Born: March 6 1927; Died: April 17 2014.

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GABRIEL García Márquez, who has died in Mexico City aged 87, was the best-known and, in the words of fellow novelist Carlos Fuentes, "the most popular and perhaps the best writer in Spanish since Cervantes". In Spanish he was outsold only by the Bible and he was the first Colombian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he won in 1982.

García Márquez was often regarded as the leading exponent of magical realism, though he protested that "reality isn't limited to the price of tomatoes and eggs" and pointed out that many of the most improbable scenes in his novels were unvarnished accounts of real events.

These claims were supported by his memoirs, Living to Tell the Tale (2002), which contained incidents as fantastic as those in his fiction, and by the fact that for many years he worked as a journalist. In his study of the writer, the American scholar Gene Bell-Villada concluded that of all the great living authors, he was the closest to everyday reality, while García Márquez himself attributed the power of his stories to the Caribbean, a region where, he said, the most natural thing is what is astonishing.

Many of his stories, including his most popular novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), were set in Macondo, a name he took from a sign over the gate of a banana plantation ten minutes outside the town of Aracataca, where he grew up. It came to serve as a shorthand for rural towns across Latin America, and García Márquez's work was often evasive about geography and history; in No One Writes to the Colonel (1961), for example, the main characters remain unnamed.

As his fame and fortune grew, he came to be seen as a representative not merely of Caribbean or Colombian literature, but of the boom in Latin American writing. His work addressed the psychological and political experience of South America; The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) presented a dictator who was a composite of various leaders, and there were recurring themes, such as the memory of civil unrest, which melded García Márquez's direct personal experience with wider issues which he thought contributed to the solitude of Latin America - the title he gave his Nobel acceptance speech.

Also central to his work was a firm political commitment to the Left. He was a strong supporter and close friend of Fidel Castro - which caused disagreements with fellow writers, notably Mario Vargas Llosa, who were critical of the Cuban leader's human rights record. At one point García Márquez announced he would not write until the Chilean dictator General Pinochet was overthrown (though he was unable to keep it up, and broke his silence in 1981 to publish Chronicle of a Death Foretold).

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez was born during an unseasonal downpour on March 6 1927 at his grandparents' house in Aracataca and, because he was almost strangled by the umbilical cord, baptised on the spot. He should have been named Olegario, for the saint on whose day he was born, but no one had a calendar handy, so he was given his father's Christian name. "Concordia" commemorated the reconciliation between his parents' families which his birth brought about.

"Gabito", as he was always known to his family and friends (in later life he was "Gabo") was brought up by his grandparents. His grandfather, a staunch liberal who impressed his political views on the boy, had been a colonel in Colombia's War of a Thousand Days, while his grandmother was a great believer in magic and the supernatural, always relating mystical tales with a deadpan delivery - "a brick face", as García Márquez told one interviewer.

The Colonel initially disapproved of his daughter Luisa's relationship with Gabito's father, a telegraph operator who went on to become a pharmacist, because he was a conservative. Their romance was later to be fictionalised in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), one of García Márquez's most popular and successful novels.

He was educated at a Jesuit boarding school and then the Liceo Nacional, where he became a keen smoker (he smoked 80 a day for many years before giving up) and fell under the influence of Marxism.

He left to study law at the National University of Bogota in 1946, but had already decided to become a journalist and, despite his father's ambitions, dropped out of law school to write for El Heraldo, where he was paid three pesos for a daily commentary, and four for the occasional editorial, when the regular writers were off. In 1947, he published a collection of short stories, Eyes of a Blue Dog.

The assassination of the president Jorge Gaitan led to a period of unrest ("la violencia") which confirmed García Márquez in his radicalism. He worked for a succession of Liberal newspapers and set up several magazines, in which he published short stories - a form he thought superior to the novel - as well as beginning to write about film, a lifelong interest.

In 1954, he wrote an expose of a government cover-up of a naval tragedy; a shipwreck officially caused by a storm, but actually the result of poorly secured cargo coming adrift, when he interviewed the only surviving member of the crew. It became a cause celebre, and García Márquez was sent to Paris as a foreign correspondent until the fuss died down.

He spent some time in Europe, including dispatches from behind the Iron Curtain, and in 1955 published Leaf Storm, a novella which was his first tale to use Macondo as a setting. In 1958 he married his long-standing girlfriend, Mercedes, and covered the fall of the Venezuelan dictator, Perez Jimenez, and at the beginning of the following year, the revolution in Cuba.

He became an energetic propagandist for Castro's government, working for its press agency in Bogota, and then New York. During the Cuban missile crisis, however, his visa was revoked, and he moved to Mexico City, which became his main home. He was barred from travelling to the United States for many years, until Bill Clinton, who was a fan, granted him a visa.

No One Writes to the Colonel and In Evil Hour (1962) tackled issues raised by dictatorship and la violencia, but García Márquez had always wanted to write about his life in his grandparents' village. Finally, on the way to a family holiday in Acapulco, he struck on an approach, and turned the car around. He spent 18 months writing the book, selling his car and living off borrowed money to complete it. A sprawling, hallucinatory soap opera, covering several generations of the same family, it was instantly hailed as an obvious masterpiece and - more surprisingly - proved a huge commercial success. It went on to sell at least 30 million copies in dozens of languages. It also singled García Márquez out as the foremost Latin American writer of his generation and as the exemplar of magical realism (though he was not the first to use the techniques).

After that, he was much fêted and used his celebrity to promote a number of left-wing and human rights causes, launching a radical magazine and working for Unesco. He intervened to secure the release of kidnapping victims in El Salvador and backed opponents of Pinochet in Chile.

His other books included a fictionalised account of Simon Bolivar, The General in His Labyrinth (1989) and a non-fiction study of the Medellin drug cartel, News of a Kidnapping (1996). After his memoir of his early life, he produced Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), which had a mixed response. The further volumes of memoirs which were anticipated did not materialise.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 and, although he recovered, his output stalled. There were contradictory reports about whether he was still writing and, two years ago, his brother announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

He is survived by his wife and their two sons.