Bolivia // The southern Altiplano //

The last days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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The wilds of Bolivia have always attracted their fair share of renegades and desperadoes, but few have received as much posthumous attention as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Made famous by the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, they belonged to a band of outlaws who robbed banks, trains and mines in the Rocky Mountains in the United States. In 1901, with the golden age of Wild West gunslingers coming to an end, a price on their heads and the ruthless Pinkerton Detective Agency (the predecessor of the FBI) hot on their trail, Butch and Sundance fled by ship to South America.

They settled in Argentina under assumed names, living on a ranch in the Cholilla Valley in Patagonia. But the Pinkerton Agency had not given up the hunt, and in 1905 the two outlaws went on the run after their names were linked with a bank robbery in Río Gallegos, in the far south of Argentina. They fled to Chile, apparently returning to Argentina to rob another bank, before showing up in Bolivia in 1906, where they found work at the Concordia Tin Mine – their duties, ironically, included guarding the payroll. A year later they made a trip to Santa Cruz, and Butch returned determined to start life again as a rancher in the Eastern Lowlands. Perhaps in need of capital to finance their retirement, in 1908 they quit their jobs and returned to their old ways, heading to Tupiza, where the wealth of the Aramayo mining company offered a tempting prize. Put off from robbing the town bank by the presence of Bolivian troops, on November 3 Butch and Sundance intercepted a convoy of mules carrying a mine payroll at Huaca Huañusca, a mountain pass north of Tupiza. Finding only $90,000 rather than the half million they had expected, the outlaws fled south with the loot. With military patrols and posses of angry miners (whose pay had been stolen) scouring the countryside, and the Argentine and Chilean border guards alerted, the bandits stopped at the home of an English friend, mining engineer A. G. Francis.

Warned the authorities were on their trail, Butch and Sundance turned north, heading towards Uyuni. On November 6 they stopped for the night in San Vicente, a remote mining village about 100km northwest of Tupiza. Unknown to them, however, a four-man military patrol was also spending the night in the village. Informed of the outlaws’ presence, they attacked the room where Butch and Sundance were staying. After a brief shoot-out, all went quiet. In the morning, the two bandits were found dead, Butch having apparently shot his wounded partner before turning his gun on himself. The bodies were buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery.

Or were they? In subsequent decades rumours suggested the two dead men were not Butch and Sundance. The two outlaws were reported to have returned to the US or Argentina having assumed new identities; one report even had them finally gunned down in Paris. In 1991 forensic anthropologists exhumed a body from the San Vicente cemetery, but were unable to settle the mystery surrounding the outlaws’ fate.

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