Wed, Aug 24, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The violent Argentine gangs that control soccer

Soccer is seen as a way out of the ghetto, but self-appointed club ‘soldiers’ are exploiting a business worth millions

By Annie Kelly  /  The Observer, LONDON

The more lucrative the club becomes, the bigger the piece of the pie the fans claim. It is estimated the most powerful barras pull in thousands every month through ticket and parking rackets and by controlling the lion’s share of club merchandise and refreshments inside the stadiums. And it doesn’t stop there. Gustavo Grabia, an Argentine journalist who has spent years investigating soccer corruption, claims the biggest barras also receive up to 30 percent of transfer fees when a player leaves and up to 20 percent of some players’ paychecks.

For ordinary men such as Mendez, the message of the barras bravas is that everybody can benefit, as long as they don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

“For me it was like a dream, to go to the match every week, to be someone,” he said. “At the games we’re welcomed like heroes. You don’t need to go through security, you don’t need to answer any questions.”

He stops and raises his hands in a victory salute.

“In there we’re like the kings of the stadium!” he said.

He agreed to speak to me on condition I change his name.

If the bosses find out he’s speaking to a journalist, there will be hell to pay, he said, cocking his fingers into the shape of a gun and blowing an imaginary bullet into his head.

“These people, the bosses who run the barras bravas, they don’t care who you are. If you cross them, they will hunt you down and come after you and your family,” he said.

Soccer in Argentina has always been bloody, but in the past decade things have escalated. An estimated 190 people have now died in soccer-related incidents in Argentina, 14 in the past 18 months. In 2002, after a particularly bloody season saw five people killed and countless others left with gunshot and knife wounds, the Argentinian government declared violence in soccer a national emergency.

In recent years, the violence has shifted away from the terraces into the streets of the capital as rival barras fight for control in a blaze of fire-fights, drive-by shootings and mafia-style executions. Despite the violence, Mendez still believes he is taking part in something glorious.

“What else do we have to be proud of if it isn’t our team or the club shirt on our backs?” he asked.

He gestures angrily around his house, at the crumbling walls, the damp mattresses where his six children sleep, the curling soccer posters and flickering light bulbs. He takes me outside and points to two teenagers sitting under a faded mural of Villa Fiorito’s most famous son — Diego Maradona. For a few pesos, locals take tourists to see the pitch where he honed his skills, now nothing more than a patch of cracked, weed-clogged concrete, or to look at the garbage-strewn front yard of the Maradona family house.

The two boys lean back against the cracked paint and smoke paco, a cheap, toxic mix of cocaine base paste. The drug has become endemic in Argentina’s poorest barrios, claiming countless young lives every year.

“Those two boys, they used to play soccer with my sons,” Mendez said.

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