As one can guess from the title of this, it isn’t going to end well. I have a built-in bias against anyone wearing a Che Guevara shirt. Every time I encountered this, it usually ended in an ugly fashion. Sorry, but there it is. And I’ll spell out my experiences below.
One of the biggest paradoxes I’ve encountered during my time in the military was the love affair of the Bolivian college students with Che Guevara. He was a murderer, a racist and was trying to export his revolution to Bolivia where he met an untimely end in 1967. The Manchego Ranger Battalion, with training and advisory assistance from the Special Forces men from Panama and the CIA routed his merry little band of guerrillas. In truth, Che’s idea of “revolución” resonated little with the Bolivians.
And yet back in the heady days of massive Special Forces and DEA support during the 80’s and 90’s when there was a constant influx of SF guys and SEALs all over the country, Che was everywhere. At the big university in the capital city of La Paz, there was a huge mural of Che Guevara on the wall of one of the buildings covering about 3 stories. Che’s likeness was on every other building it seemed. And the college students, who went to the very anti-American, leftist universities there, all wore Che t-shirts, as if it were a badge of honor, rather than someone who invaded your country trying to start a revolution where one didn’t exist.
Naturally, they didn’t take very well to the Gringos who they all thought were part of the DEA. And in those times, the SF and SEALs didn’t look like regular soldiers with the short military haircuts and the “I’m on TDY orders” method of dress. Whenever the Americans from the embassy there, and it was a big staff back then, would find a place like a popular disco or nightclub, the leftist college kids would begin to flock in the place and once the odds got what they felt were in their favor, say 8 or 10-1, they’d get brave, very brave. It never ended well for them, and more than once we left a pile in our wake as we got out of Dodge and tried to avoid a “diplomatic faux pas.”
But the leftists’ biggest targets were the Marines. Being a Marine Corps Embassy Guard is a cush assignment for the young kids in the Corps and because of their strict standards that they maintain 365 days a year, they stood out like a sore thumb. They all had white-wall haircuts that screamed US Marine wherever they went. And as a result, whenever the Detachment was downtown, there would invariably be an issue, that they didn’t start but would finish. As a result, the Marines were restricted to their house, which was a beautiful palace that served as home and that had its own bar. At least one weekend night every week, the embassy staff would pile over to the Marine house and at least they’d get to have somewhat of a social life.
It was a shame, they were all great kids and didn’t want any trouble, they just wanted to get out and see the city and countryside just like we did, but weren’t allowed to. Being assigned to MILGP (Military Group in the embassy) in Bolivia, my partner Dave Ortiz and I became fast friends with the Marines and they had us over for a Detachment Dinner at their house which was an honor. They had a rough job and many of the diplomats treated them badly. But they had a job to do and they did it well. And were always polite and maintained a sense of humor about the crazy situation that was La Paz in those days.
The Marine guards also had quite a few good athletes and three of them played on our Embassy softball team. Baseball was out in Bolivia. We had to play fastpitch softball on baseball fields because of the altitude. La Paz is 12,000 feet above sea level. If you ever watched baseball from Denver, with the Colorado Rockies, you’ve seen how far a baseball travels in the Mile High City. La Paz is two and half times the altitude of Denver. I’ve hit a restricted flight softball in La Paz farther than I’ve ever hit a baseball in my life.
The games were always a fun outing for the La Paz embassy staff as they were pretty isolated up there in the Andes. Many of the embassy staff with their families would trek out to the games, mostly at the Bolivian military academy and cheer us on. Since so many diplomats were there, the Russians with their “discreet” surveillance guys would always nose around to see what’s up with all of these Amerikanskis. Dave would always do his best DeNiro impression on the way to the ballfield. “Hey f**kos, let’s go for a ride.”
The Embassy ball team was always winning the championship of the Embassy circuit. We played Japan, Korea, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and a couple of Bolivian teams as well as a couple of other American teams every season. The Cubans had a team that desperately wanted to play but their government wouldn’t let them because we were in the league. They were afraid that being too close to the Gringos would cause them to defect. But on Saturday’s after our games, the Marines weren’t allowed to imbibe in a few libations with the rest of the guys if we went out after a game unless we went to someone’s house. This one particular week, we were playing Venezuela for the championship (again) and were good friends with the players from their team. We planned on going out that night to celebrate. So I had a brainstorm.
Dave and I went up to see the Ambassador on Friday afternoon to plead the Marines’ case. We explained that the ball team and a bunch of family members were going out that night to celebrate the team’s upcoming victory (yes we won). That if he’d let the Marines out, there would be plenty of senior SF NCOs and Officers present. Plus the Navy SEAL Commander and the Air Force Major from the MILGP.
The Ambassador was reluctant but agreed, telling Dave and I that he didn’t want to hear about any problems this weekend. I uttered the soon to be prophetic, “Sir, what could go wrong? Everything is going to be fine.” Oh, how wrong I was.
After dinner and drinks with a huge crowd of us and the Venezuelans at a Brazilian Steak House, we went to a disco where some rock band was playing that was supposed to be very good. It was in the basement of this large brick building and you had to take this steep staircase down into the bar. The Venezuelans took off because they didn’t care for the music. But there were about 25 of us Gringos with almost half of those women from the embassy or wives/girlfriends. The band was indeed pretty good and we were having a good time. That’s when the specter of Che appeared.
I was talking to the Gunny of the Marine guards, he had his wife there, and the three of us were making small talk when I saw his eyes flash to the door. Three punks wearing Che shirts come into the bar. Two tried to be nonchalant and lean against the wall while the third disappeared up the stairs. We knew what was coming next. The Gunny immediately called their drivers to come and pick them up and told them to pull up on the side street. Dave and I told the Gunny that if any crap started, for him and the Marines to get out and get his wife out of there. He wasn’t having any of that. “No F**king way Chief! We’ll deal with the fallout later, we’re not running and leaving you guys here.” I don’t know if I ever told him, but at that moment, I loved him like a brother.
Sure enough, about 20 or more of these university kids came pouring in the door and a few of them were pulling bandanas around their faces. On a side note, what is it about chicken punk bitches that makes them feel that a bandana makes them a bad ass? Whatever.
One of the Marines, Sammy was at the bar with his girlfriend when a Bolivian kid whipped a whiskey glass and hit Sammy right in the back of the head. Game on.
In an instant, we cut a swath thru those kids making a beeline for the door to get out of there knocking out anyone in the way. We got to the door and got everyone (women first) out. One unfortunate Bolivian kid got tossed thru the window at the corner of the bar, who knew there was a 10-ft drop to the ground? He didn’t master the art of the PLF (parachute landing fall). Getting to the top of the steps were about 7-8 more kids spoiling for a fight. Dave, the Gunny and myself were the last three up the stairs.
The rest were charging up the steep ass stairs trying to get the last three Gringos. But they forgot two very important tenets of Unconventional Warfare (UW), never conduct a frontal attack when the opponent has the high ground. And never mess with the one-legged man. Dave had lost his leg a few years before and was one of only three men missing limbs on active duty then. Now there are plenty of guys who remain on active duty with prosthetics which have become quite high-tech. Back then, Dave had a plastic molded leg, cast over a car’s leaf spring to give his foot some flex. If he kicked you, it was the equivalent of getting hit with a Louisville Slugger.
Back in those days, Dave, when back at Ft. Bragg worked out with Jim West, who many of our SOFREP readers know from his self-defense classes that he posts on our site. Jim’s one of the baddest men I ever met. Dave used to spar with him (for fun). Four idiots tried to take the stairs and were kicked in the teeth…good night Irene. We got to the stairs and there were kids knocked out everywhere on the sidewalk. We got the hell out of Dodge, before the Bolivian cops and the press arrived, ensuring we had everyone and immediately went to the Marine House.
Other than Sammy having a huge knot on the back of his head, we were in good shape. The Gunny was justifiably nervous and reported the incident up the chain, as he was supposed to do. We told him, that since we left before the cops and press arrived, no one could really point to the Marines having even been there. That theory lasted until Sunday morning.
The Bolivian rags had color photos of about 5-6 knocked out dopes strewn about the sidewalk on the front page of their Sunday papers with the headlines, “U.S. Marines Invade Bolivia,” “Marines Beat Up Peaceful University Students” and the like. Captain, later Colonel Stu Bradin saw the newspapers first and gave us fair warning. “Stevie, you and Dave told the Ambassador that nothing was going to happen…. Brother you guys are so f**ked.” Thanks brother…I know.
Dave and I arrived early at the Embassy on Monday morning waiting for the inevitable call which came promptly as the Ambassador arrived at 7:45, yes he’d like to see you two….now.
I’ve had my ass chewed by NCOs and Officers, but never by a diplomat. He had a way with words that, if I wasn’t the one getting my butt chewed, I would have had a voice recorder on since it was beautifully put. He did have a way with words…I guess that’s why they paid him the big bucks. We did our explaining and finally, he seemed to understand that the last thing we’d do is look for trouble with wives and girlfriends with us. Some of the State Department girls had already passed the word thru their people which got to the Ambassador before we got there and he knew the deal.
But the newspapers were the issue. “How the hell am I supposed to explain this to Washington?” he said pointing at the pictures of the newspapers. I was floundering, “Sir, we did what we had to do to get out of there safely with the women. Dave, my partner, my brother, Mr. Tact himself said, “hey sir, we didn’t start anything, F**K them.” The first thought to come to mind was, “they can’t shoot us for this can they?” We were given the boot out of the office. The Ambassador later cooled down and understood that it wasn’t the Americans but the Bolivians who started the mess. No adverse action befell the Gunny or the Marines. Or any of us. After that, those punks decided discretion being the better part of valor…gave us a wide berth. But the Marines were restricted to their house… again.
That’s why even today after all these years, whenever I see a Che Guevara shirt, it immediately puts me on edge. And when the person wearing it has a bandana to boot… the back of my neck gets as hot as a two-dollar pistol. Che was a murderer and a racist and was everything that these kids claim to hate. But the more things change… Now I see an entirely new group of people wearing Che shirts… if you think it is cool to wear a Che shirt, do some research before you do. Besides, the last thing we need is for the Marines to “invade” another place.
Photos courtesy: Wikipedia, author