Death and violence scar the Argentine game

The death of Ramon Aramayo exposed, again, the unrelenting violence that scars Argentine soccer.

The San Lorenzo fan and father of two made the mistake of objecting to a security check last month as he approached the stadium of opposing Buenos Aires club Velez Sarsfield. Exactly what he said or did isn't known, but the confrontation lasted only seconds before several police wrestled him to the asphalt, face-down.

"Aramayo resisted being frisked, and witnesses told me what followed was a brutal beating by police," said Gustavo Grabia, a journalist and expert on Argentine hooliganism. "They used excessive force. He was taken down to the ground. They hit him in the back, in the legs, they squeezed his testicles. Not everything is clear. He was able to get up and walk, but passed out."

"Basically, they pulled him out of the line and pummeled him," Grabia added in an interview with The Associated Press.

Aramayo was pronounced dead minutes later, and three officers were suspended the next day. Aramayo's autopsy showed bruising from police blows, but it said he probably died of heart failure — or traumatic shock — brought on by the assault.

His was the country's 13th soccer-related death in just over a year.

While the vicious beating of an opposing fan at a Los Angeles Dodgers game prompted city police to rework security at Dodger Stadium, soccer violence and its toll in Argentina is on a different scale. It's also distinct from the thuggish brutality associated with English hooliganism, which has prompted several pieces of anti-violence legislation in Britain over the last 25 years.

Mayhem threatens almost every match in Argentina, whether the perpetrators are individual fans, police or hooligan gangs. In a nation with a proud soccer tradition, little is being done about the deadly blight on the game. Grabia and others say the reason is a web of connections that touches hooligan gangs, soccer officials, police and the nation's highest-ranking politicians.

"It is impossible to combat the problem here," Grabia said. "The violence is committed by people deeply involved with the clubs, politics and unions."

On March 20, the day Aramayo died, the 50,000-seat Velez stadium grew unruly as word spread of what had happened. Rival hooligan groups (known in Spanish as "barras bravas" — fierce gangs) shouted sexually graphic insults at each other. Then, seven minutes into the game, San Lorenzo goalkeeper Pablo Migliore dropped to the ground, struck in the head by an object thrown from the stands.

The crowd grew only more frenzied from there. Shirtless fans climbed a chain-link fence — ripping it free of its moorings, trying to get at black-clad police on the other side braced with batons, shields and a high-powered fire hose.

At the opposite end of the field, Velez goalkeeper Marcelo Barovero was terrified.

"I got a signal that someone had died — that a San Lorenzo fan had been killed," Barovero said. "I didn't know what to do. They were trying to get on the field. I've never seen anything like it. ... I knew something serious had happened and right away I thought of my wife who was at the stadium with my child."

The match was eventually canceled and no one took responsibility for the chaos.

Club presidents, government officials and police tried to distance themselves from it. Fans blamed the police. The Argentine Football Association remained silent. News of the death and the mayhem that followed was ignored later in the day on government-funded TV, which broadcasts all the matches.

The AFA says such violence is simply an outgrowth of rising street crime in Argentina, and one official has famously said: "Don't throw the corpses on our doorstep."

AFA's disciplinary committee met after the death, but made no statement about it. Instead, it dealt only with mundane soccer matters, withdrawing a yellow card handed out in a recent match to Martin Galmarini of Club Atletico Tigre.

The AFA's powerful president — and FIFA vice president — Julio Grondona made his first public statement two days afterward in a radio interview.

"I have nothing to say. I'm not making any 'mea culpa.' I was in Chile when it happened," he said. "I'm profoundly sorry that the incident took place within soccer. We have to wait to see what happened."

Other recent soccer-related deaths have looked like mafia-style killings, further tarnishing the image of a country that produced three of the game's greatest: Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano.

Eighteen months ago, Pablo Gomez, a member of the Newell's Old Boys barra brava, was shot four times at point-blank range. Five months later, the leader of Newell's barra brava — Roberto "Pimpi" Camino — was gunned down in a bar, shredded by five shots to his head, throat and leg.

The primary way to deal with the violence has been to separate rival fans in the stadiums, most of which are decrepit, with fields ringed by moats and fences. But with hooligans unable to confront each other at the stadium, the bedlam has increasingly spread to surrounding neighborhoods.

One local resident described a shootout several months ago between hooligan groups that took place in front of his house, less than two blocks from the stadium where the great club side, River Plate, plays. He said club officials apparently had been meeting in the evenings to decide, among other things, which members of the local barra brava would get the lucrative rights to park cars during matches.

One group apparently went away unhappy. The shooting began minutes later.

"My wife was cooking and the kids were doing the homework and just all of a sudden 'boom, boom.' We all went down, hit the deck," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "The neighbors were screaming. My wife saw them in the street in front of the house."

Police confirmed it was the work of River Plate hooligans, who are known by the colorful nickname — "Los Borrachos del Tablon" — the Drunks in the Stands.

The man described a typical weekend, with water cannons poised for action and police patrolling on horseback. He said the violence was getting worse.

"I went to one game and they were throwing glass bottles up in the air inside the stadium. That kind of ruined it for me," he said. "It's not like a U.S. baseball game, a soccer game that's family oriented. You go in at your own risk. Anything can happen."

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Grabia has studied the barras bravas as a reporter with sports daily Ole. He published a book in 2009 about the hooligans of Boca Juniors ("La Doce") and has documented the jailing of at least 35 hooligan leaders.

"The deaths have changed absolutely nothing," he said. "I have been dealing with the subject for 15 years and despite all the criminality in the stadiums, instead of decreasing, the violence has increased. ... It is impossible to be optimistic when all you see is more violence, more money involved and more impunity."

Grabia links the intractable problem to the tight relationships between fan groups, clubs and many of the country's most important politicians.

The groups do the nitty-gritty work for the clubs. Barras run the merchandise and food concessions, scalp tickets provided to them by the clubs and control parking at the stadiums. The barras of Boca Juniors even run a special section in the stadium for tourists; expensive seats but the safest in the house.

Grabia estimates about 300 members of such groups wound up at last year's World Cup in South Africa, many of them with plane fares and tickets provided by politicians connected with the clubs.

In exchange for supporting the barras, club officials — many of whom are high-profile politicians or union leaders — can count on fan groups to provide easily mobilized turnouts at political rallies or labor-union protests. They also are used to badger unpopular players the club might like to unload. Back in 1993, then-River Plate manager Daniel Passarella was beaten up by the club barras.

Some barras even get a cut of rich player transfers, meaning there is big money involved. Grabia estimates the top half-dozen leaders of fan groups at Boca Juniors or River Plate earn about $80,000 annually in a nation where the legal minimum wage is $450 per month — or $5,400 annually. One estimate suggests 40 percent of Argentines live on less than $200 per month — or $2,400 per year.

"When you see the cars they drive, you get an idea of how much money they are making," he said. "They have lifestyles like a chief executive of a big business."

The leaders of hooligan groups also are celebrities. The former head of the Boca Juniors group was Jose Barrita — known as "El Abuelo" (the grandfather) — who was often seen with the club president. He was convicted 14 years ago of organizing an extortion racket and has since died.

Among the powerful politicians connected with the clubs is Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri. He's the former president of Boca Juniors and a possible candidate in this year's presidential election. Anibal Fernandez is a member of the executive committee of Quilmes club and chief cabinet minister for Argentina President Cristina Fernandez. Luis Barrionuevo is the former president of Chacarita club and the leader of a powerful hotel- and restaurant-employees union.

Now toss in the police.

"I'm not afraid of the barras bravas," Grabia said. "What scares me the most are the police when they get involved with the barras. If there were no complicity between the police and politicians there would be no barras."

At the center of it all is AFA's 79-year-old president Grondona, who just completed 32 years in charge. Known as "the Godfather," Grondona has acknowledged he met formally last year with an umbrella group which represents the hooligans.

"This gave them legitimacy and recognition," Grabia said. "In the meantime, AFA has never met with the families of the victims of the violence and killings. This is a very clear message on the position of AFA."

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Pablo Alabarces is one of Argentina's top experts on soccer violence. He says it's gotten worse in the wake of the seven years — 1976-1983 — when the country was brutalized by a ruling military dictatorship. The regime was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians; many tortured or thrown out of airplanes into the sea.

"Thirty years ago it was not like this," said Alabarces, a sociology professor at Buenos Aires University. "This was not the soccer culture. A big part of the soccer violence for me has to do with the dictatorship and the way the dictatorship changed people's relationship with violence — individual and state violence."

Not only do rival gangs hurl crude, sexually graphic insults at each other, they also have a simple chant: "No existis, no existis." It means "You don't exist, you don't exist." Alabarces and others have suggested the chants are a reference to those who were murdered and who disappeared during the dictatorship.

Alabarces said the violence seems to benefit the police, who get more work and more overtime when there are disturbances.

"It's good for business," he said.

Former judge Mariano Berges, who helped form the nonprofit group "Let's Save Football," says solutions that worked in Europe — new stadiums with no cheap standing room sections, higher ticket prices and strict policing — will not work here. The group pushes for prosecution of cases involving soccer violence and corruption, and says since 1982 — the last full year of the dictatorship — 154 people have died in soccer violence, just over five per year. For perspective, the group counts a total of 256 soccer-related deaths since 1924.

Berges is also critical of Grondona.

"The Argentine Football Association, through its leaders, has illicit connections with these violent people and in many cases they do business," Berges said.

As a judge in 2003, Berges halted league play for two weeks following a brawl between Boca Juniors and Chacarita. In 2010, he led a march demanding the resignation of Grondona.

Added Nadia Fernandez, a member of the provincial legislature in Mendoza: "What is really serious is that all of this has become normal and it surprises nobody."

Some trace the growth of barras all the way back to the rise of populist president Juan Peron in the 1940s. Their power and popularity was enhanced when Argentina won the 1978 World Cup. The barras helped fill the stadiums, creating carnival-like spectacles that the military dictatorship used for propaganda.

Chris Gaffney, author of "Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the cultural landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires," described stadium scenes in Argentina with thousands of barras bravas, their backs to the field and in a near-trance, orchestrating young men into a frenzy.

The soccer doesn't matter, he said in an interview.

"Basically you have two organized mini-armies in the stadiums," Gaffney said. "Old stadiums, corrupt policing — it is lethal and you can't be sure where it will explode first."

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Spanish language site online: http://www.salvemosalfutbol.org/