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BUENOS AIRES, Mar 26 2010 (IPS) - “Your president is willing to confront the wildest hordes of opponents, but not a football fan, ever,” Argentine President Cristina Fernández once joked.
Groups working to curb violence in stadiums in this football-crazed country say the causes of the phenomenon include the lack of real will to confront the “barras bravas” – Argentina’s hooligans – or the close ties between them and leaders of some political factions, especially in poor neighbourhoods.
Argentina’s barras bravas are often more powerful than the heads of the football clubs, and sometimes extort players, for example, in exchange for cheers and support during matches.
The leaders of the groups are involved in drug dealing or have side businesses like selling t-shirts, photos or parking spaces outside stadiums. They organise dinners with players in exchange for tickets to matches, and charge foreign tourists to watch games in the stands next to the team’s fans.
Five people have been killed in clashes between the barras bravas in the last few weeks. Police suspect that some of the murders had to do with the pressure to obtain support to fly to South Africa for the World Cup in June.
“There is no strong political determination to put an end to the violence and corruption in football,” Mónica Nizzardo, president of Salvemos al Fútbol (Let’s Save Football), a non-governmental organisation that is trying to eradicate the violence, told IPS.
Although the phenomenon has been getting worse in recent years, the last few weeks have been especially violent. Observers believe the catalyst was an initiative launched in November by political supporters of Fernández, like Marcelo Mallo, who created the group “Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas” (Argentine Fans United).
His idea, he said, is to turn the fans into “non-violent social leaders” who will help build housing for the poor and get involved in other community efforts.
Mallo pledged to take 500 members of the barras bravas to South Africa. Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas has been unfurling banners with political messages at matches, one of which was ‘Kirchner Vuelve’ – a call for the reelection of Fernández’s husband and predecessor, former president Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), in the 2011 elections.
Mallo said it was not true that deals had been struck with the barras bravas to reward them for their political support and publicity. He also denied that public funds were being used to finance fans’ tickets to South Africa, or that the government is behind his movement.
He admitted, however, that his aim is for the heads of the barras bravas, most of whom have criminal records, to become community leaders who can recruit voters for elections or act as election observers.
The dozens of barras bravas who have come together in Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas do not include “La 12”, the violent fans of Boca Juniors, or “Los Borrachos del Tablón”, supporters of River Plate – the most popular clubs – because they already have support for travelling to South Africa, said Mallo.
Since the launch of the movement, the number of violent incidents has increased – not between rival barras bravas but within the groups themselves, over the management of parallel businesses and the distribution of perks.
Gustavo Grabia, a journalist and author of the book “La 12: The True History of Boca’s Barra Brava”, says the groups are “the armed faction” of the clubs’ fans, and have ties with the police, as revealed in different court cases.
“Violent incidents have been on the rise, and the creation of Hinchadas may have heated things up, because it promised to take 500 fans to South Africa and now it turns out it won’t be able to take even half that many,” Grabia told IPS.
The reporter added, however, that the latest murders went beyond the realm of football and could be linked to internal turf wars for control of the drug business and other murky dealings.
On Mar. 19, Roberto Caminos, former head of the barra brava of the Newell’s Old Boys club, from the central Argentine city of Rosario, was shot and killed in the doorway of a bar. People close to him said he had commented that he was being trailed by the police.
A few days earlier, Juan Bustos, a former leader of the barra brava of Rosario Central – the other popular club from that city – had been killed outside of his home. And Marcos Galarza, a member of the barra brava of the small second division club Defensa y Justicia, was also stabbed to death.
There were other cases as well.
“This picked up steam with the creation of ‘Hinchadas’,” said Nizzardo. “The law punishes anyone who creates or supports violent groups with one to six years in prison, and here you clearly see who are the people inciting the violence,” she added.
In November, Salvemos al Fútbol filed a legal complaint to get the courts to investigate alleged ties between Hinchadas Unidas Argentinas and members of the government, including cabinet chief Aníbal Fernández, a former political ally of Mallo. But the lawsuit is making no progress in the courts.
Nizzardo pointed out that many of the members of the barras bravas involved in the Hinchadas movement have criminal records. “One has been in prison since December for extortion and other crimes, and another is facing charges for illegal possession of weapons and involvement in a murder,” she said.
“How can people with these records be recruited to go to South Africa?” she asked.
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