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In Mexicos Cartel Country, a Murderer Who Kills Murderers Tells His Story

CHILPANCINGO, MexicoThe safe house sits on a side street in a barrio that looks out on the well-lit downtown of Guerreros state capital and the dark foothills beyond. A late-model pick-up truck is parked in the street, and the surrounding alleys are scrawled with graffiti. Its just past sunset on a late summer evening and a woman is trudging up the hill with a basket of bread, calling out her wares. Otherwise the street is silent. Then the hit man steps from the shadows behind the parked truck and waves me on toward the safe house.

We sit at a bare table in the kitchen on the second floor. The tabletop is scored and oil-stained, as if machinery or heavy weapons often are served there. In one corner sits a shrine with small statues of the saints, Holy Judas among them. A hand-carved jaguar mask hangs on the walls. I notice that the hit man has seated himself at the table in such a way that he can see out both of the rooms windows at once. The curtains are open and the view looks out on the street below the safe house. A car approaching from either direction would be visible a long way off.

The hit man tells me in Spanish to call him Capache.

Is that your real name? I say.

That is what you can call me, Capache says.

The word translates as trap or trapper. That is what you can call me.

Capache was once a sicario for the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which recently eclipsed the Sinaloa CartelChapo Guzmans old outfitas Mexicos largest criminal syndicate. Then, about two years ago, Capache switched sides to oppose CJNG and its allies. He currently serves with an autodefensa [self-defense] force that has taken the law into its own hands in the name of combating political corruption and organized crime.

Cartel members prey on society like vampires.

Over the last few years, as violence has reached historic levels, autodefensas have become increasingly common in Mexico. The Oscar-nominated documentary Cartel Land depicted the rise and fall of one such group. Academics have become increasingly interested in the phenomenon.

When a community is no longer protected by a sovereign state the contract between the government and the governed is effectively broken, says Robert Bunker, a professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, in an email to The Daily Beast. At that point local citizens who are being robbed, raped, and who are living under the constant fear of bodily injury and death have the option of either fleeing, joining the local crime groups oppressing them, or standing up and taking matters in their own hands as vigilantes.

Capache, having undergone a rigorous and bloody training regimen as a CJNG recruit, now uses his paramilitary background, his knowledge of the dark arts of assassination, to strike back against the narcos. He works as a cleaner in Chilpancingo, stalking and killing cartel members who, in his words, prey on society like vampires.

An autodefensa leader Ive interviewed in the past helped arrange a meeting with Capache, who has promised to share unique insights into the operational strategies used by two opposing sides in Mexicos worsening Drug War.

I feel good about the work I do, Capache says, without taking his eyes from the outside windows. Its not easy, and you have to watch your back. But Im proud of it, he says.

Im defending people who cant defend themselves. Im fighting back. The police dont do anything against the cartels. So if we dont, he asks, who will?

An Ascendant Cartel

Capache looks to be in his early twenties. He wears jeans and desert-issue combat boots. A tight-fitting, long-sleeve camouflage T-shirt shows off the shoulders of a dedicated weightlifter. Hes got skull tattoos on the back of his right hand, a stud earring, and a finger ring that bears the head of a snarling wolf.

Certain sicarios Ive met in the past have come across as arrogant, eager to boast about their exploits. Tout their love of violence for its own sake. Others are given to lamentations for their misdeeds. But Capache is different. Formal and soft-spoken, he talks of his past without braggadocio or any gnashing of teeth, but instead with an almost monotone matter-of-factness, as if the spirit of youth has been burned out of him by all hes seen. Turned into an old soul before his time.

I was just 14 when I left home to join the [Jalisco] Cartel, he says. The son of a single mother with 10 other children, Capache had stopped going to school the year before because the family had no money to pay for his tuition. He was working in a restaurant in the village of Ocotito when a childhood friend recruited him to enter the CJNGs training program.

We had nothing. No money to eat with. I was tired of seeing my mom go hungry. And I knew I could make 10 times more working for them. As soon as I heard the offer I knew thats what I had to do. Less than a week later I was on a bus for Jalisco.

You knew they would kill you if you refused.

CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera, aka El Mencho, has long sought to control drug production zones in Guerrero, which is the point of origin for about 50 percent of the heroin that enters the U.S. Lately its also become an important staging ground for synthetic drugs like fentanyl, which is mixed with heroin in processing labs located in the states remote and lawless mountains. An extensive recruitment effort aimed at the masses of impoverished young men with bleak futures from across Mexico is one of the reasons CJNG has become so powerful so fast.

Less than a decade old, the CJNG has already proved itself to be an extremely violent, predatory, and ascendant cartel backed up by increasingly capable paramilitary forces, says Bunker. When pushed by the Mexican state it is also not afraid to directly strike back and ambush federal forces.

Menchos mafia is now present in some two dozen Mexican states, as well as the U.S., South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, according to Bunker. While many crime groups in Mexico act more like loose coalitions, with little top-down planning or organization, Mencho has taken a different tack.

As Bunker explains, part of the secret to his groups success is the centralization of CJNG under one leader and some capable senior officers, which allows for the close planning and coordination needed to shift its paramilitary units from one operational area to another.

Training Day

Capache arrived in Guachinango, state of Jalisco, with little more than the clothes on his back. He slept with other young recruits in a cluster of tents. Some of the instructors were retired members of the Mexican special forces. Others were active-duty military personnel who were also on the cartel payroll. One of the first things they told Capache was that he did not have the right to leave.

At first I missed my family and thought about running away. But if you tried to escape youd be hunted down and killed. I saw others try to get away and they were always caught. Some of those would-be escapees were doused with gasoline and burned alive in front of their comrades, Capache says. Others had explosives taped to their body and ignited.

There was no going back, he says, seated at the scarred wooden table in the safe house.

As an initiate Capache received general infantry-style training, including small-unit tactics, target practice with assault rifles, belt-fed machine guns and grenade launchers, and field-stripping weapons while blindfolded.

The dismembering of a victim and/or eating their flesh is a homicidal and heinous act that bonds [recruits] to the cartel.
Robert Bunker, U.S. Army War College

Large-scale gangs like the CJNG consider this kind of curriculum worth the cost of investment because criminal groups that field untrained gunmen get chewed to bits in [armed] engagements with cartel personnel that have better paramilitary and military levels of training, Bunker says.

In addition to such traditional schooling, Capache says he and other recruits were also forced to undergo arduous trials meant to desensitize them to pain. One such exercise involved forcing trainees to undress beneath wasp nests lodged in trees.

Then they [drill instructors] hit the nests with poles or rifle barrels until the wasps came out to attack us. You had to stand there for 10 minutes and without moving at all. If you moved or screamed they beat you for it, he recalls, so it was better just to take the pain.

After about three months of training it was time for the final exam, which involved cutting people up a special way, Capache explains. Recruits took turns administering a specific, byzantine series of stabs and slashes to a live victimusually a thief or petty criminal the cartel deemed deserving of such punishment. The first series of ordered knife cuts was meant to torture for information without killing. Then to strike fatal blows. And at last to cut up the body by hand for disposal.

And if someone didnt want to participate in such a test?

You knew they would kill you if you refused, he says. It was a way to prove you were loyal to the cartel.

Bunker says such rituals have become commonplace in Mexicos underworld:

The dismembering of a victim and/or eating their flesh is a homicidal and heinous act that bonds [recruits] to the cartel as if they had joined a cult. It is viewed as a rite of passage into your new life and burns your moral and ethical bridges with traditional society.

From Captive to Vigilante

Capache started work for the cartel as a halcon, or spy, in the city of Ameca, Jalisco. Posted in houses near strategic points around the city, he would spend 12-hour shifts calling out the movements of police, soldiers, or rival gang members to the local command center via coded radio transmissions. During this time he also helped package and ship assorted narcotics, including cocaine, marijuana and crystal meth. Later he served as a full-fledged sicario and says he was involved in seven or eight firefights against opposing bands or authorities.

Because he was big for his age, had excelled in the organizations training program, and served well in combat he soon graduated to serve in an elite, 35-man bodyguard unit. The platoon-sized force was in charge of security for one of Menchos regional commanders, a mysterious man known only as 090. (According to Capache, the numerical sequence was chosen because it is also the Federal Police radio code for a homicide.)

Finally he was sent back to Guerrero to help recruit others and pave the way for CJNGs takeover of the state. Hed been in the Chilpancingo area for only a few months before he was captured by an autodefensa force called the United Front of Community Police of Guerrero State (FUPCEG). One of the largest groups of its kind in the country, FUPCEG boasts a fighting force of almost 12,000 men stationed in more than 30 municipalities. After a half-year of re-education classes, as Capache calls them, he was invited to join FUPCEGs anti-cartel strike force.

Cartel foot soldiers joining policia comunitarios, or community police, as autodefensas are often called in Guerrero, is a relatively common occurrence. Although their expertise is valued by the self-defense forces, their presence can also contribute to a blurring of the line that separates vigilantes from the organized crime groups they seek to oppose.

At first Capache helped train the vigilantes fresh members, passing on what hed learned in Jalisco about tactical maneuvers and weapons training. He also took part in open battles in the mountains against a regional mafia said to be allied with CJNG, called the Cartel del Sur. Eventually he was sent to back to Chilpancingo, as part of several elite squads assigned to FUPCEGs clandestine limpieza [cleansing] program.

The autodefensa leaders held a press conference last March, boldly announcing that they would start targeting criminals in the city. The expansion of their operations came after a months-long campaign to liberate small towns and villages in the surrounding sierra from the Cartel del Sur, which is led by a particularly ruthless capo named Isaac Navarette Celis.

The Cartel del Sur wants to intimidate the population. They want to dominate Chilpo and control everything. They rob and extort, they kidnap and murder. If they see a woman they like on the street, they just take her. Their ambition leads them to do things they shouldnt, says Capache. Thats why were here to clean up.

Part of that cleaning-up process involves identifying members of the cartel for capture or assassination. When the order goes to out for a hit in Chilpancingo, Capache receives a message with directions on his cell phone. Shortly thereafter a man arrives at the safe house with an untraceable firearm, usually a semi-automatic pistol. (I like a 9 mm Beretta when I can get one, he says, because they almost never jam.)

Capache works as part of a three-man crew that includes a driver and a scout, and they take turns acting as the designated shooter. The safest method, he says, is to engage the intended target from the back of a motorcycle or car.

It gets more difficult when the mark is with a group or protected by bodyguards. In that case, we have women who help us to get them alone, he says. Once the target is vulnerable the women find an excuse to step away and make a phone call.

They tell us where they are and what hes wearing and after that its easy, says Capache. In case the targets are armed, he shoots them first in the head, then in the chest, instead of the other way around.

A Murder Outbreak

Local news reports indicate a string of unsolved killings of young men in and around the provincial capital in the wake of FUPCEG putting Navarette Celiss gang on notice this spring. Capache is reluctant to provide the names of his victims, and my sense is that he fears blowback from both his superiors in FUPCEG and law enforcement if he reveals traceable information. However, the independent press coverage from the last several months shows multiple public assassinations in the barrios and urban zones where autodefensa cells like Capaches are said to operate. Those reports also jibe with specific details of their preferred M.O., such as dismemberment and conducting hits by motorbike.

Capache claims five confirmed kills as part of the FUPCEG hit squad, but says that total doesnt count his work for CJNG or pitched battles with the autodefensas. Such combat experiences are messy, he says, and not like on TV.

Your friends pain helps you keep fighting because it makes you hunger for revenge.

Its hard to know if those he shot in firefights actually died or were only wounded, he says, and he doesnt want to overestimate a kill count that might be incorrect simply to look tough. In answer to a question about what he feels in battle, or during the act of killing an unsuspecting target, he says:

No siento nada mas que adrenalina. I feel nothing but adrenaline.

When I ask if he likes the adrenaline he confesses he does but says its also depressing when your friends get hurt or killed.

He glances away from the open windows to look me straight in the eyes.

But your friends pain also helps you keep fighting, he says, because it makes you hunger for revenge.

A Disturbing Peace

Critics point out that FUPCEGs undercover ops differ little, if at all, from the tactics employed by the cartels themselves.

They call themselves community police, but theyre really no different from sicarios, says Manuel Olivares, director of a Chilpancingo-based NGO called the Jos Mara Morelos y Pavn Regional Center for Human Rights. The NGO director also charges that the state government is complicit in allowing FUPCEG to operate outside the rule of law.

Ultimately theyre enabled by the politicians, he says. The criminals could never carry out a campaign of terror without their support and permission. The level of corruption [in Guerrero] is just incredible. We have a government that cares only for itself.

Bunker agrees with Olivares about the authorities turning a blind eye to vigilante justice in Chilpancingo.

If the autodefensas want to engage in extrajudicial killings by means of death squads to take cartel gunmen and their other personnel off the streets its a freebie for the overwhelmed authorities. Cartel del Sur has a barbaric reputation as far as torture-killings and other deprivations go, so [FUPCEG operations] remove some of the hardcore criminal element plaguing the community.

But Bunker also warns of the danger inherent in relying on civilian militias.

Once autodefensas form they are immediately susceptible to outside criminal influencessuch as cartel penetration and manipulationor they can become corrupted by their new found position of power and become an armed gang in their own right.

Indeed, some local press reports have linked FUPCEG to a shadowy group called the Sierra Cartel, a long-time rival of the Cartel del Sur.

Back in the safe house overlooking Chilpancingo, Capache insists FUPCEGs mission is not about taking over the narcotics trade.

Were here because the people have asked us for support. We came to keep the cartel from killing in this pueblo. Were not against selling coke or other drugs, so long as they dont hurt anybody, he says in that same neutral and affectless voice. All we want is peace.

Capache now makes enough from his work for FUPCEG to help his mother and siblings. He married not long ago, and has a daughter just a couple of months old. He cant visit his family often, he says, because he doesnt want to put them in danger.

Near the end of our interview, I ask him if he ever considers finding another line of work.

Capache says hed like to open his own restaurant someday, but admits it would be hard to leave the autodefensas.

The work is dangerous, but its for a good cause, he says. I finally feel like Im doing something right.

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Guns, political turmoil and hummingbirds in the living room my farewell to Latin America

Venezuelan president Hugo Chvez took one look at the Guardians correspondent and yelled out: Hey, Gringo! But if he could never quite fit in, Jonathan Watts has come to love the continent he is now leaving after five years

It was the merest of glimpses, but no less thrilling for that. A dark, sleek body, roughly the size of a person, arched elegantly out of the Tapajs river as we approached the So Luis rapids deep in the Amazon. A fraction of a second later, it plunged back below the swirling waters, leaving me wondering if my imagination or the morning mist were playing tricks. But no, it was real. It had been close enough to the boat to be sure of that. But what was it?

Hugo Chvez took one look at Jonathan Watts (above) and yelled out: Hey, Gringo!

Perhaps a pirarucu (AKA arapaima), the giant of the Amazon, which can grow up to 10ft in length. But the lack of scales suggested it was more likely to be a dolphin. There were two species in these waters: the pink boto and the darker tucuxi. I concluded it was the latter.

The thought filled me with both hope and dread. Eleven years earlier during my previous post as China correspondent I had joined an international team of scientists on an expedition along the Yangtze river looking for the baiji freshwater dolphin. It was too late. Not one could be found. The animal was declared functionally extinct a victim of industrial pollution, river traffic, overfishing and hydroelectric dams. After 20m years of existence, it was an alarming indication of a dying river. Yet here in Brazil on the Tapajs, the freshwater dolphins albeit of a different genus could be found without searching. There was still time to save them. It felt like a second chance.

One of the reasons I moved from China to Brazil to become Latin America correspondent in 2012 was to look for a more sustainable development model. Back then, Brazil seemed to be doing a lot of things right. Its booming economy had just overtaken that of the UK; the popular leftwing government was reducing inequality; deforestation of the Amazon was slowing; Brazilian negotiators had played a positive role in climate and biodiversity negotiations; and my new home of Rio de Janeiro was about to host the 2012 Rio +20 Earth Summit, the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympic Games. Besides, I told my teenage daughters, who were doubtful about leaving Beijing, there would be less smog, more blue skies and a warm and friendly vibe. We were all in for a shock.

Adjustment was tougher than I expected. The differences were so vast. On the plus side, I grinned just to walk along the street and take in the views of what is surely among the most beautiful cities on the planet. My daily jog around the Lagoa took in the sights of the Christ the Redeemer statue, forested hillsides, the Rocinha favela, the peaks of Pedra da Gavea, Pedra Bonita and Dois Irmos. I also saw more species of trees, birds, insects and mammals on those 7.4km (4.6-mile) runs than I would see in a whole year in Beijing. Similarly, I heard more good live music in my first week in Rio than perhaps my entire nine years in China.

After the communist states of east Asia, the openness and accessibility of democratic Latin American leaders was also a welcome shock. Having spent years in usually fruitless applications to interview ministers and heads of state in China and North Korea, I came to my new post in Brazil with a target list of three prominent politicians that I would like to meet during my first year Dilma Rousseff, Marina Silva and Alfredo Sirkis. Within a week, I had seen all of them either in press conferences or for lunch. As I was later to learn, getting politicians in this part of the world to talk is often less of a problem than getting them to stop.

Dilma Rousseff: one of the great leaders of South America, before she was toppled. Photograph: Brazil Photo Press/CON/LatinContent/Getty Images

Other initial comparisons were less favourable. Cariocas (as residents of Rio call themselves) seemed far less focussed on education, culture, history, science and work than Beijingers. If they had spare time and money, many preferred to spend it on their body (tattoos, gyms or cosmetic surgery) so they could look good on the beach. And, contrary to the happy-go-lucky party-people image, they could be extremely conservative. One time, I was denied entry to a press conference I was supposed to be moderating because I failed to meet the dress code (although admittedly flower-patterned shorts and flip-flops werent the ideal match for my dress shirt). They also voted repeatedly for several of the countrys most rightwing politicians and some took to the streets calling for a return to the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

In those early days, however, I was mainly frustrated. Everything felt unambitious, slow and unreliable compared with China. Was it necessary to have three different types of plug socket? Why on earth did I have to keep providing my mothers birth name for the most routine applications? The grotesque bureaucracy was not my only grumble. The notorious inequality was quickly evident, as was the enduring social legacy of what had been the worlds biggest slave-trading nation. Apart from music, cultural life seemed poor and the food was bland compared with Asia. Property rental was absurdly complicated and the apartments were horrendously overpriced due to the countrys then super-strong currency (Brazil was infamous at the time for selling the worlds most expensive iPhones). I spent much of the first year sleeping in a mouldy shed that leaked in tropical rainstorms, obliging me to have a bucket by the pillow to catch the drops.

More importantly, it became apparent that I had been sold an overhyped image of Brazil. Far from being a new model, the past five years have proved a case study in how not to run a country.

This has been a spectacularly tumultuous period, encompassing the impeachment of a president, the worst economic contraction in 100 years, the biggest corruption scandal in the countrys history, millions taking to the streets in protest, an unimaginable 1-7 defeat in the World Cup, a pre-Olympic Zika epidemic and a resurgence of violent crime and environmental destruction. My Brazilian journalist friends are not sure whether to feel grateful for the abundance of work or horrified at the flood of miserable stories. Weve had 40 years of news packed into the last four years, observed one. Its surreal. We seem to be reporting on the collapse of the republic, lamented another. It is impossible not to feel sorry for the country.

Brazil has slipped into reverse gear on just about every front. Since 2012, the economy has shrunk by 9% and unemployment has almost doubled. Last year, deforestation of the Amazon accelerated by 29% and violent killings in Rio de Janeiro increased by almost 30%. Not surprisingly, the public has never been more frustrated with the government. Five years ago, the then-president Dilma Rousseff enjoyed approval ratings of 64%. That had fallen to 10% when she was politically lynched by her former allies last year. Her successor, Michel Temer, is even more unpopular. The most recent poll could find only 2% of voters who thought he was doing a good job.

A country in turmoil: protesters during a nationwide general strike in Rio de Janeiro on 30 June. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

In some ways, the story of Brazil from 2012 to 2017 has been the inverse of China from 2003 to 2012. In Asias biggest country, I observed sometimes brutal stability and spectacular economic growth. In Latin Americas, I have witnessed turmoil and contraction. I have certainly inhaled a lot more teargas, particularly since the mass protests ahead of the 2013 Confederations Cup, which were a turning point.

Regionally, the broad political trend has been a weakening of populist, leftwing power. In the past five years, the two great figureheads of the Latin left Fidel Castro and Hugo Chvez have died. The Brazilian Workers party founder Luiz Incio Lula da Silva has been put on trial and his party usurped from office by centre-right parties that have proved at least as corrupt. In Argentina, the formerly Pernist government of Cristina Fernndez de Kirchner has been replaced by the more conservative Mauricio Macri. In Bolivia, Evo Morales lost a referendum that would have allowed him to stand again for re-election. Venezuela, meanwhile, plunges ever deeper into crisis under Nicols Maduro. But Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico are all exceptions in different ways. Latin American politics are too heterogenous for perfect generalisations.

A clearer pattern and one perhaps that underlines the tumult both here and elsewhere in the world is the increasing evidence of climate change across the region. Patagonian lakes are drying up and glaciers retreating; Rios beaches have been battered by record storm surges; Chiles forests were devastated earlier this year by unprecedentedly high temperatures and wildfires; and then Lima was hit by freak floods. Perhaps the most alarming story, however, was So Paulo the biggest city in Latin America suffering the most prolonged drought in its history. I recall a dystopian moment when I was told there was no coffee at a Starbucks on Avenida Paulista the citys main thoroughfare because the taps had run dry. We only have beer or Coke, the cashier said.

The destruction of the rainforest is making matters worse in ways that are only slowly being understood. But it often appears to be a bigger story overseas than in the media of Brazil and other Amazonian nations. As well as being a major source of carbon emissions and a threat to biodiversity, the loss of foliage is also eroding the forests role as a climate regulator. Recent studies have shown that the Amazon acts as a giant water pump, channelling moisture inland via aerial rivers and rainclouds that form over the forest more dramatically than over the sea. As trees are felled, this function is weakened, which leads to more severe droughts and more extreme weather events.

The Xingu river near the area where the Belo Monte dam complex is under construction in the Amazon basin. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Yet, even as scientists grow more alarmed, politicians are becoming less willing to act. In response to demands from the agribusiness lobby (which has become more powerful due to demand from China), Rousseff relaxed the Forest Code, Brazils main law against illegal logging and land clearance. The current administration of Michel Temer has slashed the environment ministry budget, diluted licensing regulations, and is moving to reduce the size of conservation parks and indigenous territories. In Brazil and elsewhere in the region, activists who stand up against the loggers, farmers, miners and dam builders run the risk of beatings and murder as I saw on an unforgettable trip to Lbrea. More often than not, those in the frontline are indigenous communities who are trying to protect their territory, such as the Juruna, the Kaapor and the Mundruku and the Kichwa and Shuar. These days, the tribes wear T-shirts, ride motorbikes and use laptops, but they still often suffer the same fate as their ancestors when the first European settlers arrived either driven off their land or murdered for resisting. Most prominent among them in this period was Berta Cceres, an indigenous rights and environment activist in Honduras who won the Goldman prize in 2015 for her campaigns against deforestation and hydropower dams. In an email exchange at the time, she told me environmental protection was a cause worth fighting for. We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action, she said. A year later she was assassinated by a gunman.

This is the worlds most murderous continent. In Central America, violence is the main driver for perilous child migration to the US, though it remains to be seen how this might be affected by the wall on the Mexican border being planned by the new caudilho in the White House.

Reporting here has its risks, though local journalists are far more exposed than foreign correspondents. The only time I saw a gang member fire a gun up close was after a visit to a crack den in the town of Lins, when I asked him why he had chosen his weapon. On a street in broad daylight, he squeezed a dozen or so rounds into the air that made me instantly regret my question. A few weeks later, police pushed his gang out of Lins in a pacification operation. I imagine they are back now. Thanks to a series of scandals and cuts in the police budget, the sound of gunfire is sadly becoming common again in Rio. Recently, I went to sleep three nights in a row listening to protracted shootouts echoing across the valley.

Apart from that, there were few hairy moments. The only crimes I experienced were having my credit card cloned three times and being pickpocketed. I was generally more worried about flying over the Andes (which often comes with gut-wrenching turbulence), the interruption of a dinner in Maranho in north-eastern Brazil by an uninvited tarantula, and the possibility of diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya. Zika was added to the list in 2016. Although my head told me the risks were mainly only to pregnant women, I could not help but feel a little unease as well as irony at being bitten by a mosquito during a press conference in which the head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, explained why the Zika epidemic had just been declared a global emergency. The concerns were genuine, though the imminent Olympics meant the risks were overhyped. When the Brazilian government subsequently launched its biggest ever military operation against the tiny insect, it felt a little like something out of a science-fiction film.

In this continent of magical realism, the weird and wonderful were never far away. Evangelicals in a heavy-metal church in the Mar favela described visits by an angel in the form of a head-banger who would dance among them, shirtless with long hair, army boots, black trousers and chains. In the Andean mountains, I witnessed what looked at first like something out of an ancient myth: a beast with wings and horns charging down a matador. It was, in fact, a cruel and dangerous sport that involved stitching the talons of an endangered condor into the hide of a traumatised bull for the entertainment of a chicha-sodden crowd at a Yawar festival bullfight. Then there was a mass in the countryside of Rio by rebel anti-Vatican priests who insisted the pope was not Catholic enough. They preferred Vladimir Putin.

There have also been inspiring, uplifting stories: the end of the worlds oldest civil war in Colombia, the overcoming of cold war hostilities between Cuba and the United States and the subsequent visits to Havana by Pope Francis, Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones.

But when it comes to liberal, well-run countries, Uruguay led the way by legalising marijuana, ramping up renewable energy and boasting a former president, Jos Mujica, who lived his anti-consumerist values by eschewing a palace home for his charmingly ramshackle farmhouse.

Despite Brazils many woes, there was cause for hope in the success of Brazils bolsa familia poverty relief programme (though it is now threatened by austerity cuts), the courage and canninness of indigenous groups fighting against loggers, the idealism of activists and prosecutors fighting illegal deforestation and exposing timber laundering , and the courage and talent of community journalists who provided a diary of life in Rios favelas ahead of the Olympics.

A vibrant culture: a dancer takes part in carnival. Photograph: PeopleImages/Getty Images

I will miss this continent. It has been an immense privilege to visit stunningly beautiful places such as Patagonia, Alter do Cho, Machu Picchu, Yasuni and Havana, and I am grateful to collaborators and editors who have worked with me on stories ranging from guerrilla graffiti pedants in Quito and the worlds greatest vinyl collector in So Paulo, to the source-to-sewer journey of a drop of water in Mexico City and a retracing of part of a journey taken by the Edwardian explorer Percy Fawcett.

Although I could never claim to blend in (Chvez took one look at me and yelled out: Hey, Gringo!), I now think of Latin America as home (particularly since I moved out of the shed and into a forest apartment). I still dont appreciate the three-plug electrical system or Brazils bureaucracy, but I have come to love the geniality of the people, the vibrancy of the markets and much of the food especially aai, caldo de cana, tapioca wraps and Amazonian fish.

I leave at a difficult time. Troubles lie ahead for Rio, Brazil and the world. This is not just because of a poor Olympic legacy (though homelessness has surged alarmingly in the host city since the Games) or woeful national leadership (Temer is the first sitting president to be charged with corruption and eight of his cabinet are implicated in bribery scandals).

In China, I came to believe environmental crises underlie much of the economic and political tension in the world. In Latin America, I found reason to hope it is not too late to do something about that. For sure, the trends are bad. But there is much here worth fighting for. Latin America may not offer a model of sustainable development, but compared with Asia it is relatively unscarred in terms of overpopulation and pollution, and compared with the US and Europe, average consumption is modest and biodiversity is rich. River dolphins in the Amazon are only a part of that wealth. The value of this natural heritage is easier to feel than to measure

I will leave Brazil healthier and happier than I arrived. As I write this, the sun is streaming through the papaya and mango trees from a gloriously clear blue sky. It is midwinter, but the temperature is a balmy 25C. This morning, I cycled through the forest up to the Vista Chinesa viewpoint. Marmosets were waiting in the garden for food when I returned a couple of hours later. A hummingbird just flew into the living room looking for the nectar water that I forgot to leave at its usual spot by the window. Before I go, maybe Ill catch a final glimpse of a toucan, a jacu or a porcupine. Perhaps the gang of capuchin will invade the kitchen in search of an egg or a banana. There will be at least one possum. Then after 21 years on the road it will be time to return to London, to a new job, to an office, to a flat, and to pigeons, sparrows and, who knows, perhaps a squirrel. Im curious whether my old home will feel like a foreign country.

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