Friday, March 14, 2014

Argentine Soccer, a tragic paradox. Part 2: Drugs, guns, thugs and how I got to see it all in one night.

As I briefly elaborated upon in my last blog post (which is much more uplifting than the one you are about to read), Argentine soccer is a paradox, a home to two parallel worlds which coexist not-so-peacefully, where joy, passion, and unity are often overshadowed by violence, aggression, and even murder. A night which had been so special and one I will remember and cherish forever, hopefully one day sharing the experience with my future children, was forever marred by a couple of ugly episodes.

Looking back on the incident, I'm not sure "marred" is the correct term to describe how my memory will have been affected. More than having "marred"the beautiful memory of walking out onto the center circle of River Plate's Stadium (El Monumental), I should say, rather, that it brought me back down to earth, or jerked me back to reality. This post is especially relevant now, as the violent underside of Argentine soccer reared its head in a ferocious manner once again this past Monday in a massive fight between two gangs within the same Barra Brava*, leading to the hospitalization of at least seven men and leaving even more injured. You wouldn't have known it though, if you had only been watching the game on TV, as the public television station (which has exclusive video rights to all Argentine games) conveniently hid any footage of the fight, focusing the cameras on the field and perpetuating the hollow narrative that "soccer's a beautiful game to be enjoyed with your friends, fellow fans, and even your wife and kids, and everything's just fine and dandy."

*(my brief definition of a Barra Brava: the US equivalent of a gang or mob with an alliance to a particular club which funds itself through drug dealing, black market trade, and any other sort of illegal, lucrative "business." They are the loudest "fans" at the soccer matches and have influence among the upper brass of the clubs, with the national soccer federation leadership, and even with local and national politicians—a small, or large, bribe goes a long way... Also, the term "barra" can be used to refer to a member of a "Barra Brava", slightly confusing but more concise than saying "member of a 'Barra Brava'")

If everything's so "fine and dandy," why on game days are their hundreds and even thousands of federal police patrolling River's stadium and the surrounding neighborhood within at least a 10 block radius with SWAT teams ready and armed for any sign of trouble? If everything's so "fine and dandy," why don't I, as a young woman, feel safe going to and from the stadium alone? If everything's so "fine and dandy," why are visiting crowds banned from stadiums?

It would be extremely difficult to sum up the role of soccer in Argentine politics in just one blog post, but I'll try to do it with one phrase which comes from the time of the Roman Caesars: "pan y circo" (or literally "Bread and Circus"). It's a political theory which sustains that if a government can keep its citizens fed and entertained, it can maintain power essentially through distraction and appeasement. In Argentina, football, or soccer, is the circus (the bread can be left for a potential future post...).

During the time of the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was the Argentine national team winning the 1978 World Cup which helped the government gain popularity by covering up any sort of political or economic issues plaguing the country. The same strategy continues to be used by modern Argentine governments: "We may be heading toward an economic crisis with inflation approaching (or maybe even passing) 30%, but who cares? Everybody has access to watch Argentine games, thanks to public television funded by yours truly!"

When you read the sports' section in the Argentine newspapers, it's always the same old story but with different characters. The pages are filled with scores, game analysis, criticism, huge transfer fees, rumors of unrest among teammates and coaches, players demanding wage increases to their already exorbitant salaries, but there's always an awkward silence, one could even say an elephant in the room, which only manifests itself in the most extreme of circumstances, usually involving at least one death. Rarely do you hear about what you see every time you go to a soccer match, what I saw on my way to and from the River Plate-Gimnasia de La Plata game about a month ago. Luckily, I wasn't traveling alone.

I took the bus with two teammates, K and L, and my boyfriend (aka our bodyguard), C. The bus was initially relatively empty, but unfortunately not empty enough as to where there were seats available. The crowd was fairly normal, and the lighthearted, laid-back atmosphere of a sunny Sunday afternoon permeated the atmosphere. Everybody was laughing or talking with their family and/or friends until, at one stop, the whole bus went silent.

During the trip, more and more people had boarded so we were now traveling almost like sardines, or like one travels by bus any day of the week in Buenos Aires during rush hour. My two teammates had made their way to the back where they had a better chance at finding a seat. My boyfriend and I had found a spot in the middle of the bus to lean against comfortably so we stayed where we were. Alright, back to the silence. Two members of River's "Barra Brava" had gotten on, both recognizable by the smell of body odor, alcohol, and "illicit substances" which preceded them, as well as by their tattoo-covered exposed arms and calves. They were decked out in unofficial River Plate gear (I say "unofficial" because the production and sale of "unofficial" team merchandise is a major part of the Barras' income along with charging for public parking around the stadium on game days). I can't remember if they were wearing hats or not, but I do remember my boyfriend and I were lucky enough to have them stand right in front of us. C reacted instinctively and put himself between the two thugs and me.

The silence was broken by the two "barras" who began to sing River chants, barely enunciating the words as their tongues were severely inhibited by the level of alcohol and who knows what else in their blood. No one else dared to speak, the only communication was through knowing glances and body language. Everyone hid their cell phones and the only passenger who didn't do so initially, did quickly after when he saw the nearest "barra" eyeing his new Samsung Galaxy. When the two thugs stopped "singing," they began to entertain themselves by making fun of the different passengers. I didn't manage to hear, or to understand for that matter, exactly what they said, which was probably for the better, as my boyfriend later informed me that they were not saying anything nice. For as long as the "barras" were on the bus, the tension didn't release, it was almost as though people were holding their breath out of fear of breathing too loud. Finally, when the two thugs got off, the whole bus, including the driver, let out a collective sigh of relief, and the passengers resumed their conversations where they had left off.

At this point, I'm going to skip to after the first half of the game (you can read about what happened in between here, which is a much lovelier story) since luckily that part of the evening was basically "barra"-free.

K and I decided to leave at halftime (at 10:30 pm...) to avoid the end of the game mass exodus and in order to get home at a reasonable hour (also, my boyfriend/bodyguard was waiting for me in a café around the stadium, so I didn't want to make him wait too much longer...). We walked the 5 blocks from the stadium to the bus stop where we were to meet my boyfriend alone, but we never felt unsafe as there were police on every corner. When we got to the avenue, C pointed out a man about 50 meters away who had been brutally beaten. His face was completely covered in blood and he couldn't stand up (whether it was from drunkenness or injury, we couldn't tell), but the SWAT van next to where we were standing, full of federal police, remained parked there; not even one cop went over to check on the wounded man. (Now, looking back, we probably should have checked on him, though I'm not sure what we would have been able to do to help...)

We waited for the bus for a little over fifteen minutes, and when one finally came, we gladly hopped on and sat down together in the last row of 5 seats. My friend and I sat closest to the window while my boyfriend sat in the middle, almost as our shield. Everything was fine, the bus was fairly quiet due to the late hour, but the atmosphere was calm. We talked amongst ourselves about the game and the experience until a group of three "barras" got on. These men were even more intoxicated than the ones we had seen on the way to the game. They tried to start conversations with the different passengers, including us, pointing to our River apparel, offering to "trade shirts," and even asking at which stop we would be getting off—to which C lied and told them we were going to Retiro, a major train/bus station. The "barra" responded and said they were going there too. One of the three sat down next to C, one remained standing, and the third plopped himself down, blocking the stairwell of the rear exit to the bus, removed his shirt, and leaned against the barrier separating my seat from him, barely able to hold his head up. Almost immediately, I felt my boyfriend clench my hand tightly and grow serious. I tried to ignore the thugs and talk with my teammate in a low voice while still remaining aware of the situation.

At one point I thought they were going to get into a fight with one passenger who was wearing a sweatshirt over a soccer jersey with the same blue and yellow of Boca Juniors. Luckily, I think he told them it was a Colombian jersey, and they left him alone. They began to talk amongst themselves, and the one who was seated in the stairwell took something out of his shorts and put it in his backpack. At this point, my boyfriend's stare was completely fixated on them, and as I followed his gaze to the backpack on the floor, I, too, became tense when I saw what looked like a switchblade inside.

As we approached our stop, I suggested we move toward the front of the bus, but my boyfriend said to wait until we were closer. I obliged, and when we were a block away, we made our move for the middle exit, rang for the stop, and got off as quickly as possible. Before I could even say anything to C about what had just happened, he was already on his phone dialing 911 (yes it's the same number in Buenos Aires...).

"Hi, I just got off a 130 bus going south, and there are 3 men dressed in River Plate gear, one has a hat, another is wearing..."(he continued to describe the men, gave our location, and passed along the exact number of the bus we had been on)"...and one is carrying a 9 mm handgun. I am unsure if the others are also armed. They are going to Retiro and it is unclear whether they are planning to assault someone." He hung up, and K and I looked at each other somewhat in shock. Within minutes a police cruiser went flying by us headed towards Retiro. Needless to say, we were relatively shaken up, and I finally understood why my boyfriend has been so nervous during the ride. A bus full of unarmed passengers makes for an easy target for thugs with a 9 mm.

I'm extremely thankful my boyfriend was there, and even more grateful that nothing more happened, but the events of that night were certainly a reality check and an ugly way end to the evening. In the next day's paper, the only reference to the River game was the final scoreline, an analysis of each team's performance, a summary of the homage to the firefighters, and only silence about the thugs who turned a dream walkout onto the field into a frightening nightmare.

POST SCRIPT: About two weeks after that night, my boyfriend and I went to grab lunch at a food stand in the Bosques de Palermo (one of the nicest parks in the city). It was our lucky day as we were to be reunited with one of our "barra" buddies from the ride to the stadium. He was with one other thug and a chubby, pouty boy of about 12 years old, who we supposed was his son. They bought a soda to share between them, came to sit at the table right next to ours, and began to smoke something which was certainly not tobacco. We didn't hang around for long, but we were there long enough to hear our "barra" friend call his son every curse word in the book for wanting to buy a sandwich, "Oh, that's sweet, you think we came to the park to play a little soccer, eat a sandwich, and have an ice-cream... But we're not, you idiot! (he used a different word, but I won't include it here) We're here on business, so get it together." Later on, we would find out that there had been a concert at a nearby stadium, so more than likely the "barras" had arrived early in order to collect parking "fees" and make sure nobody left their car without paying their "dues."