LA HIGUERA, BOLIVIA -- The peasants of this mountainous land frustrated Ernesto Che Guevara time after time.

Rather than join his guerrilla band trying to overthrow the military government that then ruled Bolivia -- as peasants during the Cuban revolution had done when he fought at the side of Fidel Castro a decade before -- they fled in fear when the rebels approached. Many aided the Army against the asthmatic, acerbic Guevara.

"The majority of the peasants do not help us at all and have become informers," the man who has come to symbolize Latin American revolutionary movements wrote in his diary.

However, almost from the moment that the Argentine-born Guevara was tracked down by security forces and killed on Oct. 9, 1967, the revolutionary won the sympathy of the peasants here in southeastern Bolivia -- where he fought his final campaign.

Twenty years later, the peasants -- although still not exactly sure who he was or what he was trying to do -- tend to view him as mystical, a legend.

The anniversary of Guevara's capture has seen the publication of books seeking to answer some questions about his life and death. One, by Gen. Gary Prado Salmon, who as an Army captain interrogated Guevara before he was shot, offers a more complete military account of the final days.

But the book, "The Immolated Guerrilla," has failed to still controversy over perhaps the most hotly disputed aspect of the affair: what became of Guevara's body. Prado maintains the body was burned shortly after Guevara's death. Other officers say it was buried.

Many of Bolivia's highly religious and superstitious peasants now call Guevara, who was an atheist, St. Ernesto of La Higuera, referring to this village where he was held captive for 16 hours before an Army sergeant executed him. Many peasants are said to have placed copies of a widely circulated photo of the dead guerrilla, which gives him an almost biblical appearance, in their homes.

Nataniel Cortez, who said he fled along with virtually all of La Higuera's 200 residents when Guevara led his mostly Cuban band of guerrillas into town on Sept. 26, 1967, now laments that the peasants did not help them. "We all thought they were going to kill us," the 37-year-old farmer said.

"Now we realize this was a lie spread by the Army. I am very sorry Che was killed. He might have helped lift us out of poverty."

When Guevara died, leftist revolutionaries and intellectuals throughout the world mourned the loss of an uncompromising Marxist who had played a pivotal role in the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Restless students in the United States and Western Europe mimicked Guevara's penchant for olive-drab fatigues and memorialized him on their T-shirts.

Guevara had taken various jobs in Castro's government after the 1959 triumph, traveled widely in Africa in search of sites for insurrection, then dropped out of sight. With Castro making enigmatic allusions to revolutionaries knowing intuitively where he must be, Guevara slipped into Bolivia in late 1966.

Guevara's diary makes clear that he hoped not only to topple Bolivia's government but to spark a continent-wide movement that would overthrow all traces of U.S. influence in South America.

Peasants living in the villages and isolated huts scattered when they encountered the 40-odd guerrillas, who seemed menacing with their rifles and beards. The Army's propaganda campaign reinforced this fear.

The insurgents were near the end of their year-long trek through the Bolivian wilds. When they arrived at the village of Alto Seco on Sept. 22, 1967, most of the residents cowed in terror.

"The guerrillas went house to house, inviting people to a meeting that night, but nobody went," said Ervin Cortez, who described talking with Guevara, the onetime medical student, that afternoon over a cup of coffee. The subject was communism.

While the peasants' fear of the guerrillas never abated, in the weeks before Guevara's death word gradually spread that the guerrillas did not harm peasants but instead treated them respectfully. Tales were passed around of guerrillas dancing and drinking at several village parties.

The rebels also won favor for always paying for the food and clothing that residents supplied, while soldiers simply took them, said Cortez.

These stories and the Army's constant invoking of Guevara's name had peasants believing at the time of his death that he was no ordinary human being, although they were not sure why.

On Oct. 8, when soldiers brought the 39-year-old wounded guerrilla leader to La Higuera, residents crowded around the two-room schoolhouse where he was imprisoned.

"We all peeked in the door to see him," said Carmen Flores, 55. "He was tied up, sitting on the ground, and he said to us angrily, 'Look at me, get a good look at me if you want to.' "

Ninfa Hidalgo, now 76, said she cooked and served Guevara his last meal.

"He told the soldiers, 'I know I'm going to die but I prefer to die with my stomach full.' We cried when he was killed a couple of hours later."

The body was taken to Vallegrande, with 7,500 residents the zone's biggest town.

"We'd heard a lot about Che but had never had any contact with him," said Geronimo Menacho, then a 36-year-old lawyer and now Vallegrande's mayor. "We couldn't believe that he was dead. Up until that day he was something of a myth."

Guevara's body was put on a cement washbasin behind the hospital. Soldiers tried to keep out onlookers but they broke down a fence and surrounded the site, said Menacho.

Susana Osinaga, was 20, a nurse who was helping perform the autopsy.

"He looked like Christ," Osinaga said. "He had a beard, was skinny and had long, curly hair -- just like Christ. His eyes were open. He seemed to look at you wherever you went."

Some people clipped locks of his hair or tore off pieces of his ragged clothing. "They believed that he could perform miracles for you," said Nancy Vega, then a Vallegrande resident.

Despite Guevara's postmortem popularity of those who saw him here, there is no indication that his revolutionary hopes are about to be fulfilled.

While university students in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, revere the romantic Marxist-Leninist, young people in this region look blank when his name is mentioned. "They don't know who he was," said Juan Calzadilla, La Higuera's teacher, pointing to children in front of the adobe schoolhouse where Guevara was shot.