Che Guevarra’s Critical Counterintelligence Failures – Forward Observer Shop

Che Guevarra’s Critical Counterintelligence Failures

Where it concerns guerrilla warfare campaigns, Che Guevara’s foco theory states that a small contingent of guerrillas can start a revolution and then build popular support once operations are underway.  More reliable theories state that popular support is a pre-condition to beginning an insurgency or guerrilla campaign because those campaigns exploit dissatisfaction with current governance in the first place.  As opposed to Mao Zedong’s grassroots efforts, Che believed that small bands of guerrilla fighters could foment popular support for themselves by guerrilla attacks against a government, and would then be hailed as national saviors and receive the aid of the populace.  Che eventually failed due to a lack of popular support, the key to any guerrilla campaign.

When we look at guerrilla campaigns with mostly non-violent aims, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) comes to mind, although that movement ultimately failed, too.  One of the factors that doomed OWS is that while they had popular support for their mission — railing against income inequality and the 1% of wealthiest Americans — the tactics of OWS were a point of contention.  Americans just didn’t support disruptive protests and the many cases of violence associated with a supposedly “peaceful” movement.  We should learn, if we haven’t already, that popular support for both your goals and tactics matters.  In 2017, we’re likely to see if leftist movements also learned that lesson.

But let’s shift fire for now and talk about Che’s other catastrophic shortcoming: counterintelligence (CI), specifically in Bolivia.  As we should all be learning, the populace really is the greatest CI threat.  When we think about CI, we tend to imagine spies, moles, informants and source networks penetrating into the deepest and innermost circles of adversarial organizations.  That’s not an incorrect view of CI, however, I’d rather state the case that the populace is the greater (human) CI threat in the domestic context.  (The greatest CI risk is likely what, where, and how we communicate electronically, and the greatest CI threat is the ability of adversarial organization to collect and exploit those communications.)

When we look at Coalition Force (CF) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, we relied heavily upon source networks and local villagers who would provide us intelligence information on extremists and insurgents.  In certain areas, we did that quite effectively.  In others, we were considered the enemy, and could never gain the trust of the populace.  Those negative conditions made themselves quite apparent through the non-cooperation of locals — which sometimes disinformation — even while we were building schools and digging wells for them.  These people were so pro-Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI), pro-Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM), or pro-Taliban (TB) that we just couldn’t get anything useful from them.  That’s an effective use of the populace because while we were trying to collect information from the locals, they were not only denying information to us, they were reporting on CF movements and activities back to their respective extremist/insurgent groups.  In other words, the lesson here is that locals have eyes and ears, and they report information of intelligence value.

Back to the flip side, in areas where these extremist/insurgent groups did not enjoy popular support, the locals fed us intelligence information and worked with CF in order to rid themselves of these insurgent groups whose members sought to hide among them, tax and threaten them.  Coercing the populace against their will into being your shield, grocery store, and personal piggy bank is not a good way to curry their favor.  It becomes especially destructive when you don’t even speak their language, or much less fail to understand and remain cognizant of their norms and culture.

As guerrilla movements grow, so do their support zones, which can wreak havoc on recruiting and put entire organizations at great risk to the CI threat.  The more individuals you don’t know joining your organization, the less protected you’ll be from informants.  And that was one of Che’s problems in Bolivia, where he and his revolutionary guerrilla movement ultimately died.  Here’s a breakdown of several of Che’s failures.

For one, his Bolivian fighters were infamously clumsy in their tradecraft and compartmentalization that should have protected their secrets.  There were locals and marginally-affiliated members who were allowed to know Che’s location and specific details about his guerrilla columns.  Recruiting posed a major risk to the organization because training new fighters not just in combat skills but in tradecraft and Operations Security (OPSEC) skills is a monumentally difficult task in a place where recruits are already at a steep disadvantage from their limited frame of reference.  Che’s Bolivian recruits were not as well-suited to conflict as his Cuban revolutionary fighters.

There was also the case of the two Che Guevara fan club members – Regis Debray and Giro Roberto Bustos – who illustrate the perils of poor OPSEC.  Debray was an intellectual and leftist professor, and Bustos a painter and leftist sympathizer.  Posing as journalists, the two made contact with Che’s guerrillas and were led to Che’s camp for a meet and greet.  The two later tired of the guerrilla life and decided to head back to Havana to enjoy the conveniences and probable minor celebrity status as Che’s personal friends.  During their journey back to civilization, the two were captured by Bolivian Army forces.  Debray started singing, and Bustos (the painter) drew portraits of the guerrilla fighters.  In other words, they were gold mines of very fresh and potentially very actionable information, and they were exploited by authorities to aid in the hunting and capture of Che Guevara.

There’s also the case of “Tania the Guerrilla”, who was previously a member of (essentially) the Stasi, where she first met Che in East Germany.  She was later tasked with assisting Che’s cadre in the Bolivian Area of Operations (AO).  While she traveled to meet up with Che and his band of guerrillas, she parked her vehicle in a rented parking garage in a nearby town.  During aggressive searches, the Bolivian Army discovered her vehicle which contained guerrilla-related documents along with evidence of her pro-Leftist/guerrilla work in Bolivia.  That tipped off the Bolivian Army to the area and certainly encouraged the continued CIA-aided search and destroy, counterguerrilla missions.

Then there was the case of the ten-man guerrilla element who befriended and trusted a local grocer, from whom they purchased food and supplies.  The guerrilla leader inquired about where his team could cross a river, to which the grocer obliged with an answer (he also nearly simultaneously alerted Bolivian authorities).  While the guerrilla unit was halfway through the river, the Bolivian Army ambushed them, killing all but one (including Tania the Guerrilla, Che’s alleged lover).

Cumulatively, multiple and costly lapses in CI and the failure to maintain even basic OPSEC fortunately led to the demise of Che Guevara and his merry band of Communists.  But to make matters worse, Che’s guerrilla columns did not previously enjoy popular support, and could not gain it, which contributed to his greatest CI threat: the populace, who frequently reported on his movements and whereabouts to Bolivian authorities.

Che wrote in his diary (ref: the Bolivian populace):

Talking to these peasants is like taking to statues. They do not give us any help. Worse still, many of them are turning into informants.

As we look forward to the possibility of the future, whether it’s simply political insurgency or it becomes organized political violence, keeping the pulse of your area and to whom they lend popular support is a very important piece of maintaining situational awareness.  Whether we’re talking about assessing the likelihood that your area experiences political violence or politically-motivated disruption, or trying to gain an early warning to the aforementioned events, we should be very watchful of local political statements from elements most likely to be involved.  That means being aware and investing some time in local intelligence collection.

For some tips on how to collect local intelligence and maintain situational awareness, be sure to check out the Ultimate ACE Startup Guide.


Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

1 Comment

  1. It’s amusing to watch social media box the Praying For Doomsday crowd into Che’s foco theory and all his other mistakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *