Former Bolivian general Gary Prado, who achieved worldwide fame after capturing guerrilla leader Che Guevara in 1967 during fighting in southern Bolivia, has died in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra at the age of 84. That same year, the Bolivian Congress named him a national hero for his defense of the country against what another military officer and the president of Bolivia at the time, General René Barrientos, termed a “subversive foreign invasion.”
Prado gradually distanced himself from the military right wing and in the 1970s, when he held the rank of major, he opposed the dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), leading to his dismissal and forcing him into exile in Paraguay. After the fall of Banzer, he resumed his position in the Bolivian Army and was appointed Minister of Planning in the government of General David Padilla. As of then, Prado was considered an “institutionalist” officer — one of the group of military commanders who sought ways to return political power to civilians.
He also commanded the Bolivian Military Academy and, after the coup d’état led by General Luis García Meza, who assassinated socialist leader Marcelo Quiroga, he was temporarily sidelined. However, due to the personal relationship between the two, García Meza later appointed him commander of the important Eighth Division, based in Santa Cruz. This post would radically change Prado’s life. His position required him to serve as the main political authority in the region. In 1981, a group of extreme right-wing militants led by regionalist politician Carlos Valverde took over the Tita oil field, which was owned by the Occidental oil company. Prado managed to free the hostage the group had captured and convinced Valverde to surrender, without a shot being fired, on the promise that he and his men would be exiled to Paraguay. While the group was disarming, one of the automatic rifles placed on a table went off and a bullet pierced Prado’s spinal column.
Prado retired from the military with the rank of general and dedicated himself to politics and writing. During democracy, he was a supporter of the party that had encouraged the “institutionalist” military during the dictatorships, Jaime Paz’s Movement of the Revolutionary Left. When the latter was president of the country, between 1989 and 1993, Prado held executive positions and represented Bolivia as ambassador to the United Kingdom. He became an important figure in the Bolivian political class during the time of the “pacted democracy,” which governed the country until Evo Morales came to power.
He was the author of several books on military history relating to the Guevarist guerrilla period. The most famous and reedited of them is all is entitled Cómo capturé al Che (How I captured Che). However, Prado’s later life was far from the quiet retirement of an enlightened soldier. He participated in the opposition to the economic and social changes that Morales tried to implement from 2006 onwards. The former president once accused Prado of having “assassinated Che.” Prado, however, always denied that he had been aware of the order to execute the Cuban-Argentine fighter, which, according to most historians, came from the military high command and from President Barrientos himself. Guevara’s executioner was non-commissioned officer Mario Terán, who died a year ago.
In 2008 and 2009 radical sectors in Santa Cruz, allegedly seeking to take advantage of the political moment to gain independence for the region, hired mercenaries and formed a militia that carried out a series of attacks, although no casualties were caused. On April 16, 2009, a police commando unit raided the Hotel Las Américas, where the militia was staying, and eliminated three of its members including its leader, the Bolivian-Hungarian Eduardo Rózsa-Flores, arresting two other people. The Morales government accused the group of plotting to assassinate the president. A law against the financing of terrorism was passed and other measures were taken that forced several regional leaders into exile. A 10-year trial also ensued but only a few of those involved were sentenced. Prado was accused of having supported the Rózsa-Flores uprising with his military knowledge. Like most defendants, he denied that the terrorist cell existed. During the trial, he was placed under house arrest, due to his health and age. In 2020, during the interim government of Jeanine Áñez, the trial ended and the charges against him were dismissed.
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