Born in Cochabamba in Bolivia, his full name was Mario Teran Salazar. His father, Vicente was a merchant and his mother Candelaria, was 45 when Mario was born. Very little is known about his childhood.
He joined the Bolivian military in 1959 and rose to become a Sergeant in Company A of the Manchego regiment.
Meanwhile, he married Julia Peratta Salas. They were to have six children (4 girls and 2 boys) and lived in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
In the mid-1960s, Fidel Castro, the Communist leader of Cuba, sent his right-hand man, Che Guevara, into Latin America, to try to ferment communist revolution in other countries.
Guevara, a qualified physician, had played a significant role alongside Castro, in leading a revolution that removed the Cuban dictator Fulgenico Batista in 1959.
Guevara went from place to place on this mission but seemed to vanish between 1965 and 1967.
In 1967, Bolivian Communist Youth organiser Loyola Guzman got a message that Che had crossed into Bolivia from Paraguay and was in a town near the border. Guzman met Che, who reputedly told him Bolivia was to be the base for igniting communist revolution throughout South America.
Fighting began between communist guerrillas (supposedly organised by Che) and the Bolivian Army. The Bolivian Government decided the only way to stop this was to capture Guevara. They offered rewards for any information that led to his arrest. Gradually, the army closed in on him.
On the 8th of November 1967, Che Guevara surrendered to Commander Gary Prado Salmon in the village of La Higuera, after a shootout. The soldiers celebrated throughout the night – and were joined by CIA operative Felix Rodriguez.
The initial plan was a proper court martial for Che, but the Bolivian President Rene Barrientos ordered an immediate execution without trial.
The soldiers were lined up as if on parade, and Colonel Zenteno chose Mario Teran as the man who had to execute Che, saying “Usted al Che (you do Che)”. Witnesses differ on their version of events. Some say Mario volunteered, others, including Che’s brother Juan, who was there, say he was ordered to do it.
Mario was forced to wait for 40 minutes before the killing. When the order was finally given, at 11:30am, he went into the house where Che had been kept overnight.
“I saw Che large, very large. I felt him coming over me and when he fixed his gaze on me it made me dizzy. ‘Calm yourself’ he told me – ‘and aim well! You are going to kill a man’. Then I took a step back toward the door, closed my eyes and fired!”
Felix Rodriguez then insisted bullets be fired into Che’s arms and legs to make it look as though he had died in combat.
Again, witnesses differ. Some say Mario fired 2 shots, others as much as 9. Either way, Mario called it, “the worst moment of my life.”
His officer Gary Prado always said Mario was not to blame – “he simply complied with his duty as a sergeant of the army.”
He was given Che’s pipe as a souvenir.
There has always been a debate about the extent of CIA involvement. There is no doubt Felix Rodriguez was present, but the CIA said merely as a witness. They claim to have wanted Che captured alive but were overruled by the Bolivian President.
Che was 39 when he died – and the Bolivians had created a communist martyr.
Mario retired from the Bolivian Army in 1989, but always felt he was a wanted man, so lived under the assumed name of Pedro Salazar (a common name in South America – as is Mario Teran).
Nobody was really certain where he and his family lived, but there is a suggestion he was in Paraguay for a number of years, possibly under CIA protection.
By 2007 he was virtually blind due to cataracts so was given emergency treatment as part of Operation Milagro (Operation Miracle), a joint medical programme between Venezuela and Cuba.
Ironically, the operation took place in Cuba – although the Cubans didn’t know who he really was.
When he returned home after a successful operation, one of his son’s told a local newspaper. Cuba was furious. The operation had happened just one week short of the 40th anniversary of Che’s execution.
The Cuban newspaper ‘Granma’ (the voice piece of the Communist Party), said, “Four decades after Mario Teran attempted to destroy a dream and an idea, Che returns to win yet another battle. Now Teran can appreciate the colours of the sky and the forest and enjoy the smiles of his grandchildren.”
In an interview in 2014 with Spanish newspaper ‘El Mundo’ Teran denied he had serious sight problems, but then went on to admit Cuban doctors had operated on him.
He died in a military hospital in La Paz, after a long illness. Four of his children predeceased him.
RIP – Retired Into Paraguay