The Murder of Facundo Cabral: Death Squads Still Roam Latin America

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Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral attends a news conference in Mexico City, August 25, 2010. The singer was shot to death July 9, 2011, by unknown gunmen while on his his way to La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. (Photo: Alexandre Meneghini - AP)

After this past weekend, it seems even more fitting that Guatemala was the site of last month’s high-level international pow-wow on how dangerous Central America has gotten. Just before dawn on Saturday, July 9, celebrated Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral was murdered by gunmen as he rode from his Guatemala City hotel to the airport. The assassins – who Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has since acknowledged weren’t just street thugs but organized crime hitmen – pulled up on both sides of the Range Rover that Cabral was in and pumped 20 bullets into it. At least three hit Cabral, one in the thorax.

What’s most telling about the murder, however, is that investigators say they’re certain Cabral was not the intended victim. The real target, they say, was the man driving the Range Rover, Henry Fariña, a Nicaraguan-born concert promoter and casino-strip club owner who had arranged a Cabral concert in Managua a week before the singer’s Guatemala City performance. That has raised intense speculation in Guatemala about whether Fariña, who was wounded in Saturday’s ambush, has links to organized crime – especially the violent Mexican drug cartels that are overrunning the northern Central America triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. (Guatemalan authorities, who say they have teams probing the shooting’s motive, won’t comment.)

Either way, as Time’s reporter in Nicaragua, Tim Rogers, tell us, an estimated $6 billion in drug money today gets laundered through Central American businesses – enterprises like casinos and strip clubs are a favorite channel, say investigators – each year. That helps fuel the horrific violence plaguing the isthmus: Honduras and El Salvador have some of the world’s highest murder rates (73 and 71 per 100,000 residents respectively) while Guatemala’s (41) is still one of the highest in the western hemisphere. U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, recently called the triangle “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Afghanistan and Iraq – which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined Central American leaders and representatives from international donor countries last month in Guatemala City and pledged some $300 million from the U.S. to help the region beef up its threadbare police and judicial systems.

(See “The ‘Deadliest Zone’: Hillary Clinton Visits Central America’s Narco-Nightmare”)

Cabral, 74, was one of Latin America’s best known troubadors. He gained fame in the 1970s as a protest singer with songs like “No Soy de Aquí, Ni Soy de Allá” (I’m Not From Here Nor There) and he went into exile in Mexico during Argentina’s brutal 1976-83 military dictatorship, whose death squads murdered 30,000 people. (He returned to Argentina in 1984.) But he made a fateful decision Friday evening, when he ran into Fariña in his hotel lobby. Cabral had originally planned to go to the La Aurora International Airport Saturday morning via his hotel’s shuttle bus; but Fariña, a Guatemala resident, offered to take him instead, and he accepted.

Cabral’s celebrity murder becomes another entry in Guatemala’s gothic crime blotter. El Salvador and Honduras might be deadlier, but Guatemala is more infamous for the kind of cloak-and-dagger bloodshed, often involving business and political figures, that feels “like a baroque game of chess being played with bodies,” as Guatemala writer Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder, told me in 2009. More than 50 candidates were killed, for example, during general elections in 2007 – the same year three visiting Salvadoran congressmen were killed by rogue policemen.

(See “Postcard from Guatemala City: Chasing Away the Bloody Ghost of Alvarado”)

But don’t expect convictions in Cabral’s killing any time soon if ever: only 2% of Guatemala’s homicides ever get solved. Cabral’s remains, meanwhile, will be cremated after his body arrives in Buenos Aires this week. In the end, it’s perhaps tragically fitting that he died in one of Latin America’s bloodiest pockets – a country where, in May, los narcos massacred and beheaded 27 peasants. Cabral’s spiritual art often made plaintive calls for justice in the region. And while Latin America’s tyranny has taken the form of drug cartels rather than dictatorships, the death squads are still roaming, and justice can seem as unattainable today as it did in the 1970s.

(See Narco-Dividends: White Lobsters on the Mosquito Coast”)