By Eduardo Garcia
VALLEGRANDE, Bolivia, Oct 7 (Reuters) - The bearded image of guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara has become a pop icon splashed on mugs, T-shirts and even bikinis 40 years after his death, and this Bolivian town is out to cash in on the marketing frenzy.
In central Bolivia, where Guevara battled the army before he was captured and killed, tour operators offer a chance to retrace his final steps on the "Che Trail."
"If it wasn’t for Che, not many foreigners would come here," said Carlos Robert Pena, who owns a Guevara-themed restaurant in Vallegrande catering to foreign tourists.
Shopkeepers peddle Che posters, pins and hats, and images of the long-haired Guevara in a beret look down from the walls inside restaurants, hotels and cafes. A museum recalls his life as a revolutionary.
If, as historians say, Bolivians were reluctant to stand alongside Guevara in his revolution, some are eager to take advantage of his role in putting this town in the history books. Each year, thousands of people make a pilgrimage here to remember him.
After Guevara joined the guerrilla uprising that helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba in 1959, the Argentine-born doctor set off for Congo to foment revolution there.
But his African campaign failed and Guevara traveled on to Bolivia, arriving in late 1966 hoping to spark a revolution in this landlocked South American country.
Guevara was captured and later executed by CIA-backed Bolivian soldiers after an interrogation in La Higuera, 50 miles (80 km) south of Vallegrande on Oct. 9, 1967. His body was flown to Vallegrande and put on display in a hospital before being buried in an unmarked grave.
In 1997, his remains were found and exhumed and taken to a mausoleum in Cuba.
FROM ARMED STRUGGLE TO REVERENCE
Guevara is revered in Vallegrande not just for his marketing value. Some locals say his death has added a mystical element to this dusty town of mud-brick houses and dirt roads.
"His spirit is alive in this town. I think he should be anointed a saint," said Ligia Moron, who turned out with hundreds of other Bolivians to see Guevara’s corpse in October 1967.
Susana Osinaga, a nurse 40 years ago, said she washed Guevara’s body and peeled off the three pair of socks he was wearing.
"He was following us with his eyes. We were asked to close his eyes, but no one dared. He stayed there with his eyes open, just like Jesus Christ," said Osinaga, 74.
Julia Cortes, who worked as a teacher in La Higuera, said she was the last woman who saw Guevara alive and gave him his last meal -- peanut soup.
"He flirted with me a bit. He said, ‘No, I‘m not going to eat you, I‘m just going to eat the food,'" Cortes said.
Many of the people who recall Guevara’s final days have become a part of the tourist attraction and some even charge for their stories of Guevara.
"Some people give me $4, some people give me $6," said photographer Rene Cadima, 88, who took pictures of Che’s corpse.
Many locals say the tourism is providing a much-needed boost for the impoverished town.
"It has brought some hope to this land forgotten by the government," said 60-year-old Eliseo Barrancos, carrying a newly bought Che T-shirt in a plastic bag.
He said Guevara was killed after he was "betrayed" by locals.
"If he was to come back and reappear, I think people would betray him again," Barrancos said.