Guevara's 'betrayer' tells his story: 'When I heard Che had died it was like a bullet had hit me’

He was one of Guevara’s most trusted collaborators, yet he has been framed by some as the man who betrayed him. Now Ciro Bustos tells his story

Ciro Bustos was on trial for guerrilla activities in Bolivia when he heard that Che Guevara had been killed. “When I heard…it felt as if a bullet had hit me,” he says.

As the news of the Cuban revolutionary leader’s death ricocheted around the world, Bustos, a fellow Argentinian, had more reason than most to feel his life had been knocked off course. In the months leading up to Guevara’s execution on 9 October 1967 he had been one of his most trusted collaborators.

Guevara was planning for Bustos to lead the next stage in his master plan. In his “Second Declaration of Havana” in 1962, Guevara famously called for socialist revolution throughout Latin America, and Bustos had come to meet him to put the finishing touches to their strategy to spark an uprising in Argentina. But history – and the CIA – had other plans.

On 19 April 1967, Bustos said goodbye to Guevara. “I could see that if we didn’t leave at that moment we would be stuck in the jungle,” says Bustos. “The Bolivian army was turning the whole area into a military zone.”

With Bustos was the French intellectual Régis Debray, another disciple of the Guevara cause. Before they left, Guevara presented Bustos with his imitation sheepskin jacket to keep him warm. “If you’re arrested the most important thing is to conceal the presence of the Cubans here and my presence, too, for the time being,” Guevara told him. “But, if you see they know everything, go for it, try and make as much noise as possible.”

His warning proved fateful. Bustos and Debray were arrested close to Muyupampa by the Bolivian army on 20 April. When Bolivian officers interrogated him, Bustos, obeying the first part of Guevara’s instructions, pretended he was Carlos Alberto Frutos, an amateur journalist covering the rights of political prisoners. His cover held, even when his interrogators were joined by the chief CIA operator in the Bolivian field, Dr Eduardo Gonzalez.

Rumours of Guevara’s presence in the jungle had circulated for weeks and the CIA were certain they could get definitive proof from the two prisoners. It was only after 20 days, when Bustos’s true identity was revealed by his fingerprints, that he agreed to draw some rough sketches of the guerrillas in the jungle, and a map of where the camp was. By this point, he says he could see his interrogators already had the information they were looking for. Yet on the basis of these sketches Bustos has been framed by some – most notably Che’s French biographer, Pierre Kalfon – as Guevara’s traitor.

Now, just over four and a half decades later, Bustos has written a vivid account of his side of the story – Che Wants To See You.

Today Bustos lives on his own in Sweden. Even at 81, he still displays the wiry physique and granite determination that helped him to survive the rigours of life as a guerrilla. He remains frustrated at the lurking conspiracy theories about his role in Guevara’s final days.

He describes how one of his first encounters with Guevara was in 1961 at the Habana Libre hotel that had been commandeered by Castro as his headquarters. “Everything that happened in Cuba was happening at the Habana Libre then,” he laughs. “I heard that Che was going to be playing chess there.”

The occasion was a championship in which the Polish chess legend Miguel Najdorf, took on 40 different players. He was blindfolded while his opponents played without restrictions. In his book, Bustos recalls: “The match ended with the hopes of most challengers dashed, Che’s included. In this particular battle, the strategist in chief was Najdorf.”

Yet it was Guevara’s grand strategies that would soon provoke world attention. In 1961 he was looking for individuals he could trust to put his theory of the “foco” into practice. This was the idea that a small nucleus of fighters can overcome a regular army in a country plagued by inequality, because the oppressed people will rise up and strengthen a determined struggle for power.

In July 1962, his close friend Dr Alberto Granado told him he should think about recruiting Bustos, who was then giving lectures on art appreciation in Santiago. Bustos, an Argentinian artist, had championed the Cuban revolution ever since hearing a journalist’s radio interview in 1958 with Guevara and Castro as they camped out in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

“It was immediately clear it was very important – I told everyone I knew about it,” he says. Right from the start he related more strongly to Guevara than the revolution’s leader. “[His] voice spoke to me personally, from conscience to conscience,” says Bustos.

He made the precarious journey from Argentina to Cuba in 1961. When Che recruited him the next year, it was decided he would join what eventually proved to be a failed venture led by Jorge Masetti – the same journalist who had inspired him to go to Cuba – to foment guerrilla warfare in Argentina.

Bustos was one of the few involved to emerge from that first Argentinian expedition with any credit. Guevara summoned him back to Havana to ask him to return to Argentina to co-ordinate a national guerrilla front. “He made a somewhat jokey reference to the fact that I was still alive,” Bustos says. After that meeting they would not see each other for almost three years.

Bustos’s account of their final Bolivian venture contrasts his excitement about seeing Guevara. “It was as if the chief electrician had suddenly illuminated the stage,” he says, against the fighters’ growing awareness of the odds being stacked against them. They knew the Bolivian communist leadership was against the operation.

On the world stage, Russia was becoming increasingly edgy. And multiple desertions from Guevara’s troops led directly to the Bolivian army’s discovery not just of the original camp but of photos of Che and other of his soldiers in the jungle.

The operation was doomed almost before it started. But for those who want to pin the blame for Guevara’s discovery on the evidence unearthed by the CIA during their interrogations, the question has been which of the two prisoners – Debray or Bustos – cracked first?

Both Jon Lee Anderson, Guevara’s biographer, and the Swedish documentary Sacrificio, made in 2001, argue that because Bustos concealed his identity for 20 days, it was Régis Debray who gave the CIA what they were looking for first.

Both men were in an impossible position. Yet Debray emerged as a hero and Bustos, after being convicted for guerilla activities in Bolivia after standing trial in 1967, was consigned to obscurity under a shadow. Mr Debray did not respond for a request for comment by The Independent.

Looking back now, was Bustos aware as he drew those pictures that day, that they would change the course of his life? “I have been asked this question so many times,” he sighs. “It meant nothing. All I did was draw people with beards.”

Death in Bolivia: Guevara’s last days

4 November, 1966: Disguised as a middle-aged Uruguyan businessman, Guevara travels to Bolivia to launch a revolution.

April-September, 1967: Che’s group wins several battles but struggles against CIA-backed Bolivian forces.

7 October: Informant reveals location of Guevara’s guerrilla camp. Bolivian troops encircle the position. Guevara is wounded and taken prisoner.

9 October: President René Barrientos orders that Guevara be killed despite pressure from the US to extradite him. Guevara is shot nine times with a semi-automatic rifle to give the appearance that he was killed in battle.

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past