The troubled road that led to one of Latin America's most anticipated soccer finals being moved to Europe exposed, once again, the reach and influence of Argentina’s powerful fan-run gangs and the government’s inability, or unwillingness, to tackle them.
The Boca Juniors and River Plate soccer teams of Argentina's premiere league will play the second leg of the controversial Copa Libertadores final, one of the main tournaments in South America, in Madrid, Spain, on December 9.
The match comes after the second part of the final was called off November 24 after a bus carrying members of the Boca team was violently attacked, allegedly by River Plate's “barras bravas,” as the soccer gangs are known, as the team arrived at the stadium in the capital Buenos Aires.
Security forces clashed with local fans, threw tear gas and detained nearly 60 people, reported Infobae.
The day after the canceled match, Buenos Aires mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta said the violence had taken place after authorities seized nearly $100,000 and 300 tickets to the match from the house of Héctor "Caverna" Godoy, one of the leaders of River Plate’s barra brava.
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This led to the resignation of Martín Ocampo, the secretary of justice and security for the city of Buenos Aires, a day later while Security Minister Patricia Bullrich dismissed reports that corrupt police had stepped aside to give the gang members access to the Boca Juniors bus.
“There were no internal issues within the police, there was no ‘free zone,’ there were only violent individuals,” Bullrich said in a statement reported by Perfil.
Since 1922, more than 315 people have died in soccer-related violence in Argentina, 97 in the last decade alone, according to estimates from the “Let's Save Soccer” organization, which gathers data published in media outlets.
In a bid to tackle violence in 2013, the Argentine Football Association (Asociación del Fútbol Argentino – AFA) and local authorities decided to ban supporters of opposing teams from games.
Congress is currently debating a bill backed by Bullrich to increase punishments for those accused of committing or instigating violence during sporting events.
InSight Crime Analysis
Soccer violence in Argentina is hardly new. But this act of violence against a rival team during one of the most high-profile matches in the country has brought the infamous barras bravas back into the spotlight, and placed renewed pressure on authorities to take action.
But tackling these powerful organizations might prove to be a nearly impossible task.
First, the local fervor for soccer borders on that of religion and is a never-ending source of power for clubs and, by extension, fan associations.
The barras have a great level of control over who plays in their club, who manages it and who receives benefits and privileges.
Diego Murzi, a sociologist and expert on violence in Argentine soccer, told InSight Crime that the power of the barras bravas comes from their structure.
“One of the particularities of soccer clubs in Argentina is that they are non-profit associations," he explained. "As such, to become president of one, you need to be elected and convince members to vote for you. This means you need to make alliances with and commitments to the barras bravas."
A remarkable video from 2012 showed Paulo “Bebote” Alvarez, the former leader of the barra brava for the major club Independiente, threatening club president Javier Cantero on live television. Cantero was a target for fan ire after becoming president and declaring war on the gangs the previous year.
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Second, soccer and politics are so entrenched in Argentina that it is often difficult to tell them apart. Politicians use the gangs’ territorial influence when they need to show force, and the barras bravas receive favors in return.
“The difference between Argentina's barras bravas and English hooligans, for example, is that the hooligans were marginalized. The barras bravas are useful to many people: politicians, police, club leaders,” Murzi said.
Those links cannot be underestimated. Argentine President Mauricio Macri, for example, was the president of Boca Juniors for more than a decade; Máximo Kirchner, the son of former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is closely involved with Racing and Hugo Moyano, the leader of one of the most powerful local unions, who is also the president of Independiente.
Thirdly, these groups have a tight grip on the territories they operate in, which gives them control of very profitable illegal economies, including reselling tickets and controlling car parking in public spaces near stadiums.
These gangs have also been involved in more serious crimes such as drug trafficking and extortion. Since mid-2017, police in the province of Buenos Aires alone have arrested 52 members of the barras bravas from 15 of Argentina’s most important teams for such crimes, La Nación reported.
Macri sees barras bravas as an organized crime challenge and focused his administration’s response on increasing police operations and advocating for tougher punishments.
Murzi believes the problem lies in this approach.
“This is not just a security problem," Murzi said. "The problem is corruption within the police and their relations ... with the barras bravas. The problem is, partly a lack of will from the political class, but partly from soccer associations who have for many years completely ignored the issue of soccer violence."