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

“Every day I wake crying for my child,” she said, wiping her eyes. “His death was so tragic, but nobody helped me. There has been no justice because those who killed him have the protection of the police and of the state. It has to stop because at the moment those who are profiteering are getting away with murder.”

When I ask Diaz about the tangled web of vested interests underpinning the barras’ control over the game, he looks blank.

“They use us, we use them, it’s the way it’s done,” he said, with a shrug. “Police get paid, politicians get paid, and everyone wins. When they need muscle they have it, when we want money or access to players then we get it. If the clubs don’t think a player is doing his job properly or not paying out, we’ll have a word or his girlfriend or wife might be threatened with kidnap.”

“You physically attack the players?” I ask.

“Only if they need a talking to,” Diaz said. “Just to let them know who’s boss.”

However, life as a barra brava comes at a cost; as profits soar, the barras are turning on each other. Last year rival gangs within La Doce turned part of downtown Buenos Aires into a war zone, wounding several terrified bystanders.

Diaz now sleeps with a gun beside his bed.

“Of course the dangers get greater as you get more powerful, but that’s the risk,” he said. “I think about quitting, but then as soon as I get on the bus at the weekend and the booze and the drugs are flowing and the drums are banging and you’re singing for your club, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Mendez has a different story. Recently life within the barras has become too much and he wants to get out.

“It’s one thing when it’s just parking rackets and ticket sales, but now it’s too heavy,” he said.

Last year he and his family were caught in the middle of a violent battle for control of the drug trade in Villa Fiorito, with the traffickers on one side and the barra brava of another club on the other.

“My baby son was outside and they were running up the street firing at each other. I threw myself on top of him and we could hear the bullets as they went over our heads. When you’re with the barra, you’re somebody. Without them, I’m just another poor guy who can’t feed his family. But at least I’ll be alive,” he said.

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