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A senseless end for Facundo Cabral, and shame in Guatemala

July 12, 2011 |  2:09 pm

Facundo cabral bellas artes poster

The brutality and senselessness of armed conflicts in Latin America -- guerrillas, cartels, paramilitaries -- can often seem to know no boundaries. In shootouts and massacres, civilians and migrants usually make up the bulk of the victims, no matter the era.

Facundo Cabral, the folk singer from Argentina who was killed in Guatemala City on Saturday by gunfire reportedly not intended for him, was as civilian and migratory as you can get in Latin America.

Cabral was eighth-born to a poor family in Buenos Aires in 1937, and later grew up in the far southern tip of Argentina, the province of Tierra del Fuego. He ran away from home at age 9 with the intent of making it back to the capital and seeking a meeting with then-President Juan Peron. The boy, gone for four months, had heard Peron "gave jobs to the poor" (links in Spanish).

His singing career took off in 1970 with an international hit, "No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá," or "I'm Not From Here, and Not from There." In spoken verse that precedes one famous video recording of the song, Cabral says, "I am not liberty, but I am he who provokes it." Cabral's greatest hit has been recorded some 700 times and in 27 languages.

After the rise of the military junta in Argentina, the singer went into exile for a time in Mexico. By 1996, he was designated a United Nations "Worldwide Messenger of Peace." Cabral, 74, toured and performed actively across the region, which is what took him for a planned series of concerts in Central America beginning last week.

He performed in Guatemala City on Tuesday and in the city of Quetzaltenango on Thursday. Early on Saturday morning, while riding to the airport, the vehicle Cabral rode in was ambushed in what authorities suspect was an organized-crime hit intended for his promoter Henry Farina, a Nicaraguan.

As of Tuesday, police in Guatemala have arrested two men in connection to the attack. Cabral's body arrived to a stricken Argentina Tuesday, carried by a Mexican air force jet.

Mourning and a sense of national shame have taken hold among many in the troubled Central American nation where the beloved folk singer died. His killing was seen as yet another senseless death in a country with one of the worst crises of violence and impunity in the region. Mexican drug cartels, pushing south, are invading territory and threatening entire governments.

Artists, performers and human rights activists have reacted with regret and soul-searching in recent days. In a letter to a newspaper, the Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona wrote: "As a Guatemalan, I deeply regret the impact this news will generate among international opinion. As a friend and colleague, I will lament the absence of Facundo forever."

Fans gathered before the National Palace in Guatemala City on Saturday, expressing further shock, sadness and anger. One sign held by a mourner read: "Sorry to the world for the assassination of Facundo." Guatemalans want peace and justice, the gathered said in signs, "not just for Facundo Cabral but for the future of our children."

President Alvaro Colom has declared three days of national mourning.

In what would be one of his final concerts in Guatemala City on Tuesday, Cabral told his audience: "I have given you my thanks. I will thank them in Quetzaltenango. And after that, whatever God wishes, because he knows what he does."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Image: A 1973 poster for a Facundo Cabral concert at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Credit: El Pueblo de Tierra.

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