Violence, Power, Soccer and Drugs: Argentina’s Barras Bravas

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They have been labelled the most violent and dangerous fans in Latin America, if not the world. In Argentina, an organized network of fan-run gangs known as “barras bravas” exert power over soccer clubs across the country, aided by deep political links and making huge sums of money in the process.

What was once about sport has become something much more sinister, say analysts, sociologists and soccer fans themselves, many angry at the direction the barras bravas have taken.

Honorable Violence

The term “barra brava” first gained popular traction in the 1970s, according to Jose Garriga, an Argentine sociologist who has spent more than a decade studying the groups.

At first they were groups of fans who organized themselves for matches to show their loyalty to their teams in “festive” ways — carrying flags, playing musical instruments, letting off fireworks.

In honor of the World Cup, InSight Crime is chronicling how soccer and organized crime intersect. See other stories here.

Later, during the 1980s, “they began to characterize themselves by violence,” said Garriga, until “it became what defined them.”

Eduardo Perez, 25, belonged to the barra brava of a small Argentine soccer club, Mitre in San Pedro, between the ages of 16 and 23. Taking part in fights was an obligatory part of barra brava membership, he told InSight Crime. Gaining entry to the barra was a matter of showing up religiously to matches, beating drums, carrying flags and using your fists against rivals. In return, he would get free tickets, and be invited to meet-ups on match days where drinks and marijuana would be on the house, he said.

These days, clashes between barra brava members are accepted as part of the game and deaths are common. According to Argentine non-governmental organization Salvemos el Futbol (Let’s Save Soccer), an average of five people per year died in soccer-related violence in the country between 2000 and 2009. That average has doubled for the years 2010-2014.

Garriga sees the barras and their violence as serving a social function. Primarily formed of poor young men from Argentina’s “villas,” or slums, the barra members gain a sense of belonging to a powerful social group, in which violence denotes honor.

“The violence that the barras practice, the violence of “El Aguante” [The Bravest] is extremely prestigious,” said Garriga. “He who takes part in the fights feeds off this prestige.”

The prestige is carried back to the local community. The barra brava member “gets favors like a bed in the [local hospital], facilitating an application process in the [local government office], or he’s capable of sorting out someone who’s bothering the neighbors,” he told Pagina 12 in an interview last year. “Many people (…) think that the violence excludes [barra members from their community], but in reality it’s the opposite.”

Huge Profits and Drug Ties

From their inception, the barras were supported and financed by the soccer clubs, at first just with free tickets and travel to games — which remain the primary benefits — and later with hard cash. But as the soccer industry grew, so did the business interests and power of the barras.

First, the barras started managing ticket sales and running ticket rackets, which became a major source of income. They also took control of the parking lots around stadiums, and the “trapitos” or informal valets, who look after parked cars.

With hundreds of thousands of people attending Argentine soccer matches every week, huge profits are at stake. Profits from trapitos during just one match day at Buenos Aires’ Bombonera stadium, for instance, can reach 300,000 Argentine pesos (around $30,000), according to La Nacion.

In and around the stadiums the barras also sell merchandise, refreshments, and sometimes illegal drugs. In one case last year, 170 kilos of cocaine and marijuana, as well as ecstasy, pre-cursor chemicals and arms, worth more than $600,000, were seized at a private property from a group believed to be linked to a barra barra in the town of San Martin, Buenos Aires province. More than 150 tickets to soccer games were found alongside the drugs.

“This is an investigation that started out looking at economic crimes and has ended in the discovery of a big drug laboratory, where there is a relationship between barra brava members, weapons, drugs and other crimes,” Argentina’s Security Minister Sergio Berni said at the time.

A month later a San Martin barra brava leader was one of 11 people arrested on suspicion of running a drug micro-trafficking and prostitution network. Firearms, expensive cars and thousands of dollars were seized.

In Rosario, a northeastern Argentine city which has become a drug trafficking hub, a barra brava leader was arrested last year on suspicion of working for the city’s principal narco gang, Los Monos. It was not the first time the detained man, Emanuel Ferreyra, had come into contact with the law — in 2004 he was sentenced to 14 years in jail for leading a shootout in which a three-year-old child died, but has since been granted conditional liberty.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Micro-Trafficking

While the barra bravas as organizations are not working hand in hand with Argentine drug trafficking gangs, relationships between certain individuals exist, said Garriga. “Some of these relationships are very strong, to the point that you could wrongly think a barra brava member works for a drug trafficking gang, but it doesn’t work like that,” he said. “However without a doubt there are barra brava members who are linked to drug trafficking gangs.”

Other forms of profit-making include running tours of the stadiums for foreign visitors and selling black-market dollars in the many “cuevas” that have sprung up to provide cheaper pesos since Argentina’s government imposed currency controls in 2011.

These last two businesses can feed off each other. Argentine newspaper La Nacion last year reported a case in which members of La Doce, the barra brava of famous Buenos Aires club Boca, were exchanging the dollars that tourists paid them for entrance to the Bombonera stadium on match days as part of the barra-run “Adrenaline Tour.”

The money at stake has led to serious infighting. Conflicts within individual barras now account for the majority of soccer-related violence, rather than fights between barras of different teams, and most clubs now have at least two rival barra brava factions.

Ex-barra brava member Perez said many barras no longer care about the games.

“They start out like an organization to gather and consolidate support, but they get distorted to become a band of criminals that has nothing to with the club and takes the club’s name in vain,” he said. “In the end they are not even interested in how the club is doing, just in how much money they can make.”

Power over the Clubs

As the barras’ size and reach grew over the decades, so did their control over soccer club management. The barras have enormous control over who plays for the club, who manages the club, and what benefits and privileges they are granted.

Club officials who do not meet the barras’ demands face dismissal from their position or threats of physical harm. These officials can include club presidents.

A remarkable video published in 2012 showed Paulo “Bebote” Alvarez, the ex-leader of the barra brava of major club Independiente, threatening club president Javier Cantero on live television. Cantero had been frequently threatened and lost many members of his management team since taking over as president and declaring war on the barras the year before.

“Liar!,” shouts Bebote repeatedly while pursuing Cantero, his face covered by a cap and hood.

“Who’s the liar?” replies Cantero, enraged. “The person that lives off the club, that steals from the club.”

Once inside the stadium, Cantero faces Alvarez through metal bars.

“How much money has he taken?” shouts the club president. “$42,000 in September! $32,000 in October! He and his associates steal the money off the club. He is a thief!”

One Argentine journalist who has spent years investigating soccer corruption told the Guardian the biggest barras get up to 30 percent of player transfer fees and 20 percent of players’ paychecks. The newspaper did not state whether it could verify the assertion.

Political Links

The barras bravas would not be able to exercise the power they do without intricate links to politicians and law enforcement.

Politicians contract the groups to turn up at marches, get votes, or display banners at matches. In one famous example, the barra brava for Argentine club River Plate displayed a giant banner reading “Clarin Miente,” or “Clarin Lies,” a reference to opposition newspaper Clarin.

Another banner, displayed by the barra of Rosario team Central, stated “Nestor Vive,” referring to the Argentine ex-president and ex-husband of current President Cristina Kirchner, Nestor Kirchner, who died in 2007.

Many barras also have links to and receive financing from trade unions. Perez said even his small barra — known as La Mortadela — received money from trade unions, and had a strong influence over the management of the club.

This link between the barras and the unions has led to accusations that they are a Peronist phenomenon, part of the proletarian political movement founded by Juan Domingo Peron and continued by the Kirchners. Garriga says this is false.

“All the political parties have some link with the barras,” he said. “When you analyze it you see that the barras have wide political links with whoever pays them.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

These deep political links are what marks Argentina’s barras bravas from organized fan groups in other parts of the world, said Nicolas Balinotti, an Argentine journalist who has written extensively on the topic. “Even the President (Cristina Kirchner) has praised them,” he said. “Without using the words barras bravas she spoke of her respect for them. They have a legitimacy and are seen as part of the spectacle of Argentine soccer. This, more than any of their illegal activities, means they are unlikely to disappear any time soon.”

Political and law enforcement links allow barras bravas near total impunity for their crimes, aided by the general inefficiency of the Argentine justice system.

“Those who are violent end up being protected by the system that should be punishing them,” said Mariano Berges, an ex-judge and co-founder of Let’s Save Soccer.

Other critics, such as Buenos Aires deputy ombudsman Graciela Muñiz, are more blunt.

“The barras bravas are mafias organized around businesses that include the club officers, politicians, judges and the police,” Muñiz said in 2012. “A single phone call from a politician to a judge is enough to get the case filed away.”

In honor of the World Cup, InSight Crime is chronicling how soccer and organized crime intersect. See other stories here.

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