic change occurred in the Bolivian Army’s actions against the insurgent force. In August of 1967, with the locals providing on the ground intelligence to the military, Rangers from a separate unit (ones that had not undergone the specialized training by Shelton, but had been through previous schools and SF training) were able to ambush the rebels and eliminate 12 of them from Guevara’s force, cutting his force by over a third. A severe blow to his operation, Guevara’s adventure continued until October 8th, when Captain Gary Prado, the commanding officer of Bravo Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion (Bolivia), was able to ambush Che and the remaining seventeen members of his guerilla force as they were coming up a ravine. Using a combination of heavy machine gun fire and mortar strikes (as well as holding the high ground), the result was devastating. Upon being engaged, three of Che’s guerillas were killed outright and the rest dispersed; within three hours of the initial firefight, Che and one of his guerillas were taken into custody by the Bolivian Army. Che would later be executed by the Bolivian Army a day later on October 9th and buried in an unmarked grave, only being discovered in 1997.
Ramifications of U.S. Involvement
This operation shows how America’s Special Forces and their training programs brought this guerilla insurgency to an end. Prior to the sending of Americans specializing in COIN and guerilla warfare, the guerillas were actually making headway against the Bolivian army regulars (though any real form of Socialist revolution would have been impossible given various circumstances). In their first encounter, mentioned earlier in the memorandum by Walt Rostow, the guerillas under Che’s command performed far better than the army, suffering only 3 casualties as opposed to the Bolivian Army’s 28. Alternatively, when the Rangers first engaged Che in August of 1967, they were able to inflict much heavier casualties than before. Though these Rangers were untrained by the most recent Americans in Bolivia, they had previous training at American COIN and combat schools as well as having received training from other Green Beret advisors. And, upon contact with the more freshly trained Bolivian Rangers, the guerillas crumbled and any desire of a Socialist revolution was lost along with it. Additionally, the capture of Che alive is something that is very rare in many military manhunt operations and is a testament to how well the Rangers were trained by the American military
While an argument can be made that Che’s guerilla movement was doomed to fail from the beginning because of their inability to fully understand the Bolivian culture, the terrain of the country, gaining allies within the country’s communist party, and not having a solid supply line or base of support/headquarters within the country, I would argue that the U.S. military’s providing of training through specialized schools and sending special operations forces to Bolivia significantly aided the Bolivian’s ability to defeat the insurgency. By utilizing a force that is familiar with the culture of a country as well as their language and has a strong base of operations and a steady supply line for equipment and additional reinforcements (should it be needed), the Green Berets had the ability to better arm and train the Bolivians. The Berets understood that the terrain was very dangerous and that the people would not be easily swayed by foreigners attempting to instigate a revolution. Che’s inability to properly communicate with the Bolivian people (by bringing along an interpreter who could not properly speak the language of the region the guerillas had selected) furthered the dissolution of his revolution.
The Green Berets training significantly helped the Bolivian Rangers defeat the insurgency posed by Che. However, the peace and stability that had been created through Barrientos’ military dictatorship was short-lived; in 1969, Barrientos died in a helicopter crash. Months later, the military seized power and reigned over a period of violence and state sponsored terror against their countrymen, lasting until 1982 when a civilian government was put in place.  After the execution of Che, a change occurred in the Bolivian Army; they began sending more and more men to the various American training schools and programs. In her history of the U.S.’s military training program in Latin America, Lesley Gill states, “to deal with these [militant tin miners’ union and future insurgencies] threats, successive military regimes dispatched 155 soldiers per year to the School of the Americas between 1967 and 1979”. A great many of these soldiers were officers from the Bolivian military academies and, during their time at these schools, were trained in much of the same tactics that the Green Berets had trained the 2nd Ranger Battalion in 1967. They studied marksmanship, jungle warfare, intelligence gathering, and usage of advanced weaponry.
The Green Berets themselves were proud of their work in Bolivia and in stopping an insurgency. A year before his death in 2010, Maj. Shelton, the Special Forces team commander, spoke on the job him and his men performed, stating, “We had a job and we did it. The people of Bolivia wanted Guevara gone and asked for help, and we were glad to give it...we were glad to put him out of business”. His comments are quite revealing and indicative of how the Special Forces are supposed to operate. They enter a country on the behalf of the host and provide assistance to the country’s police or military force through either training, equipment, tactical planning, or (in some cases) direct tactical assistance. The majority of the time, they are successful in what they set out to accomplish and are some of the best unconventional warfare operators on the face of the earth. This is highly evident through the case of Bolivia.
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