SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia – Bolivian octogenarian Gary Prado Salmon is enjoying his newfound freedom after having been implicated in a terrorism case and spending a decade under house arrest, a period of confinement he says was revenge for his having captured Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara more than five decades ago.
The current interim government’s decision last month to no longer pursue that case was a “blow to the authoritarianism” of leftist ex-president Evo Morales, who resigned last year after his Oct. 20 election victory was marred by accusations of fraud and he lost the support of the military (Morales and his supporters across Latin America and beyond term his ouster a coup).
Prado, a retired general, recalls that he arrived at his court hearings in a stretcher when he could no longer tolerate his wheelchair and that during that time he endured the loss of a son and a brother.
In an interview with Efe at his home in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, he spoke about his experiences over the past decade.
The terrorism case dates back to April 16, 2009, when a police raid on a Santa Cruz hotel left three foreign nationals dead and two suspects arrested.
The detainees – Croatian-Bolivian Mario Tadic and Hungarian Elod Toaso – were accused of membership in a terrorist cell that was seeking to bring about the secession of the natural resource-rich eastern department of Santa Cruz and assassinate Morales.
In 2015, Tadic and Toaso were convicted of armed uprising for separatist ends and sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison apiece.
Prado, for his part, was placed under house arrest in 2010 for his alleged role in the plot after Bolivian prosecutors accused him of having had secret contacts with Bolivian-born Croatian citizen Eduardo Rosza, one of the individuals killed in the 2009 hotel raid.
But with the judicial proceedings having been brought to an abrupt close in recent days, charges were dropped against 33 defendants, including Prado, while six others who had been convicted now have the chance to have their sentences annulled.
“For us it was a relief that there was no longer the risk of the trial continuing,” Prado said. “Because what they wanted was to finish the trial during Morales’ time in office, to convict us in order to send a message, to scare everyone.”
He said one of the reasons he was lumped in with the other defendants was Morales’ admiration for Guevara, who was executed on Oct. 9, 1967 (a day after he was captured) in the southern village of La Higuera on orders of then-Bolivian President Rene Barrientos.
“There was a certain Cuban influence in this matter, and that’s how I was implicated in an incident I had nothing to do with,” Prado said.
Prado said he is proud of having fulfilled his military duty as an army captain and capturing Guevara, who was leading a guerrilla unit in a Bolivian jungle region, although he says that past action was one of the reasons he spent 10 years of his life under house arrest.
The retired general, who has been in a wheelchair since he was accidentally shot in 1981 by a fellow officer, said he and the other suspects implicated in the 2009 terrorism case came up with a slogan that boosted their morale during the lengthy proceedings: “They will never break us.”
He said his family – particularly his son Gary Prado Arauz, who defended him and other suspects during the trial – also played a key supporting role throughout his legal struggles.
“We think we’ve been an example for Santa Cruz and Bolivia,” he said, adding that he believes the only terrorism that existed in the Andean nation in those years was “state terrorism.”
Prado said that during his lengthy house arrest he immersed himself in his writing and published several books; he says he is now working on a five-part novel and is currently putting together the third volume.
A wall in his study is filled with photographs of memorable moments in his military career, including one of him next to Pope John Paul II.
Conspicuously absent is a photo of what is considered his greatest feat, the capture of Guevara in a CIA-orchestrated operation, because, according to Prado, “I’ve done more important things in my life.”
The 81-year-old retiree had previously only been allowed to leave his home for a few hours a week to teach some classes and go to Mass. He now plans to do more teaching and enjoy the company of his friends and family.
“I want to enjoy my family more. The years I have left, I want to enjoy my family’s affection,” he said.