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

He points to one of them; what was once a leg is now a stump wrapped in dirty bandages.

“That kid, he was so high on that stuff he lay on the railway tracks and was hit by a train. In a year they’ll both be dead,” he said.

For Mendez, Maradona is proof of the transformational power of soccer. Here, he says, nobody but the soccerers leave the villa.

“Maradona grew up in these streets,” Mendez said.

“I remember him playing soccer and everybody knew he was a genius. He was given a gift and he got his whole family out. Carlos Tevez, he was the same. He came from nothing and now he’s a superstar,” Mendez said.

Despite his best efforts, Mendez has not made a particularly good barra soldier. He has hung around on the fringes of the organization, but never made any real money. Now that he has promised his wife he will quit the booze and drugs, he has neither the constitution for violence nor the head for business.

A few days later he takes me to meet someone who does. We travel across town to an abandoned railway siding to meet Pepe Diaz (not his real name), a father of three. According to Mendez, Diaz can tell me everything there is to know about the inner mechanics of Argentina’s new soccer mafia. When we arrive, Diaz is working. On his belt a mobile phone buzzes relentlessly.

“It’s going to be a big one,” he said, rubbing his hands. “Big game, big money.”

Unlike Mendez, Diaz has shown a remarkable aptitude for business and has moved quickly up the ranks. Throughout our conversation he exudes a sense of ownership over his team, which has grown from the poor streets in the south of Buenos Aires to become one of the best known in the world. For Diaz, the barras bravas are doing nothing more than taking what is rightfully theirs.

“Here in Argentina we are soccer, it belongs to us,” Diaz said. “The players, the clubs, they owe everything to us. Why should we sit back while the suits get rich? We are just taking our cut.”

Like Mendez, Diaz was born and raised in Argentina’s slums. Now he is raising his young family there, too. During the week he feeds them by working as a cartonero, dragging a cart past the tango halls and steak restaurants of downtown Buenos Aires, picking up discarded cardboard for recycling.

“I walk around the city every night and people look straight through me like I don’t exist. As a poor man, I’m invisible. At the weekends it’s different. People see us. People see me,” he said.

Diaz is proud of how efficiently his barra is running the business of soccer.

“In England you think your fans, los hooligans, were powerful, but they were nothing compared to us. All you did there was drink and fight. We drink, we fight and we also do business. We’re not just monkeys singing for the clubs in the stadiums and then killing each other in the streets. They could learn a thing or two from us,” he said.

Squatting on the ground with a bottle of beer in one hand, Diaz draws circles in the dirt to map out the regimented hierarchy of the barra brava. At the top are the bosses — the half-dozen ruthless men who rule through fear. Each is estimated to make up to 100,000 pesos (US$24,000) a year in a country where 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line. Down at the bottom are the ordinary neighborhood men and soccer fanatics who are given free beer, amphetamines and dope, and then dispatched to the matches to sing for their side and do the bidding of the bosses in the streets. In the middle are men like Diaz who are increasingly making the barras bravas a criminal force to be reckoned with.

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