BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – 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.”
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“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.
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 25 years.
Mayhem threatens almost every match in Argentina, whether the perpetrators are individual fans, police or 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.
The AFA’s powerful president — and FIFA vice president — Julio Grondona made his first public statement two days after the death 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.”
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 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 River Plate stadium.
“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.
LINKS TO CLUBS
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. “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.
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.
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.
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.
CULTURE OF VIOLENCE
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.”
Former judge Mariano Berges helped form the nonprofit group “Let’s Save Football,” which pushes for prosecution of cases involving soccer violence and corruption. He said since 1982 — the last full year of the dictatorship — 154 people have died in soccer violence, just over five per year.
“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.
Some trace the growth of barras to the rise of populist president Juan Peron in the 1940s. Their power and popularity was enhanced when Argentina won the 1978 World Cup.
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.