One of Latin America’s most admired folk singers, Facundo Cabral, was killed Saturday when three carloads of gunmen ambushed the vehicle in which he was riding, prompting expressions of anguish from across the region. Authorities said the performer’s concert promoter was apparently the target.
Interior Minister Carlos Menocal said the Argentine singer and novelist was on his way to Guatemala’s main airport at 5:20 a.m. when cars flanked it on both sides and gunmen opened fire as a third vehicle blocked it from the front.
Speaking at a news conference along with President Alvaro Colom, the minister said early investigations indicated the bullets were meant for the driver, Cabral’s Nicaraguan promoter, Henry Farinas, who was wounded.
Cabral, 74, rose to fame in the early 1970s, one of a generation of singers who mixed political protest with literary lyrics and created deep bonds with an audience struggling through an era of revolution and repression across Latin America.
Colom said he had called his Argentine counterpart, Cristina Fernandez, to tell her of the slaying.
"It seemed to hit her hard and she asked me to keep her informed about how the investigation is developing," he told Argentina’s Radio 10.
At the news conference later, he said the slaying was committed by "people involved in organized crime. They are not street killers. It’s a well-planned operation." But officials said they were not sure of the motive.
Cabral’s vehicle was trailed by a vehicle carrying four bodyguards, who opened fire and tried to chase the attackers, Menocal said.
Officials later found one of the vehicles apparently used in the attack alongside a highway toward El Salvador. Menocal said flak jackets, pistols and the magazine of a Kalashnikov assault rifle were found inside.
Menocal said Cabral initially planned to take a hotel shuttle to the airport, but accepted a ride from Farinas.
Cabral was a confirmed vagabond, born poor in 1937 in the provincial city of La Plata after his father abandoned their large family. At the age of 9, he began hitchhiking alone up the length of Argentina to beg for a job for his mother.
He did odd jobs and was illiterate until he got some education in a reformatory as a teenager. He eventually picked up a guitar, singing in the manner of his idol, Argentine folklorist Atahualpa Yupanqui.
Cabral began singing for tourists in the beach resort of Mar del Plata, and by 1970 became internationally known through his song "No soy de aqui ni alla" — "I’m Not From Here Nor There — which was recorded hundreds of times in many languages.
By the time Argentina fell under military rule in 1976, Cabral was clearly identified as a protest singer, and so he fled for his life to Mexico, where he kept recording, writing books and giving concerts.
He lost his wife and a 1-year-old daughter in a plane crash in 1978.
His concerts were a mix of philosophy and folklore, spoken-word poems and music reflecting his roots in the gaucho culture of rural Argentina. He identified himself as an anarchist at times, professing a spirituality unchained to any particular religion. On stage, he celebrated the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, the humanism of Walt Whitman and the observations of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
"Facundo Cabral was our last troubadour. As much a philosopher-poet as a singer, he was a living testament to the search for what unites us in culture and society," said Argentine singer Isabel de Sebastian. "After his concerts, you’d feel that our life in common was richer, more mysterious, more profound."
He lived mostly on the road, in hotels and with friends, telling interviewers that he owned no home. He was particularly proud that UNESCO declared him to be an "international messenger of peace" in 1996. By the end, he often used a cane and had trouble with his vision, but refused to slow down.
"I always ask God, ‘Why have you given me so much?’ You’ve given me misery, hunger, happiness, struggle, enlightenment … I’ve seen everything. I know there’s cancer, syphilis and springtime, and fried apple dumplings," Cabral said at 71, during an Associated Press interview in Miami.
He never thought of retiring: "I can’t stop, I wouldn’t be able to," he said. "I breathe on the road … on stage I’m 50 years younger, it pleases me to excite people with life."
Cabral said then he would like to die while on a concert tour.
Cabral gave his last concert Thursday in the city of Quetzaltenango, 120 miles (200 kilometers) west of Guatemala City.
Guatemala’s 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, went to the scene of the killing and wept. "For me, Facundo Cabral is a master," she said. "He loved Guatemala greatly." Other Guatemalans also came to the site, leaving flowers.
Words of mourning came from the presidents of Colombia and Ecuador, and even the Twitter site of Venezuela’s ailing President Hugo Chavez carried a message of condolence to Argentina at the death of "the great troubadour of the Pampas."
Argentina’s foreign minister, Hector Timerman, also sent a Twitter message, saying "Adios, amigo" and expressing "profound sadness."
Social networks were filled with expressions of outrage. "I feel an immeasurable shame, a profound anger for my country," said Ronalth Ochaeta, former director of a Catholic Church human rights office Guatemala, on his Facebook account.