Most people these days know of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. If not from history, then what has been presented in the media; be it in the film The Motorcycle Diaries or in front of the red star on Alberto Korda's famous photo.
The media image of 'El Che' directs us to believe he is a type of hero who devoted his life to the people, someone with the courage to fight the good fight and give his life to a noble cause. The facts however point in another direction.
Guevara's legacy these days has a kind of romantic air about it, where the truth is that he was more akin to that of Hitler, Mao, Stalin or Pol Pot - a murderer.
During the first year after Castro's rise to power, Che was his main executioner and was responsible for the slaughter of many bound and gagged Cubans. In facts, during this time the slaughter was so intense that, to scale, it exceeds Himmler's prewar slaughter of Germans.
The actually number of deaths is unknown, however one defector claims that within just three months of coming to power, Che had signed 500 death warrants. A Cuban journalist, Luis Ortega, who knew Che, wrote in his book Yo Soy El Che! that he sent 1,897 men in total to the firing squad.
And this was within a year.
Add to this another 2,500 that Che, by his own account, sent to "the wall" upon entering Havana in January 1959 and the pattern becomes clearer. Not counting here the others he sent to their death in between.
But it is not just the amount of executions Che ordered that sends a chill down the spine. It is the nature of the executions.
Firstly there were no trials, something that he described as an "archaic bourgeois detail." Defending the absence of a trial, Guevara stated, "This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate." And hate is something he spread venomously among his ranks, as can be seen by another of his quotes; "Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines." Not a quote you'd expect from a hero of the people.
Secondly after the firing squad had executed the victim, Che ordered that the dead be shot in the head at a distance of five paces away with a massive .45 slug. The resulting impact would shatter the skull.
And thirdly, all of this was done in public in front of the victim's family and friends.
But Guevara was known for more than just executions. He also specialized in psychological torture. He was known to place many prisoners, including teenage children in front of a firing squad while bound and blindfolded. The order would be given to fire and the victim would hear the snap of rifle bolts but the shots would be blank.
Tony Navarro, in his book Tocayo , told of how he watched a man leave his cell to face the firing square bravely. When he returned he was mentally destroyed. He just curled up in the corner of the cell and stayed there for days.
The myth exists around Guevara that his actions were those of a brave revolutionary guerrilla. But Guevara himself only took part in one battle – in which he was captured and later executed by Bolivian soldiers.
It's interesting to note here that Guevara is often referred to as "Che the Lionhearted." But when cornered by Bolivian soldiers he called out: "Don't shoot – I'm Che! I'm worth more to you alive than dead!"
So, the next time you see that famous Korda picture of Che on someone's wall, think of the firing squads and know that the star behind Guevara is red because it has been stained with the blood of innocent people.
Guevara as a pop culture icon? There's no 'Che' that should have occurred.