Facundo Cabral: Musician whose work inspired opponents of South America’s military regimes

Such was the popularity and significance of the Argentinian troubadour Facundo Cabral that music and poetry lovers throughout Latin America went into shock and mourning when they heard of his murder at the end of a concert tour of Guatemala. An eloquent, poetic and outspoken critic of the many past military regimes in South America, not least in his native Argentina, he spent years in exile until the generals were forced to bow to democracy.

Cabral, 74, was in a 4x4 vehicle on his way to Guatemala City airport on Saturday when three carloads of gunmen using automatic weapons hemmed in his car in and riddled it with 25 bullets, killing him and wounding his two companions. Officials said the target may not have been Cabral but the man at the wheel, his concert promoter Henry Fariñas, a Nicaraguan who owns a string of nightclubs in Central America and Colombia. A carload of Fariñas's own bodyguards returned fire but the gunmen escaped.

Cabral, brought up in poverty, rose to fame in the early 1970s, one of a new generation of guitar-playing singer/songwriters in Latin America who used their lyrics to undermine the military rulers of the time, providing a focus for underground groups and individuals opposed to the regimes. His lyrics mingled poetry, mysticism, spirituality and downright anger the way Bob Dylan's had done not long before. As a result, like Dylan, Cabral found himself hailed as a warrior for social justice and, with some reservations on his part, as a "protest singer".

After the Argentinian military seized power in a March 1976 coup, Cabral fled to Mexico and remained there until defeat in the Falklands War in 1982 hastened the end of the dictatorship and the dawn of democracy. He returned home to a hero's welcome in 1984 and found his music more popular than ever. His concerts, during which he would not only sing but also muse, read poetry, philosophise or quote his own heroes – from Gandhi to Mother Teresa – sold out football stadia in Argentina and he began touring throughout Latin America.

His most famous song, "No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá" ["I'm not from here, nor from there"], has been covered in at least nine languages by artists from Julio Iglesias to Neil Diamond. "I'm not from here, nor from there, I don't have an age or a future, and being happy is my colour of identity," says the chorus. As it turned out, it was the last song he sang, in a theatre in the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango just over 24 hours before he was killed.

In 1996, in recognition of his lyrical calls for peace and reconciliation after the military years, the United Nations appointed him to the role of UN Messenger of Peace. A former Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Oscar Arías Sánchez, a past president of Costa Rica who helped bring reconciliation to trouble Central America in the 1980s, later nominated Cabral, unsuccessfully, for the same prize. Another Nobel Peace Prize-winner, Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's campaigner for native Indian rights, who was one of the first to visit the scene of Cabral's killing, said she believed he was probably the intended target. "To me, Facundo was a master. I can't help but think he was assassinated for his ideals," she said, weeping. Guatemala has long been plagued by right-wing death squads.

Rodolfo Enrique Facundo Cabral was born in May 1937 in La Plata, capital of Buenos Aires province, to a poor family raised by his illiterate mother, Sara. He soon learned that his father, Rodolfo, had walked out the day before he was born. (He would first meet his father 46 years later when he showed up at a concert). One of his earliest memories was of seeing his mother eating food out of rubbish bins.

After his mother moved the family to the small town of Berisso, he taught himself to read then taught his mother. When he was eight, he hitch-hiked to Buenos Aires and sought out the new president Juan Peró* and his bride Eva to ask them to help his mother get a job. It worked. Eva Peró* reportedly said: "Thank God, someone looking for work and not hand-outs."

For his mother's job, Cabral's family moved to Tandil, also in Buenos Aires province, and they remained great admirers of the Peróns thereafter. "They saved our lives," he once wrote.

He said he was a violent child who ran away from home several times but learned to channel his anger into words, both reading and writing them. It was in Tandil that he began writing songs, at first calling himself "el Indio Gasparino" [Gasparino the Indian] to strengthen his credentials as having indigenous origins. "On 24 February 1945, a vagabond recited the Sermon on the Mount to me and I discovered that I was being born. I ran home and wrote a lullaby 'Vuele bajo' ['Fly low'] and everything started right there."

Religion remained a key ingredient in his life and lyrics, although he never belonged to a church or espoused any specific belief. His wife and baby daughter died in a plane crash in 1978. In all, he went on to record some two dozen albums and wrote a similar number of books, including Borges and I, relating his friendship with his fellow Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

In recent years, Cabral had become increasingly blind and walked with a stick but he continued to tour Central and South America. He said he had no home of his own and spent the last few years living in hotel rooms. Asked in Mexico last year if it scared him to perform in a country awash with gunmen, he replied: "if you are filled with love, you can't have fear, because love is courage."

Facundo Cabral, singer and songwriter: born La Plata, Argentina 22 May 1937; married (deceased 1978; one daughter, deceased); died Guatemala City 9 July 2011.