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Latin American Soccer Violence Flourishes In Ashes Of Military Juntas

Essay: Soccer violence is on the rise throughout Latin America. So far, however, leaders have largely ignored the problem. Why? The region’s 70s and 80-era dictatorships may be partly to blame.

Following the action off the field (Rafael Martins/AGECOM)
Following the action off the field (Rafael Martins/AGECOM)
Gastón Meza

SANTIAGO A bullet in the head. That was the fate a Brazilian fan met prior to a March 25 match between the Brazilian soccer teams Corinthians and Palmeiras. Another fan ended up brain dead from the same Sao Paulo melee, in which supporters of the respective teams attacked each other with firearms, homemade grenades and metal bars. All that just two years before the World Cup comes to town.

If you have ever gone to a stadium (or even if you have just watched a match on television), you have seen the associated violence on more than one occasion. The violence hits close to home for me. Twenty years ago a friend of mine was stabbed by supporters of the Universidad de Chile team in Santiago. I was with him and was hit a couple of times, but I managed to escape. He didn't.

The last time I went to a stadium, around five years ago, the scene hadn't changed much. Rival groups of fans from the Chilean teams Universidad Catolica and Everton were throwing rocks at each other in the middle of the game, over the spectators' heads. Everton is from Viña del Mar, a relatively small city. Ten or 15 years ago no one would ever have imagined it would ever have hooligan fans. And there was one other important element: the game was never even close to being suspended because of the violence.

As the years go by, the situation is just getting worse – throughout South America. Within just days of the deadly Sao Paulo incident, a soccer fan was killed in a brawl in Argentina as well. Colombia, Peru and Ecuador have had their share of soccer violence too.

Dictatorships cast long shadows

The phenomenon is unfortunate and recurring, and yet not much is being done to stop it. Why? The situation is too complex for a simple explanation. Are the soccer clubs themselves complacent with the violence? Are there not enough resources to combat the violence? Are people just angrier these days, especially the poor? Or is this just a matter of political irresponsibility in Latin America, where the powers that be encourage this kind of sports fanaticism without properly measuring the consequences?

To some degree or another, probably all of those factors play a role. But there's another element here as well: a lack of decisiveness on the part of the authorities to crack down once and for all on the people carrying out these acts of violence. What's stopping our leaders from going after these people? In my opinion it's fear: fear of using force that will be perceived as excessive by the rest of society; fear of being labeled repressive and of losing, as a result, both popularity and legitimacy.

In many Latin American societies, the ghosts of the military dictators of the 1970s and 1980s are still very much alive. Twenty or 30 years is the blink of an eye in the history of a country. The dread that those military regimes inspired is still fresh.

Chile is a good example. Following the massive earthquake that struck the country in February, 2010, then-President Michelle Bachelet was initially hesitant to declare martial law in the areas hardest hit – despite reports of widespread looting. Bachelet's reluctance no doubt had much to do with the fact that she, along with her mother, was herself tortured and exiled during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship 1973-1990. Pinochet kept Chile under martial law during much of his reign. Although Bachelet did eventually dispatch the military to control the post-quake lawlessness, it's easy to see why she was originally loath to become the first leader since Chile's return to democracy to do so.

Treating the issue with kid gloves

How does this example relate to the world of violent soccer fans? Because it shows how constantly afraid authorities are of using force against sectors of society that refuse to follow the rules. Take the case of Argentina. Since its brutal dictatorships finally came to an end, soccer stadium deaths have risen sharply – and are happening with ever more frequency as the decades pass. In total, some 250 fans have been killed there in the past 60 years.

There is no logical reason why Latin American governments haven't followed the lead of countries like England, for example, where since the early 90s authorities have tackled soccer hooliganism head on. How did England manage to get the soccer-related violence under control? With different means, not all of them repressive, of course, but with determination and decision. Latin American authorities, in contrast, have a habit of issuing periodic insinuations about new initiatives that are ultimately more theatrical than effective.

We need an urgent end to these outrageous situations, where even the stars themselves are targeted. Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho had to be escorted out of a stadium recently by his bodyguards, pistols in the air, to intimidate his own team's thuggish fans. The violent Flamengo supporters were angry with Ronaldinho for the team's early elimination from the Copa Libertadores. More recently, in Chile, soccer player Carloz Muñoz broke an unspoken taboo by going public with threats he'd received from fans. His teammates eventually offered Muñoz their support. Initially, however, many were bothered or frightened (or both) by his decision to report the threats.

There is no sense in waiting until another tragedy, like the ones that already hit Argentina and Brazil, takes an even greater toll on Latin America's most popular sport.

Read the original story in Spanish

Photo - Rafael Martins/AGECOM

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