Violent Fans, Teams, The State: The "Vicious Triangle" Of Argentine Soccer

Passions run high
Passions run high
Ezequiel Giletta

BUENOS AIRES - The organization of the 1934 World Cup in Italy by Mussolini and the 1936 Olympics in Germany by Hitler helped those governments legitimize their regimes around the globe.

Sport in general – and soccer in particular – is a phenomenon that integrates society, promotes values and arouses a large interest amongst very different strata of society, and governments during the 20th century knew how to make the most of the political use of sports and sporting events.

Argentina organized the FIFA World Cup in 1978, an event with which the military government sought to win over international public opinion and convince observers that they were not violating human rights, as was alleged at the time. The Argentine people celebrated the event – even though it cost over $500 million – and their dubious 6-0 win over Peru in the second round.

It's particularly interesting to note that the 1978 World Cup marks the beginning of the "vicious triangle" in Argentina, linking politics, soccer club management and violent supporters.

In order to “take care” of match day activities, the military dictatorship decided to "outsource" management of the event to a group of violent supporters of the clubs where the matches were being played. At the time, the expression "barra bravas," used to describe the hooligan fan groups, hadn’t yet been coined. This led to the privatization of violence by these supporters, who engaged in behavior similar to that of the enforcers of the dictatorship.

Over time, the relationship between the government and the barra bravas inevitably affected the operation of clubs and their management, who were now facing an unmanageable monster that had to be tamed. This is what prompted politicians, club managements and barra bravas to start working together. Today, this relationship is beneficial for all parties, even if some participants believe it must end.

Business and politics

With merchandising, food sales, stadium parking, and transport to away games, the clubs' barra bravas rake in millions. In the most important clubs in Argentina, like Boca Juniors and River Plate, it is estimated that the car parks generate up to 500,000 pesos ($100,000) each year. As we know, the barra brava business has flourished thanks to its relationship with power – a relationship that doesn't recognize political "colors.’ Two recent high profile cases are the perfect example of this:

Luis Barrionuevo, a well known trade unionist and Peronist politician, who, after losing in the elections for Governor of the Catamarca province in 2003, ordered a massive burning of ballot boxes, which had been in the charge of the barra bravas of the Chacarita Juniors club, of which he had been President.

And the person accused of being responsible for the 2012 death of Mariano Ferreyra – a student activist who was shot in the head during a labor dispute – turned out to be a member of the barra bravas of the Defensa y Justicia club.

There are numerous cases like this. The barra bravas have strong ties to the government, which doesn't seem to care one bit about the five people who died in 2012 in barra bravas-related incidents, or the more than 40 deaths in the last ten years.

The club managers are trapped in a situation that both benefits them and harms them. On the one hand, it provides them with opportunities to rise to power – the former President of Boca Juniors, Maurizio Macri, is now the mayor of Buenos Aires. On the other hand, they are forced to keep these groups around to maintain order on their clubs. You would think that club managers would want to end this situation, but they haven't joined forces in that direction. It’s no coincidence that the president of the Argentine Football Association (and vice-president of FIFA), Julio Grondona, has spent 33 years in office elected by the leaders of the member clubs.

Recently, the President of the Club Atletico Independiente began a crusade to eradicate the violence and barra bravas in his club. However, he was met with lukewarm support from his peers and up until now, has been a lone voice without any institutional support. Furthermore, he was threatened by the leader of the club’s barra bravas in front of live television cameras. Yes, it went unpunished.

What now?

The first question to ask concerns the past – what measures had been put in place to eradicate this "phenomenon"? Two in particular stand out: the right of entry, since 2000, with which the clubs have access to a list of people who are banned from attending matches. This measure was implemented with the idea that the problem of violence in stadiums stemmed from the rivalry between the barra bravas of different clubs, something that happens often but is not the main root of the problem. This right of entry leaves a very small margin of action for the clubs where there is a strong link between barra bravas and management. In summary, it’s a cosmetic measure.

The second question concerns the future – how do we break this system? Truthfully, the outlook is complex and disheartening. The blame is shared and there isn't enough interest, at least on the government level, to eradicate the barra bravas. It requires a strong political will to do it, one that seems very far off.

The business of violence is a market that benefits a select few and harms everyone else. Those on the outside are left to pay the price, losing a little bit more of their beloved sport each day.

This article was originally published in Asuntos Del Sur, a think tank on Latin American issues.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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