Brian Moser talks about covering the death of Che Guevara and those famous photographs

Every morning when we came into the World in Action office, or certainly I remember doing this, we read the papers, we read the magazines. I’d obviously always been attached to Latin America since I went off first expedition as a geologist, and I found in the Times a tiny little citation saying that it was almost certain that Che Guevara was in Bolivia, gathering a group of guerrillas together, right in the centre of Latin America to form the basis of a revolution. Bolivia had, I think even when we were there, it had about 186, 191, I can’t remember the exact… revolutions in its life. And it said it wasn’t certain and the guy who wrote it, who was a Latin American correspondent, an Australian called Murray Sail. I read this thing. 

David Plowright was the executive producer of World in Action at that time, and I said, “We ought to do this story. If he is in Bolivia, it will be absolutely incredible to write a story about what happens.” And I was in touch with sort of younger, Latin Americanists in Britain, some journalists. Christopher Roper was the Reuters representative, I think, in Peru and Bolivia at that time, and Ecuador. And whether it was Christopher or whether it was Noah… I think it was just the… I was told there was a very good institute in Santiago, in Chile, who might well… who was a bit of an expert on Bolivia and the politics of Bolivia, and knew it well. Why didn’t I get myself together with Richard Galt? He was the correspondent for the Guardian at that time, but as a sort of stringer. Rang up Richard in the Instituto de Asuntos Sociales. Claudio Velez was the professor there. Richard was obviously one of his researcher academics. Why don’t you see if you can get Richard to come up with you? And indeed, we flew to Santiago. 

We got together, and we went straight up to Bolivia and to La Paz. And Richard knew people in La Paz. I mean, he was essential for getting that film together in the way we did. And we set up the basis for a film. But we didn’t know that Che was not only going to be caught, but also was then killed, as you know. But I mean, he was killed by a Bolivian, at that time, Sergeant, I think he’s still alive. Most of the people who had anything to do with Che and are still alive, most of them were killed. It was strange. Afterwards, in the years after he was dead, they just disappeared. But anyway, Che ended up with his band of guerrillas in bad shape, close to Vallegrande. But what was quite an amazing bit of luck, the nearest town of any size was a place called Santa Cruz. And the world’s press wasn’t there because they already… they must’ve known that there was a band of guerrillas in the area, but they didn’t know Che was amongst them. And I think the trial of Régis Debray was going on in Santa Cruz, and there was a sort of a weekend when nobody was doing anything. 

And I remember saying, “Why don’t we…” to Richard and Chris, we discussed it. “What’s going on in the oil town of Camiri? Why don’t we take a weekend off in Santa Cruz and enjoy ourselves?” So, off we went, the three British journalists who were there. And as Richard and I were walking round the main plaza of Santa Cruz, suddenly there was a voice shouted out, “Hey, Limey!” You know, cockney is the… “Come over! Come over here. Have a beer.” And we went over and he was a sergeant in the green berets, the rangers, American Rangers. He said, “We got him. We got him this afternoon.” And he said, “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but why don’t you get yourselves out of here, get over to Vallegrande,” which was the… well, it was no more than… it was bigger than a little village but it wasn’t much bigger. There was an airstrip though. And we motored all night. We picked up… luckily, we found him because he was… the Reuters correspondent at that time, Christopher Roper, we picked up Christopher from a bar, and we hired a Jeep and we motored all night. And about 6am, very early in the next morning, we were in Vallegrande. And already there was a hubbub going on, lots of Bolivian troops, but not any Americans except for a CIA agent. I had a stills camera, but I didn’t have a crew in Bolivia at that time. David who, as I said, was in charge of it, hadn’t sent one, and I’d asked him. Anyway… oh, I know what it was. The grave of a guerrilla leader, a woman, Tania, was buried in the cemetery there at Valeramide, and I was taking photographs of that, and this CIA guy or one of his cohorts must have seen me, had gone back to Colonel Zenteno Anaya was the name of the guy, Colonel Zenteno Anaya. Luckily, he was… turned out to be a reasonable man, because he could have imprisoned us for that. Because I was taking photographs, quite a lot, of this grave. Anyway. 

And later in the same day, which I think was October the ninth, there must have been something was going to happen. And Che was actually shot by the Sergeant, who had got himself drunk in order to shoot him, as it were. And at five o’clock that evening, I don’t know, the head of the air force was there, don’t know about the army head, but yes, he must’ve been there. Vallegrande airport, they all came in. And very soon after that Che’s body was brought in on the helicopter rails. Have you seen any of the photos? Because you can see a body strapped. It’s taken with a telephoto lens. Came in just before dusk and then they laid it out on the… in fact, in the wash house. It was the village wash house, on the concrete… what you call it? Laundry slab where you rubbed your clothing down hard and the water escaped underneath. Like a bar, little bar, flat top. And they laid Che on that. 

And that’s when I managed to get those for first photographs of his body, which hadn’t been cleaned up by then. And his legs were in a hell of a state. You could see the bullet wounds. He was on the back of a mule when he was brought in, still alive. And he’d spent the night before, I believe, having an argument with the guy who was guarding him. And the next day – it was lunchtime, apparently, that they shot him. His body was still supple when it came in. And the photograph I never got, because I’d run out of film, was when they sat him up to face the crowd. What a shame.

But it was an amazing event. I mean, it was breath-taking. I don’t know. Luckily, I got… I stood on this concrete, don’t know what you call it… plinth, while they did the washing, and got a shot of his legs and his feet, which had two pairs of oiled stockings on. He had very bad asthma. One of the reasons he became trapped, this group of guerrillas became trapped, because he had to send somebody to a village chemist. I mean, a tiny village, but it had some kinds of drugs. And they brought the drugs in, and then the fun started, and they were fighting in the ravine called the Valle de Yeso. It’s a rock, yes. Yes. Anyway… luckily, I had those photographs.

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