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

“I had to show my loyalty to the club, so at first it was just the fighting, showing you’re willing to do what it takes,” he said. “Then, when they trust you, you can start to get involved with the money. Then you’re really part of it.”

Like most barra soldiers, Diaz started by roaming the streets around the stadiums charging fans 40 to 50 pesos to park their cars near the stadium. He proved a natural at persuading people to part with their cash and estimates he made about 2,000 pesos in commission per game.

“First you start off doing the parking, then you move on to flogging tickets outside the game,” he said, alleging that during the matches he runs guns and drugs, mostly speed and marijuana, through the stands.

“Inside the stadium is where a lot of the real action happens, because in there we’re basically untouchable. We can do whatever we want. It’s our territory,” he said.

If Diaz is telling the truth, it seems unlikely that any of this could happen without the complicity and collusion of the clubs, the players and the police, a situation that has been the subject of much speculation and reports both inside and outside Argentina. In the 1950s the barras started out as groups of dedicated fans who were given shirts and free tickets by club officials who needed to secure votes by season-ticket holders to get elected to club boards. Once they had their foot in the door, the fans’ demands increased and their willingness to resort to disruptive violence saw their grip on the clubs tighten. The problem for those trying to break the power of the fans is that too many people are benefiting from their rise to dominance.

Carlos de los Santos is from Argentina’s new Security Unit for Live Sporting Events, which the government set up to deal with mounting violence in the game. He looks weary when I ask him why there has been so little progress.

“Corruption is endemic in Argentina and it is what has allowed the barras to get so powerful,” he said. “The problem is that everybody is taking a cut. It won’t help just throwing the barras bosses in jail, we’ve tried that. To break the barras you have to sever their political connections and root out those police complicit in their activities, and this is going to be hard. In fact in the current climate I don’t see how it’s going to be done.”

In the absence of any decisive action from the authorities, it’s come down to those who have been most touched by the violence to fight back. Argentina’s frontline in the war against the barras bravas comes in the unlikely form of Liliana Suarez de Garcia, a softly spoken woman in her late 60s. On her lapel is a badge bearing the face of her son, Daniel, killed outside a game in Uruguay during the Copa America in 1995. For years after his death she fought for those responsible to be brought to justice, until she realized there were dozens of other families also losing sons. Now, as president of her own organization, Familiares de las Victimas de la Violencia en el Futbol Argentino (Families of the Victims of Violence in Argentine Soccer), she has emerged as one of the only voices calling for action.

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