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Boca Juniors supporters during a game

Reports indicate that one of Argentina's criminalized soccer hooligan groups known as "barras bravas" provided muscle for an extortion ring in Buenos Aires, suggesting the gang may be taking a step up the criminal ladder.

Several members of the barra brava associated with Buenos Aires' Boca Juniors soccer club were among twelve individuals arrested on August 11, reported La Nación.

The move was seen as part of a government attempt to crack down on the capital city's massive informal street market, "La Salada," thought to be one of the largest in the region. In June, authorities captured the so-called "king" of La Salada, Jorge Castillo, accusing him of running a criminal "army" that extorted black market shopkeepers with help from corrupt local police.

One of those arrested in the recent sweep was Enrique Antequera. Officials say that he, like Castillo, relied on cops from Buenos Aires province's notoriously-corrupt police to ensure that extortion payments were collected from La Salada. But unlike Castillo's "army," Antequera also counted on the muscle of barra brava members from the Boca Juniors club, one of the most feared hooligan groups in the country.

At least five of the individuals arrested on August 11 were barra members, including one of the alleged leaders of the group, Marcelo Aravena, alias "Marcelo de Lomas." Aravena was released from prison in 2007, after serving a 12-year sentence for the murder of two supporters of the other major Buenos Aires soccer team and Boca Juniors' main rival, Club Atlético River Plate.

InSight Crime Analysis

Argentina's barras bravas have become a security target under President Mauricio Macri, who previously served as president of Boca Juniors -- one of the country's most popular socccer teams -- from 1995 to 2007, a factor that likely served to boost his presidential campaign. But the relationship between soccer and politics in Latin America is often complicated by criminal linkages. 

This pattern appears to be borne out in Argentina. For instance, the barra member running the extortion ring in La Salada, Enrique Antequera, was reported to have strong political ties, even serving as a substitute provincial deputy for Elisa Carrió, now one of the main figures of Macri's governing political coalition.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Soccer Crime

Just as the barras bravas draw much of their influence from their popular base of support, Antequera's political role also appears to have grown from his status as a community leader in the disadvantaged area where he operated.

"I met with all the presidents and governors, always looking for improvements for a neighborhood that has never had anything," Antequera told to Clarín.

Originally little more than team fan associations, Argentina's barras bravas have grown increasingly criminalized over the decades, becoming involved in drug trafficking, ticket scalping schemes, and at times even extortion of their own soccer clubs. This latest case shows barra members capitalizing on their muscle (both physical as well as political) to engage in more sophisticated crimes. Indeed, the extortion of shopowners in La Salada may have served more than one end, as the Boca Juniors barra reportedly sold merchandise coming from La Salada on game days and around the stadium.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Argentina

On a regional scale, Argentina's barras bravas are representative of a broader soccer-organized crime nexus that recently made headlines worldwide after the United States accused the captain of Mexico's national soccer team, Rafael Márquez Álvarez, of involvement laundering money for a drug trafficking group. 

The alleged leader of that trafficking group, Raúl Flores Hernández, is suspected of laundering drug profits from the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) by setting up the acquisition of a soccer team from Bolivia's top league, news outlets report. Bolivian Senator Carmen Eva Gonzales said she is investigating the accusations.

Meanwhile, Honduras -- which has previously witnessed its own crime scandals related to soccer -- says it will add soccer players to the list of non-financial entities presenting a money laundering risk, which already included soccer clubs, thus putting greater scrutiny on individual players.

While authorities' efforts to break the links between soccer and organized crime are laudable, this goal will be difficult to achieve. The sport brings together vast numbers of people from all socio-economic strata across the region, making it an ideal venue for establishing new relationships of all kinds -- including criminal ones. Moreover, soccer's profitability as an industry is immense, meaning that it provides opportunities for both laundering money as well as generating new illicit revenue streams, for example through extortion or match fixing.

Investigations

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