Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

SPORTS-COLOMBIA: Fighting Violence – in the Stadiums

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Oct 3 2006 (IPS) - Father Alirio López, standing in the middle of the stadium dressed in a jersey with the logos of the two Colombian football teams that are playing each other that day, calls on fans to stay calm and urges them to watch the game in peace.

Colombian journalists Antonio Casale and Francisco Cardona – followers of rival teams – have come together to work against violence in the sport they love, through their radio broadcasts.

And stringent official measures have been taken to clamp down on hooliganism in the Colombian capital.

Violence is not new to this South American country, which has been in the grip of armed conflict for over four decades. But violence in the stadiums is a more recent phenomenon, and one that authorities are now attempting to curb before it spirals out of control.

Like in Argentina and Uruguay farther south, Colombia’s hooligans are organised in “barras bravas” (unruly or tough gangs of fans), which began to emerge in the late 1980s. Each professional team has its own barra brava.

Under the new measures adopted by authorities in the Colombian capital, fans under 18 cannot enter the sections of the stands specially reserved for the barras bravas; the members of these groups must show their identity cards to enable the police to create a database; and increased supervision has been put in place to prevent people with criminal records from entering stadiums.

The Bogotá city government has also trained stadium security guards in violence de-escalation techniques.

Last year’s murder of Andrés Garzón, a young fan of the Bogotá club Independiente Santa Fe, in the country’s largest stadium, the Nemesio Camacho “El Campín”, marked the start of the changes.

But while peace and calm appear to be gradually coming to the stadiums of the Colombian capital, deaths continue to occur in other cities.

After a Sep. 24 match between Millonarios from Bogotá and the Deportivo Tolima club in the capital of the province of Tolima, local fans attacked a bus carrying supporters of the team from the capital. In the fracas, one young man fell into traffic and was hit by a passing vehicle, while another was stabbed as he tried to get on the bus, and is still in critical condition.

To that incident was added the late September murder of Octavio Velásquez Mejía, ex-president of Envigado, a first-division team in the northwestern city of Medellín.

And earlier this year, two footballers were killed: Elson Becerra in Cartagena and Martín Zapata in Cali.

But despite the recent deaths, hope is spreading among peace-loving football fans. “Today, the end of matches in Bogotá brings a party-like atmosphere,” Camilo González, a devotee of Millonarios, commented to IPS.

“Messages are written in the air with coloured spray, toilet paper rolls are thrown from the stands like paper streamers, and the buses are shared by fans of both teams,” he said.

Father Alirio, as the Catholic priest is widely known, began his campaign against violence in 2001, under Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus (1995-1998 and 2001-2003), who was well-known for his efforts aimed at inculcating a culture of mutual respect among the local populace.

But Alirio’s efforts were preceded by a no less important initiative. In 1998, when Casale, a Millonarios fan, was 25 years old, he invited Cardona, a follower of Santa Fe, to work together as sports commentators campaigning against violence as they give the play by play during matches.

“‘Football is a war in peace’ was one of our first slogans,” Casale told IPS. “We tell young people: it’s true that going to football games gives you a chance to let off steam, but there is no need to be aggressive and violent. And we, without hiding our team loyalties, are respectful when we’re at the microphone.”

The first case of massive violence in Colombian stadiums occurred in April 1989 at the end of a match for the Copa Libertadores de América between Millonarios and Atlético Nacional, in the city of Medellín.

In fact, analysts date the birth of the local barras bravas to that game.

Millonarios devotees organised themselves at the time in the “Comandos Azules” and the followers of Independiente Santa Fe in the “Guardia Albiroja”. These groups were later imitated in Medellín and in the western Colombian city of Cali, home to two other leading Colombian teams.

That was the time when the big drug cartels were in their heyday, and the clubs were largely financed by drug money.

Druglord Pablo Escobar, who was killed in 1993, financed Atlético Nacional, and it was during that time that it was at its top performance both nationally and internationally, with a large portion of its players selected for the national team when Colombia took part in the World Cups in Italy (1990), the United States (1994) and France (1998).

Cali’s América team was sponsored by the Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela drug baron brothers, currently in jail on drug trafficking charges in the United States, while cocaine kingpin Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, killed in 1989, backed Millonarios.

But when the drug cartels were dismantled, the bonanza was over.

However, Colombian football’s close ties with drug money did not disappear. A 1997 report by the governmental Superintendence of Companies reported that between 70 and 80 percent of the shares of the five biggest clubs were controlled by drug traffickers.

“Added to the money laundering are the deaths that have thrown a further pall over Colombian football: Pablo Correa Ramos, part owner of the Medellín club, and Octavio Piedrahita, former owner of Nacional and of the Pereira club, were killed in 1986,” states journalist Wilson Sánchez in his article “Colombian Football’s Own Goals”.

The best-known case was the 1994 murder of footballer Andrés Escobar, who was gunned down after scoring an own goal in a match in the World Cup in the United States. Colombia was eliminated early from the championship as a result of the game, which the United States won 2-1.

“His father insists that the murder was linked to gambling,” Sánchez notes, referring to speculation that Escobar’s murder was ordered by gambling syndicates that had bet large amounts of money on Colombia in the World Cup.

In 1995, the then president of the Colombian Football Federation, Juan José Bellini, was sentenced to six years in prison, accused of “illicit enrichment” and of being a front man for drug traffickers.

In the meantime, the barras bravas grew in strength, and team-based rivalries and clashes between them have led to a number of deaths.

As a result, special places were created for the different barras bravas in Bogotá’s main stadium, with the stands on the north side reserved for the followers of Millonarios and the south side reserved for Santa Fe fans.

“During the time that the clashes peaked, you had to get to the stadium at least four hours early,” said González. Although he does not belong to the Millonarios barra brava, he said he went to their stand a few times “out of curiosity, although a little scared.”

“The police searches took a long time. You had to go in without your shoes on, and nearly naked. But we often saw knives and jack knives in the stadium before the game. The fans would be drinking and smoking marijuana. What I don’t know is how that was allowed to happen – or who allowed it to happen,” he added.

While that was going on in the stands, journalists Casale and Cardona began to issue calls for civil behaviou and calm over their radio programme “Rock-and-gol”.

The two reporters are working to counteract aggressive messages broadcast by other journalists, “like TV presenter Carlos Arturo Vélez who as a ‘paisa’ (the name for people from the province of Antioquia, of which Medellín is the provincial capital) attacks Santa Fe and Millonarios and is biased in favour of the clubs from his region,” said González.

“There is no respect for people’s preferences, and the Bogotá fans shout at him ‘paisa, son-of-a-b**ch, why don’t you go back to where you came from!’,” he added.

In his undergraduate thesis “Football Language on the Radio and Its Influence on Fans”, William Díaz, a journalism student, wrote that “The fans all have a common objective: to accompany the team they love. But it is important to insist that commentators have a responsibility to society for the language they use in commenting the football games.”

“Eighty percent of the members of the barras bravas are desperate young men without opportunities or alternatives, with low self-esteem, who have often suffered the effects of a very complex phenomenon of domestic violence,” said Father Alirio in an interview with the BBC.

In war-torn Colombia, football plays a special role, and can even give rise to dreams of a more peaceful world. In his 1998 comedy film “Golpe de Estadio” (titled Time Out in English), Sergio Cabrera showed guerrillas and soldiers watching a game together on the only TV set in a remote jungle village.

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