Félix Ismael Rodríguez was born into a wealthy, landowning family, in Cuba, in 1941. His uncle, José Antonio Mendigutia Silvera, was minister of public works and close collaborator of Fulgencio Batista. Rodriguez fled the country soon after Fidel Castro gained power in 1959. Most of his family, including his father and two of his brothers, were either executed or disappeared within the first months of the new dictator’s regime.
Rodriguez went to live in the United States. He attended college in Pennsylvania and hoped to become an engineer. However, he soon became involved in anti-Castro activities.
At a meeting on 18th January, 1960, a group of CIA officials, including David Atlee Phillips, E. Howard Hunt, Jack Esterline, and Frank Bender, established Operation 40. It obtained this name because originally there were 40 agents involved in the operation. Rodriguez was one of the Cubans who joined this group.
One member, Frank Sturgis claimed: "this assassination group (Operation 40) would upon orders, naturally, assassinate either members of the military or the political parties of the foreign country that you were going to infiltrate, and if necessary some of your own members who were suspected of being foreign agents... We were concentrating strictly in Cuba at that particular time."
In 1961 Rodriguez joined the CIA-backed Brigade 2506 and volunteered to assassinate Fidel Castro. He was smuggled into Cuba a few weeks before the Bay of Pigs invasion but his mission was unsuccessful.
In 1963 Manuel Artime and the MRP established four bases in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in preparation for another exile military campaign against Castro. The operation was given support by Ted Shackley, head of the JM/WAVE station in Florida. Rodriguez became the project's communications chief. During this period Rodriguez was involved in a large number of covert anti-Castro operations in an attempt to prepare the way to a second invasion.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis Rodriguez volunteered to parachute into Cuba in order to identify Russian missile sites. The operation was called off when John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev negotiated an end to the dispute.
In 1967 David Morales recruited him to train and head a team that would attempt to catch Che Guevara in Bolivia. Guevara was attempting to persuade the tin-miners living in poverty to join his revolutionary army. When Guevara was captured, it was Rodriguez who interrogated him before he ordered his execution. Rodriguez still possesses Guevara’s Rolex watch that he took as a trophy.
Rodriguez became an U.S. citizen in 1969. Soon afterwards he enlisted in the US Army. During the Vietnam War he flew over 300 helicopter sorties and was shot down five times. In 1971 Rodriguez helped train Provincial Reconnaissance Units for Operation Phoenix. Rodriguez won the Intelligence Star for Valor from the CIA and nine Crosses for Gallantry from the Republic of South Vietnam.
In the 1980s Rodriguez ran the Contra supply depot in El Salvador, and served as the bagman in the CIA's deal with Medellin. He met regularly with Oliver North and at the height of the Contra operations met Ronald Reagan and George Bush at the White House. He flew over 100 combat missions in Central America, and captured the Cuban backed military commander Nidia Diaz.
In 1987 he testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism and Narcotics. During one session John Kerry accused him of a soliciting a $10 million donation from the Colombian cocaine cartel. The story had originally come Ramon Milian Rodriguez, a convicted money launderer for Columbia.
Rodriguez published his autobiography, Shadow Warrior: The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles (co-authored with John Weisman) in 1989. In the book he writes about his relationship with the CIA and the anti-Castro resistance. He also describes his adventures in Bolivia, Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
After his retirement Rodriguez became a leader in the Cuban American community in Florida and is currently president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association. During the 2004 presidential election Rodriguez campaigned strongly for George Bush. He admitted his main motivation was “to get the real word out about John Kerry.” Others accused him of seeking revenge against Kerry for what happened in 1987.
On April 20, 1976, the CIA agent who had orchestrated the hunt for Che Guevara in Bolivia, retired. The brief ceremony, during which he was awarded the Intelligence Star for Valor, was held in his Miami home. He had refused to accept it from Director George Bush at Langley because he considered Bush a political appointee who was wet behind the ears when it came to covert actions.
Upon retiring Ramos resumed using his true name, Felix I. Rodriguez, which had been mothballed during his years of agency service. Rodriguez, who resembles Desi Arnaz, had belonged to the landed gentry in pre-revolutionary Cuba, and he carried a personal grudge against Castro. In 1961 while training with Brigade 2506 before the Bay of Pigs invasion, he volunteered to assassinate Fidel. He said that the CIA presented him with "a beautiful German bolt action rifle with a powerful telescopic sight, all neatly packaged in a custom-made carrying case." The weapon had been presighted for a location where Castro made frequent appearances. But after several abortive attempts to infiltrate Cuba, the mission was abandoned."
Rodriguez went on to a number of assignments under his JM/WAVE case officer, Thomas Clines. During the October 1962 Missile Crisis he was poised to parachute into Cuba to plant a beacon pointing to a Russian missile site, but the crisis passed. He became communications officer in Nicaragua for Manuel Artime's Second Naval Guerrilla, which was conducting hit-and-run raids to soften up Cuba for a second invasion. He went on to lead helicopter assault teams in Vietnam.
But by his own account Rodriguez's most magnificent moment came when he lifted off in a helicopter from La Higuera, Bolivia, on October 9, 1967, with Che Guevara's body lashed to the right skid. "On my wrist was his steel Rolex GMT Master with its red-and-blue bezel," he recounted. "In my breast pocket, wrapped in paper from my loose-leaf notebook, was the partially smoked tobacco from his last pipe."
It was the Secret Warrior's dream come true. But after becoming a CIA pensioner Rodriguez still couldn't shake the anticommunist demons that drove him. Even before he was officially disconnected from the CIA he flirted with trouble. It should have been a red flag that Tom Clines, who was still on active duty manning the Cuba Desk at Langley, was offering him a private deal. Rodriguez accepted and rode herd on a shipment of arms consigned to the Christian militia, the CIA's favorite faction in war-torn Lebanon.
Whether Rodriguez knew it or not his paycheck came from Edwin P. Wilson, yet another JM/WAVE alumnus now doing a long stretch in federal prison for illegal arms sales to Libya. Both Clines and Theodore Shackley, who had been station chief at JM/WAVE during the heady sixties, continued dealing with the corrupt Wilson and wound up with blighted careers. It was a particularly bad tumble for Shackley, who wore bottom-bottle glasses and was dubbed the Blond Ghost because his past was largely blank. Insiders had touted the Blond Ghost to succeed the Chief Spook, George Bush, as director.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 it was bombs away again. Rodriguez drew up a paramilitary battle plan aimed at decimating the Salvadoran insurgent units that were becoming increasingly successful against government regulars. In his memoirs Rodriguez speaks deferentially, almost obsequiously, about the tinhorn Salvadoran generals he convinced to go along with his plan, turning a blind side to the fact that they moonlighted with death squads and were the guns for hire of the ruling extremist oligarchy. In Washington Rodriguez took his proposal to Donald Gregg, who had been his CIA boss in Vietnam and who had become George Bush's national security adviser. Gregg arranged a fireside chat with Bush, whom Rodriguez had earlier spurned, and the two became pen pals. In the end Rodriguez's plan, which featured Apocalyse Nowstyle helicopter gunship raids, went operational.
Inexorably Rodriguez was drawn into Oliver North's resupply network to the Nicaraguan Contras, which used funds diverted from secret arms sales to Iran. Also inexorably he wound up testifying before Congressional committees when the lid blew off and exposed the ring of former military and agency brass who had charged more bucks for the bang. On the stand Rodriguez denied briefing Bush on the weapons smuggling, and indignantly rejected accusations that he had solicited millions in drug money to finance the Contras.
But Rodriguez had his star-shell moment when the independent counsel probing the Iran-Contra affair asked, "Did you participate in Operation Mongoose to kill Castro with an exploding cigar?"
"No, sir, I did not," he responded. "But I did volunteer to kill that son of a bitch in 1961 with a telescopic rifle."
In March of 1970, Felix Rodriguez arrived in Vietnam, once again to serve Ted Shackley. After JMWAVE's covert war against Cuba cooled, Rodriguez fought on against communism for the Company. In 1967, he advised the Bolivian military during its successful jungle hunt for Che Guevara, who had left Cuba to bring revolution to South America. Rodriguez failed to fulfill his orders from Langley: bring back Che alive. The Bolivian military unit he assisted killed Che. The CIA next dispatched Rodriguez to train military units in Ecuador and Peru. Then he volunteered for Vietnam, where he was assigned to be deputy field adviser to Shackley's PRUs in Region III.
Before starting his job at Bien Hoa, Rodriguez met Shackley, whom he never encountered in Miami. To Rodriguez, Shackley resembled a professor more than a covert warrior. Rodriguez soon picked up all sorts of stories about Shackley. He possessed a near-photographic memory; he was obsessed with quantifiable results. Shackley supposedly had convinced an astrologer, whom Thieu consulted, to encourage the President to authorize an army operation near Cambodia.
In Bien Hoa, Rodriguez developed a specialty-using helicopters in tandem with PRUs. Viet Cong targets were developed from intelligence sources. Then Rodriguez in a chopper searched out the enemy positions, often by drawing fire. He marked the spot with smoke grenades. Next gunships and PRUs converged on the target. In one case, Rodriguez led a PRU team against the base of an NVA colonel in charge of rocketing Saigon. "We would have preferred to capture (the colonel) alive," Rodriguez claimed, "but that didn't happen."
Escape was impossible. The room had but one barred window in the rear. There were troops all around the schoolhouse. No, the soldier was only complying with his orders. The Bolivians didn't want any prisoners. They wanted the guerrillas dead. I turned without saying anything and went back into the room where Che lay, his arms and legs trussed together.
The place was small-about eight feet long and ten feet wide with mud walls and earthen floor. The tiny window was the sole source of light. There was a single, narrow door also facing the front. Che lay next to an old wooden bench. In the rear of the room, just across from him were the bodies of Antonio and Arturo.
I examined him more closely than I had before. He was a wreck. His clothes were filthy, ripped in several places and missing most of their buttons. He didn't even have proper shoes, only pieces of leather wrapped around his feet and tied with cord.
I stood above Che, my boots near his head, just as Che had once stood over my dear friend and fellow 2506 Brigade member, Nestor Pino. Captured at the Bay of Pigs, Pino was beaten by Castro's soldiers when he told them that he was not a cook or radio operator but the company commander of a paratroop battalion. His body battered, he lay on the earthen floor of a seaside hut taking the kicks and blows. Suddenly, they stopped.
Pino opened his eyes and saw a pair of polished boots next to his face. He looked up. It was Che Guevara, staring coolly down at him. Che spoke as matter-of-factly as if he was telling a child tomorrow is a school day. "We're going to kill you all," he said to Pino.
Pino had survived his ordeal. Now, the situation was reversed. Che Guevara lay at my feet. He looked like a piece of trash.
I said, "Che Guevara, I want to talk to you."
Even now he played the role of comandante. His eyes flashed. "Nobody interrogates me," he replied sarcastically.
"Comandante, " I said, somewhat amazed that he had chosen to answer me at all, "I didn't come to interrogate you. Our ideals are different. But I admire you. You used to be a minister of state in Cuba. Now look at you - you are like this because you believe in your ideals. I have come to talk to you."
He looked at me for about a minute in silence, then agreed to speak and asked if he could sit up. I ordered a soldier to untie him and got him propped onto the rickety wooden bench. I got him tobacco for his pipe.
He would not discuss tactical matters or technical things. When I asked him about some of his specific operations, he responded by saying only, "You know I cannot answer that."
But to more general questions, like "Comandante, of all the possible countries in the region, why did you pick Bolivia to export your revolution?" he answered at length.
He told me he had considered other places - Venezuela, Central America, and the Dominican Republic were three he named. But, he added, experience had shown that when Cuba tried to foment unrest so close to the U.S., the Yanquis reacted strongly and the revolutionary activities failed.
So, Che continued, since countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua were "too important to Yankee imperialism, and the Americans hadn't allowed us any success there, we figured that, by picking a country so far from the U.S. it wouldn't appear to present an immediate threat, the Yanquis wouldn't concern themselves with what we did. Bolivia fulfills that requirement.
"Second," he added, "we were looking for a poor country-and Bolivia is poor. And third, Bolivia shares boundaries with five countries. If we are successful in Bolivia, then we can move into other places-Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay."
He told me he believed that he'd lost support in Bolivia because the people were too provincial. "They cannot see their revolution in broad terms-as an international guerrilla movement working for the proletariat-but only as a regional issue," he said. "They want a Boliviano comandante, not a Cuban, even though I am an expert in these matters."
We talked about Cuba. He admitted to me that the economy was in a shambles, largely because of the economic boycott by the U.S. "But you helped cause that," I told Che. "You-a doctor-were made president of the Cuban National Bank. What does a doctor know about economics?"
"Do you know how I became president of the Cuban National Bank?" he asked me. "No. "
"I'll tell you a joke." He laughed. "We were sitting in a meeting one day, and Fidel came in and he asked for a dedicated economista. I misheard him - I thought he was asking for a dedicated comunista, so I raised my hand." He shrugged. "And that's why Fidel selected me as head of the Cuban economy. "
He refused to talk about what he had done in Africa although, when I said we'd been told he had a ten thousand-man guerrilla force, but that his African soldiers were a disaster, he laughed sadly and said, "If I'd really had ten thousand guerrillas it would have been different. But you are right, you know - the Africans were very, very bad soldiers."
He refused to speak badly about Fidel, although he damned him with faint praise. Actually, Che was evasive when Fidel's name came up. It became apparent to me that he was bitter over the Cuban dictator's lack of support for the Bolivian incursion. Indeed, that Che admitted how bad the Cuban economy was represented an indictment of Fidel's leadership, even though he did not specifically criticize him.
Che and I talked for about an hour and a half until, shortly before noon, I heard the chopper arrive. I went outside and discovered that Nino de Guzman had brought a camera from Major Saucedo, who wanted a picture of the prisoner. That was when I purposely screwed up the Bolivian's camera, but had Nino de Guzman snap a picture of
Che and me using my own Pentax. It is the only photograph of Che alive on the day he died.
Back inside, we resumed our conversation. Che expressed surprise that I knew so much about him, and about Cuba. "You are not a Bolivian," he said.
"No, I am not. Where do you think I am from?"
"You could be a Puerto Rican or a Cuban. Whoever you are, by the sorts of questions you've been asking I believe that you work for the intelligence service of the United States."
"You are right, Comandante," I said. "I am a Cuban. I was a member of the 2506 Brigade. In fact, I was a member of the infiltration teams that operated inside Cuba before the invasion at the Bay of Pigs."
"What's your name?"
"Felix. Just Felix, Comandante." I wanted to say more, but I didn't dare. There was still a slim possibility that he might get out of this alive, and I didn't want my identity to escape with him.
"Ha," Che answered. Nothing more. I don't know what he was thinking at the moment and I never asked.
We started to talk about the Cuban economy once again when we were interrupted by shots, followed by the sounds of a body falling to the floor. Aniceto had been executed in the adjoining room. Che stopped talking. He did not say anything about the shooting, but his face reflected sadness and he shook his head slowly from left to right several times.
Perhaps it was in that instant that he realized that he, too, was doomed, even though I did not tell him so until just before 1 P.M.
I had been putting off the inevitable, shuttling between Che's room and the table where I was photographing his documents. I was taking pictures of his diary when the village schoolteacher arrived.
I looked up from my work. "Yes?"
"When are you going to shoot him?"
That caught my attention. "Why are you asking me that?" I asked.
"Because the radio is already reporting that he is dead from combat wounds."
The Bolivians were taking no chances. That radio report sealed Che's fate. I went down the hill, into the schoolhouse and looked Che in the face. "Comandante, " I said, "I have done everything in my power, but orders have come from the Supreme Bolivian Command..."
His face turned as white as writing paper. "It is better like this, Felix. I should never have been captured alive."
When I asked him if he had any message for his family, he said, "Tell Fidel that he will soon see a triumphant revolution in America." He said it in a way that, to me, seemed to mock the Cuban dictator for abandoning him here in the Bolivian jungle. Then Che added, "And tell my wife to get remarried and try to be happy."
Then we embraced, and it was a tremendously emotional moment for me. I no longer hated him. His moment of truth had come, and he was conducting himself like a man. He was facing his death with courage and grace.
I looked at my watch. It was one in the afternoon. I walked outside to where Mario Teran and Lieutenant Perez stood. I looked at Teran, whose face shone as if he had been drinking. I told him not to shoot Che in the face, but from the neck down. Then I walked up the hill and began making notes. When I heard the shots I checked my watch. It was 1: 10 P.M.
Che was dead.
Thirty years ago, Malcolm X made a penetrating observation: Oppressed people don't own airplanes and boats. The media and the government try to blame oppressed people for drugs - but international drug trafficking requires fleets of cargo planes, landing strips in several countries, networks of international contacts, pools of investment money, networks for money laundering and the high-level contacts for getting past US Customs and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
In 1989, pilot Mike Tolliver told CBS that, after years of smuggling drugs, he was recruited into the contra supply operation by a "Mr. Hernandez." Tolliver identified "Hernandez" as Felix Rodríguez, the CIA agent directing contra supply from El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base. Tolliver says he flew a DC-6 loaded with guns and ammunition for "Hernandez" in March 1986, from Butler Aviation at the Miami Airport down to Aguacate, the U.S.-controlled contra air base in Honduras. Tolliver says the guns were unloaded by contras and he was paid about $70,000 by "Hernandez." After a three-day layover, Tolliver said he flew the aircraft, reloaded with over 25,000 pounds of marijuana, as a "nonscheduled military flight" into Homestead Air Force Base near Miami.
"We landed about 1:30, 2 o'clock in the morning," said Tolliver, "and a little blue truck came out and met us. [It] had a little white sign on it that said `Follow Me' with flashing lights. We followed it." "I was a little taken aback," Tolliver told the CBS program West 57th. "I figured it was a DEA bust or a sting or something like that." It wasn't. Tolliver said he just left the plane and the drugs sitting there at the airport to be unloaded, and took a taxi from the base.
West 57th traced this DC-6 back to a company called Vortex. Vortex is one of four airlines hired by the US State
Department to supply the contras--using money designated by Congress as being for "humanitarian aid" only.
In April 1987, a Customs service official told the Boston Globe, "We think he did land at Homestead," and acknowledged that there was a system under which contra supply flights were able to fly in and out of US airports free of Customs inspection. But that same Customs official claimed that Tolliver was only a "free-lancer" who "bluffed his way" into Homestead. One researcher writes, "It was not explained how Tolliver bluffed his way into an Air Force base, leaving behind over 25,000 pounds of marijuana which apparently bluffed their way out."
They say that George Bush, a CIA agent at the time, got to know Félix Rodriguez, a former member of Batista’s police force, when he was recruiting Cuban immigrants to form a troop of killers and saboteurs for actions on Cuban territory at the same time as the Bay of Pigs invasion. George denies it; Félix won’t talk about it. But various researchers firmly confirm it, backed-up by declassified documents.
Despite living in Houston, Texas, George Herbert Walker Bush traveled to Miami every week in 1960-61 to take an active part in the creation of Operation 40, the special troop conceived by CIA deputy director Charles Cabell. That was how George recruited Félix, but he also met with various people of that ilk such as Luis Posada Carriles, Frank Sturgis, E. Howard Hunt, Rafael Quintero, José Basulto, Herminio Díaz and Bernard Barker - all subsequently linked to dirty tricks attributed to members of the Miami mafia. And, most importantly, to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Nephew of José Antonio "Toto" Mendigutia Silvera, minister of public works and close collaborator of Fulgencio Batista, the young Félix Rodríguez (or more precisely Félix Ismael Fernando José Rodríguez Mendiglutia), former Havana Military Academy student and member of Batista’s repressive apparatus, had all the characteristics for success within the CIA’s elite group.
George Bush was also watching over his business interests in Houston, New Orleans and Miami: Zapata Petroleum was founded in 1953 in association with the Liedtke brothers. But he was particularly interested in Zapata Offshore, a subsidiary company later identified as a CIA front.
The newly recruited Félix Rodríguez left for the US base at the Panama Canal, receiving training in sabotage and terrorism. Some months later, at the end of 1960, the CIA gave him his first mission. On February 14, 1961 he and other agents arrived in Cuba aboard a vessel that dropped them off in the vicinity of Arcos de Canasi, on the border of Habana and Matanzas provinces.
They landed with two tons of equipment and explosives, discovered a few days later by Cuban state security, thanks to an agent infiltrated in the operation.
Félix Rodríguez also came with orders for the island’s counterrevolutionaries; among other things they were to blow up the bridge at Bacunayagua at the same time as the planned invasion.
According to former CIA agent Fletcher Prouty, it was George Bush himself who handed over three boats to the intelligence agency’s agents in Guatemala who were preparing the operation. The vessels were named Barbara (his wife’s name), Houston (his city) and Zapata (his company).
The moment for the famous invasion arrived. It failed miserably in less than 72 hours. Not only did the Cuban Revolution crush the invading army but over one thousand mercenaries were captured.
Pursued by state security, Rodríguez hid in a counterrevolutionary´s house. He contacted a Spanish embassy official, a CIA collaborator, who helped him leave the country.
After the Bay of Pigs failure, the Miami extremists furiously accused the Kennedy government of having "betrayed" them. But the president was also furious. He sacked Allen Dulles, the CIA’s director, its deputy director Charles Cabell, and Dick Bissell, the head of undercover operations.
Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Some of those investigating the matter considered the possible implication of various Cuban conspirators, including Félix Rodríguez, Frank Sturgis, Herminio Díaz, Orlando Bosch and the Guillermo Brothers, plus Ignacio Novo Sampoll. However, the role of George Bush, Richard Nixon and various Texas oil barons was also brought into question.
On the day of Kennedy’s murder, George Bush was in Texas. He has always maintained that he can’t recollect his precise movements. Neither does Félix Rodríguez remember his.
Nevertheless, years later a letter written by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover - explaining that a certain Mr. George Bush of the CIA had been informed of the reaction of Miami’s Cuban-American circles after the assassination - was declassified.
On his return from Cuba and on CIA orders, Félix Rodríguez passed a course in Fort Benning alongside the most fanatical elements of Operation 40 - including Luis Posada Carriles, later called the hemisphere’s most dangerous terrorist. Also on the course was Jorge Mas Canosa, founder and leader of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF).
Rodríguez was then dispatched to Nicaragua with a group of agents that attacked the Spanish vessel Sierra de Aranzazu in reprisal for Spain’s relations with Cuba. The terrorist attack created such a scandal that the CIA withdrew its anti-Cuban, allegedly elite, troops.
In 1964, George Bush ran for Congress as part of the team of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, an advocate of nuclear weapons. He failed to win. In 1966 however, he was elected as a moderate.
The following year, under the name Félix Ramos Medina, Félix Rodríguez was in Bolivia acting as a CIA linkman in the company’s attempts to find Ernesto "Che" Guevara. He was assigned to the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and later to Valle Grande. On October 9, he flew by helicopter to La Higuera to interrogate Che. After questioning the famous guerrilla - to no avail, despite applying all the brutal tactics taught by his Fort Benning instructors -Félix "Ramos" Rodríguez followed his bosses’ instructions and ordered a Bolivian soldier to kill the prisoner.
Afterwards, imitating some soldiers who were present, the CIA man let off a round over Che’s body.
These days he brags about having "killed Che." He possesses the guerrilla’s Rolex watch and a transcript of the interrogation.