And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

-Coldplay-

The American instructors got their first look at the conscripts. Downtrodden peasants getting their first boots… and their first toothbrush. These were the men that would have to close with and destroy seasoned Marxist guerrillas…on their own. The Americans were forbidden to accompany them into combat.

The Bolivian Army captain was stunned… gunfire and some of his officers and men killed and wounded. They were in a trap and even if the Bolivians had been vastly better soldiers… they’d never get out alive. The major in command surrendered the platoon size patrol. Early 1967 was not starting off well.

They had been investigating reports of possible smugglers or gun runners. But it was obvious that the patrol was facing a competent and experienced force. Ten fairly large (compared to the Bolivians) men with long hair and beards wearing green fatigues came down from the slopes and disarmed the 50 remaining soldiers.

Che Guevara and cadre late 1966

The captain was disgusted to see the major throw himself at the feet of the assailants and beg piteously for his life.  He offered to give the ambush team leader anything that he wanted including information on the disposition of Army units in the area.

The group leader had a heavy Cuban accent. Announced that he was part of an insurgent group that was going to “liberate Bolivia…” The other men all spoke fluent Spanish… but were obviously not from Bolivia.

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When his men were searching their prisoners, a number of Bolivian campesinos (roughly translates as “peasant…”) quietly asked the foreigners to shoot the major when they were done with him. He was abusive to them and they were also disgusted with his craven cowardice.

But the insurgents announced that nobody else was going to be shot. They took the weapons and ammunition and other supplies… and had the enlisted men take off their fatigues. These were replaced with raggedy clothing that the guerrillas had for the purpose.
That night they offered to let any of the soldiers join their ranks who chose to. None took them up on the offer. The campesinos had a fair idea what the life of a guerrilla in the rugged mountains would be like. They didn’t love their government, but things had improved some over the last couple of decades (relatively speaking) and they had no urge to try to overthrow it.

The next day the soldiers were set free. (During the Revolution in Cuba, the Cuban insurrectos routinely did this… ultimately future Batista government patrols less and less likely to fight to the death…) The captain knew that the major was making up a story for HQ. (The common soldiers would not dare contradict him.) The major had “political connections,” both inside and out of the Army… the captain had none. He would keep silent.

So the Bolivian government got a report not of ten guerrillas staging the ambush… but fifty. The major claimed to have overheard the head of the group talking about their total force… of 500 elite foreign fighters making up the guerrillas current strength. (Nobody outside the group knew it, but there were never more than 50 of them.) About the same time Bolivian police checked out a Jeep station wagon that had sat for weeks without anybody touching it. Inside they found notebooks belonging to a woman called “Tanya,” (who later proved to be an East German woman who sometimes worked for the KGB.)

Notebooks listed entire Bolivian network of urban contacts that a guerrilla group needed to get in touch with… friendly Communist contacts in nearby South American countries… and listings of several bank accounts. Combined with the major’s “report” the Bolivian government was now convinced that there were 500 highly experienced, mostly foreign Communist insurgents in the remote mountains… many of them veterans of the Cuban Revolution.

Before long, several men came down out of the mountains claiming to be “journalists.” The Bolivian authorities who captured them in a small village were simply going to shoot them out of hand, but the next morning before they could, they learned that somebody had taken a photo of them alive in government hands and the photo was now in the hands of the press in the capital. The prisoners were sent on to the capital as well.

One turned out to be a real journalist and was turned loose after a couple of months. One ultimately proved to be a Bolivian “city boy” who quickly found the life of a guerrilla to be hard, brutish, and dirty. The third was a young French “intellectual” writer, Jules Regis Debray who was a quintessential “parlor pink.” He had decided to become a guerrilla fighter. The insurgents considered him to be a “weak, foppish joke,” and were delighted when he left. (but nobody in the guerrilla camp ever let him know how many fighters there were and where the rest might be.) But he eventually broke and told the Bolivians that the man heading the foreign insurgents was Che Guevara…

Reward poster for known guerrillas. (Public Domain)

The Bolivian President, (a former Bolivian Air Force general) was alarmed. He now had “proof” that 500 combat experienced foreign fighter were in the Bolivian mountains, led by Che Guevara and had launched their first assault on his country. (Actually the guerrillas were responding to the soldiers stumbling into them.) He called in the U.S. ambassador, Douglas Henderson.

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President Barrientos demanded that his army be reequipped with the latest weapons (many still carried bolt action Mauser rifles) that his Air Force be given the latest jet fighters (plus lots of napalm) and that he be given large amounts of U.S. dollars to pump into his military.

Henderson was nobody’s favorite in Washington…(he once contradicted Robert Kennedy at a large meeting a couple of years before) and even open-minded people who had dealings with him often found him to be a pain in the ass. But when it came to dealing with the Bolivian government he knew what he was about.

He passed on the request, but suggested that it be declined. He was fully aware that a frightened poorly trained Bolivian conscript would drop an M-16 and run away just as fast as if he were carrying a Mauser. Henderson was also aware that prior to the NVA entry into South Vietnam that the VC had equipped themselves with abandoned American weapons left by poor quality South Vietnamese soldiers.

The jets were a bad joke. The Bolivians could never maintain them…and they were poor choices anyway for counter-insurgency war. Besides, for as long as possible the U.S. government wanted to keep all South American countries restricted to non-jet fighter and bomber aircraft. Henderson did advocate U.S. help in refurbishing Bolivia’s WW2 fighters and light bombers.

Napalm was definitely out. Henderson knew that the Bolivian Air Force would be dropping it on anything that moved in the mountains and eventually every small village and hut. No faster way to provide dedicated recruits to the insurgents from a previously apathetic population. As to the money… no way in hell. Corruption was so bad in Bolivia that many civil servants had gone unpaid for six months or more at a time. Barrientos was stating that his forces could “clean this all up themselves” if they were “given the tools…” Henderson wasn’t going to give them what they wanted… but he agreed that the Bolivians had to deal with this themselves. Inserting regular American ground forces into the mountains of Bolivia would be the response that Che would be hoping for. Like the napalm, it would generate many recruits. No doubt he was hoping not only to have a growing war in Bolivia, but to spread the insurgency to all the many surrounding countries… (“Many Vietnams” as he called it.)

Henderson had early on figured out why everything was going to hell in Vietnam. He refused to let the U.S. go down the same road in South America. Fortunately, Secretary of State Dean Rusk shared his opinion.

Bolivia was a military basket case.A couple of generations before they had lost a number of major wars in a most miserable way. Revolution (before the most recent coup) resulted in some long overdue “baby step” reforms… but also disbanded the military. The military was reestablished after the last coup, but maybe 1500 soldiers to prevent the next coup… and six thousand campesino conscripts doing two year service, (incredibly, all discharged at the same time and new ones just starting, with this “trouble” occurring at such a change).

Meanwhile, the Bolivian Army were blindly sweeping the mountains looking for the guerrillas. Twice, patrols were shot up, their weapons, equipment and uniforms taken… and surviving soldiers sent off naked. Something had to be done. If the guerrillas got support of the local Communist parties (one pro Russian, one pro Chinese) or the left-leaning mine workers, it could all go up in flames. Meanwhile panic broke out in much of the Bolivian government (and neighboring regimes as well). Barrientos might soon be replaced in a coup. With no great shakes, Henderson correctly assessed him as the best available, and only the Marxists would profit if his government fell.

While some in the Pentagon wanted to send in regular American forces, wiser heads decided to send in an enlarged Special Forces team to train up a Bolivian Ranger battalion. Barrientos kicked, but he was told that he either approved it, or the U.S. would sit on its hands. He approved, but he couldn’t seem to grasp that you can’t create an elite force overnight. The United States picked the best officer that it had to orchestrate the doom of Che Guevara, a one time physician who attained high rank in the Cuban Revolution and later was a major player in the new Cuban government. To fight this “legend” the U.S. Eighth Special Forces group chose… a man from Mississippi who dropped out of the tenth grade to chop cotton.

Major “Pappy” Shelton (U.S. Army)
Detailed map. (Public domain)

Che Guevara had slipped into Bolivia using a false passport.  He had altered his appearance to where his own brother might walk by him on the street.  He was hoping to topple the Bolivian government; not an unreasonable objective when one considers that Bolivia had already had 100 coups in its history.

Passport used in 1966 by Che to enter Bolivia.  Appearance would never cause suspicion. (Public domain)

Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton flew into Bolivia months later.  Born in Corinth, Mississippi, he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade and chopped cotton.  The Army looked far more attractive.  He joined as a private and had worked his way up to major.  He fought in Korea and later was the oldest man in his OCS class at 28, just short of  his 29th birthday which would have disqualified him. (hence, “Pappy…)  He had Ranger training and then joined the Special Forces.  He had been deployed in Laos and the Dominican Republic.  He agreed to this mission but made it clear that he was going to retire when it was completed.  His wife and kids saw too little of him for too long.

His team was larger than normal, 16 officers and men hand picked by him from the Eighth Special Forces Group. He demanded and got priority, including a C-130 on call to bring him whatever he needed.

His mission was to create a Bolivian Ranger battalion.  He would have 19 weeks to train 650 campesino conscripts with a sprinkling of NCOs (often somebody that could read and write a bit…) and officers.  He made it plain that the officers would be run through the wringer as well as the men and didn’t want anybody who felt that he was “above such things.”   Major Montano, the designated battalion commander would have to be handled a touch more delicately, but he was cooperative and proved to be no problem.

The clock was ticking and Shelton needed somewhere to train the battalion.  A couple of his men who arrived in country to recon prior to his arrival found a perfect spot away from built up areas, and 100 miles from where the guerrillas were operating.  A small dusty town called La Esperanza.  Herds of cattle were more common on the main drag in town than vehicles.  It once had a sugar mill built with U.S. aid money years before, but over the years mismanagement led to it being closed and abandoned.  The town and surrounding people who worked on small plots were barely getting by.

The giant sugar mill proved to be a godsend to Shelton.  A massive building, its walls (and roof) still intact.  The old powerlines were still in place so he arranged for massive generators to be flown into country and installed.  Some areas could be used as classrooms, others as barracks.  No running water or toilet facilities, but you can’t have everything.

The Bolivian officers arrived.  One in particular caught Shelton’s eye.  Captain Gary Prado Salmon.  An aristocrat and a cavalryman by prior assignment.  His father had been a general in the Chaco War and was now a senior Bolivian government minister.  Normally a dreadful background for unconventional warfare… but Prado was different.  He had been through the U.S. counter-insurgency school in Panama and believed in building a lean and professional army for Bolivia.  At a social gathering weeks earlier that included the Bolivian President, Prado openly contradicted  Barrientos regarding what the country needed to fight the guerrillas.  This might well have crushed his career, but Barrientos thought for a moment and said, “Maybe you’re right…” and assigned him to the recently approved Ranger battalion.

Bolivian Ranger Captain Gary Prado. (El Nuevo Accion)

Shelton liked everything about Prado and offered him a position as special advisor in addition to his responsibilities as a company commander.  Shelton needed to know if his training was getting through to the campesinos. He needed to understand their prejudices and foibles.  Above all he needed the truth, with the bark on.  Prado promised not to sugarcoat anything and to speak up without hesitation.  It worked splendidly.

As the enlisted soldiers arrived, Shelton went into the town and met with the mayor and the elders from the area.  He explained what he had in mind.  He told them that the enlisted trainees would not interact with the locals at all.  They would be under the strictest discipline so property and good order would be safe.

He also explained that for quite some time to come, money would be flowing into the town and its surroundings.  Not just the Rangers, but other regular units would later come after the Rangers were gone to train. Locals would be selling food to the unit, people would be hired to cook and do laundry and others would be hired for construction so that the soldiers could concentrate on their training.  All the inhabitants in the area would be welcome and treated by the medics without cost.