Where soccer is dangerous business

BUENOS AIRES — Come on, guys. It’s just a game. Right?

Apparently not.

Vendetta gunfights at McDonald's and at private clubhouse parties filled with families. Bystanders stabbed. Heads broken by wood planks. Guys tossed from moving trucks. Disgruntled rival gangs burning cars and breaking windows. Fights for turf control. It all sounds like something out of a mob flick, Mexico's drug war or the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

It’s not. This is Argentine soccer.

According to the organization Salvemos al Futbol — Spanish for “Let’s Save Football” — there have been 235 violent soccer-related deaths over the years in Argentina. Most of the killings have been perpetrated by the so-called “barra bravas,” regimented and thuggish groups of fans notorious for their shady dealings and brutality.

Nora de Rousoulis, of the organization Families of the Victims of Football, says that it was a Buenos Aires barra brava that killed her son for wearing the wrong team’s colors at the first match he ever attended, more than a decade ago. Trying to get home from the stadium, he found himself in the middle of a riot and died from two stab wounds in the back.

“I did the investigation by myself,” Rousoulis said, describing how she went door-to-door near the stadium to get answers about her son’s murder. “I got the witnesses, everything. The police did nothing."

Soon Rousoulis was getting death threats by telephone from barra brava members. But the two individuals who were ultimately convicted of her son’s murder — one of whom had a prior homicide conviction — were exonerated after the court found evidence that a judge on the case had been bribed. And now there’s no chance of legal justice for Nora de Rousoulis: There's a 12-year statute of limitations.

“There’s a great impunity here,” said Monica Nizzardo, president of Let’s Save Football. “Very few cases result in convictions, even for murders.”

Fabiana Rubeo — president of Nuevo Horizonte para el Mundo, or “New Horizon for the World,” another organization devoted to reducing soccer violence — describes Argentine soccer as "an organized mafia." Fan gangs, she said, "are part of that conduct."

This is what sets Argentina’s soccer hooligans apart from their counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world. They’re not just a bunch of rowdy, drunk zealots — the barra bravas have a well defined hierarchy and membership running rackets. Many barra bravas, for example, control all the parking within a 10-block radius of a stadium — even public spaces on neighborhood streets — which might earn them up to 60,000 pesos per game day (about $16,000). Tourists can pay $150 per head to get the barra brava experience on the “Pure Adrenaline” tour provided by one of the most infamous barras. And all barra bravas, of course, make out nicely on old-fashioned ticket scalping.

They are abetted by the management of the teams they root for. Team presidents usually deny the relationships — the clubs contacted for this story refused to comment — but they have repeatedly been found schmoozing with barra brava leadership. And nearly all clubs quietly give their barra bravas free ticket allotments, transportation to and from games, and sometimes even cold cash. In March, La Nacion newspaper reported that Boca Juniors’ La Doce gets 2,000 free tickets per match, plus 20,000 pesos each month — about $5,400 — to bring their shenanigans on the road to away games.

The government of Argentina has recently taken new steps to curb violence in stadiums. At the end of March, the Argentine Football Association signed an agreement to give the state more power to deny admission to violent offenders. And they’ve partnered with the National Technological University to design a computerized ticketing and entrance system to help enforcement.

“Today there are laws in Argentina to prohibit the entrance of anyone who has committed a violent act. They’re all there, they exist,” said Jorge Fraga, the project's director. “The question is in the execution.” By creating a centralized database linking tickets with buyers’ personal data, authorities hope to weed out barra brava members and also halt their major racket, the re-sale of tickets.

But networking technology might not be enough to keep the barra bravas out — they’re too well connected on the inside. Their access is known to go beyond team directors, all the way to the top of Argentina’s political landscape. In the phrase of Leon Arslanian, former security minister of Buenos Aires province, “Barras bravas are the jacks-of-all-trades of the powers that be.” Many in barra bravas have held salaried government positions — one famous example was a security guard in the National Congress — and their visibility makes the gangs ideal forces for turning out votes or discouraging rivals.

Even the most jaded observers were surprised recently by a fairly blatant quid pro quo, when both sides at a highly anticipated “super-classic” match in Buenos Aires unfurled ostensibly pro-government banners (or rather, banners opposing a major company at odds with the government). Each barra was reportedly paid 100,000 pesos (about $27,000) for the signs, which, according to local newspapers, were agreed upon by members of the ruling administration and top brass of the barra bravas.

This is the kind of overwhelming power that has made Fabiana Rubeo curtail her efforts to civilize the barra bravas since the Wall Street Journal touted her as Argentine soccer’s “Ms. Manners” last September. “If a team director comes and says to the barras, ‘Go pressure that player so he gets lost,’ that’s $20,000 dollars,” Rubeo says. “I can’t compete with that.”

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