The Firefight That Impressed the World

  May 07, 2022   Read time 2 min
The Firefight That Impressed the World
With the new intelligence webs, the Bolivian Army began to have some idea of Guevara's movements, but it still overestimated both the size of his band and his capacity to do damage.

They were fooled in part by the accidental split in the band that set Guevara and Joaqufn searching desperately for each other and in part by the fact that at least once they encountered several guerrillas on a special chore and consequently separated from the main unit. Contacts with guerrillas at widely separated points gave the army the impression that the band could operate on several fronts at once, exactly what the government feared most. In short, Guevara's very weakness had created an illusion of strength.

Guevara's movements and all of the clashes between his band and the Bolivian armed forces have been detailed by a number of other authors. One of the better accounts is that of Luis J. Gonzalez and Gustavo A. Sanchez Salazar, Paraguayan and Bolivian journalists who use Guevara's Bolivian diary, media accounts, and interviews with combatants to provide a generally accurate description of Guevara's campaign in Bolivia. Here, I will retell only enough of that story to make the American-Bolivian response understandable.

Guevara greatly reinforced the illusion of the power he commanded when, on July 7, he staged the most spectacular action in the entire campaign; the capture of the town of Samaipata. The guerrillas carried it out with such elan and coordination that observers could not help but be impressed with their skill. Late in the evening, Guevara blocked the road leading from a combination farm/sawmill to Samaipata, then commandeered a bus, loaded with students, and a truck that happened to pass by. Next, the guerrillas telephoned Samaipata from the sawmill, reportedly ordering the town officials to gather together at a police post at the edge of town, using the hostages' safety to guarantee compliance. They then proceeded to Samaipata in their newly acquired vehicles.

At Samaipata, they took hostage nearly all of the town's principal officials, plus two soldiers and a lieutenant. They forced a druggist to open his store, bought medical supplies with cash, and then forced the lieutenant to let them into an improvised barracks in a schoolhouse. Here, some 15 soldiers slept while most of the local detachment of about 50 men were out on a patrol. The guerrillas killed one soldier who tried to resist, the only casualty in the operation, then took weapons (mostly the infamous Mausers), plus ammunition, blankets, clothing, and 10 hostages. Back at the police post, which adjoined a small grocery stand, they bought food, again paying cash, then left town, taking the 10 hostages with them for about a half mile and leaving them naked there so they could not immediately follow the raiders. Back at the sawmill, they returned the borrowed bus and truck, released the remaining hostages, and disappeared.

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