One Day in Argentina's Meltdown

When Argentina's football fans destroyed Buenos Aires.

Photo by Colm Britton

Argentina is gradually ripping itself apart. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s popularity is in freefall, crime rates and inflation are soaring, unemployment is high and protests and roadblocks are daily occurrences. The Argentines love a protest, but these are different – partly because the government is becoming more and more unpredictable and prone to last minute (bad) improvisation; partly because they relate to tangible, current domestic issues – and Kirchner is forced to pass them off as “a bit of a squeeze”.

The country’s growth rate fell from 9 percent last year to 2.2 percent this year and the middle class, who helped Kirchner win a 54 percent majority in last year’s election, are turning on their leader. Kirchner’s reawakening of the Falklands/Malvinas debate before the London Olympics was a sure sign that things are going wrong. Whenever an Argentine government struggles domestically, it tries to distract the population by banging the old “hey that rock in the Atlantic is ours” drum. Although, when I said this to an Argentine friend, he accused me of being simplistic. Whatever.

As things go wrong, so the government clamps down on the media. Physically assaulting journalists is becoming alarmingly common. When Kirchner does have to answer questions, as she did at Harvard University earlier this year, she deflects, avoids and then goes on the attack. One questioner at the storied American university was accused of being an agent of the Argentine media. Another, who referred to the “unique” opportunity to ask her a question, was simply ignored. Argentina’s biggest newspaper, Clarín, has been locked in conflict with Kirchner for years and is now being forcibly broken up by the government under trumped-up anti-monopoly laws.

The newspaper calls this “illegal” and one of its execs referred to a court that he thought had granted his newspaper a reprieve as a “court of shit”. The Clarín media group isn’t angelic – it’s like News International, but with a bigger market share – but what the government is doing is clearly personal – last year, 50 armed policemen raided a television station belonging to Clarín.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina. Photo via

In an odd, horribly contrived, new Hollywood kind of way, all Argentina’s troubles seem to have been summed up by the events of 12 December – 12/12/12 – in Buenos Aires. The day before, the provincial supreme court of the north-western province of Tucuman had let off 13 people accused of people trafficking and sex slavery. In particular, the case related to the kidnap and murder of Marita Veron, who, evidence suggests, was kidnapped by human traffickers and forced into prostitution. Kidnapped in 2002, her mother Susan Trimarco has tirelessly, heartbreakingly campaigned to bring justice for her daughter. Without any help from the police, Ms Trimarco found witnesses who attested to having suffered in brothels alongside Marita, who had seen her being beaten and had watched as she was held captive so as to be at the beck and call of “VIP” clients. 

The 13 men on trial seemed to be pretty damn guilty, and the court came out with the perfect excuse that they could not convict because there was no body. That, and the two million dollars judges allegedly received from a local brothel owner probably did their bit.  Security Minister Nilda Garre called the verdict "a tremendous slap in the face for the prospect of justice" and referred to the "machista culture” that lets this kind of horror thrive. It was exactly that culture that was in play when the court dismissed the evidence of various women who had been victims of sex trafficking as the deranged accusations of “unreliable witnesses”. What has been revealed is something akin to the Savile investigations in terms of secrecy and disgust, but far more widespread and far more entrenched. It goes to the heart of power in the region and in the country, to the heart of a macho strain in Argentine society.

The day after this non-sentence is passed, Buenos Aires erupts. To celebrate the 12/12/12, fans of Argentina’s biggest club, Boca Juniors (whose hardcore call themselves 'The Twelfth Man') decided to hold a massive celebration of what it is to be a Boca fan around the Obelisco in the city centre. Hardcore Argentine football fans are into drugs – mainly cheap speed and coke – so the city centre was set upon by 50,000 speed-freak football fans set to spend a good eight hours playing with fireworks. It was all supposed to end at 9PM with a pyrotechnic climax.

The actual result was the blocking of Buenos Aires' main street for six hours, the ransacking of the shops in the area, the theft of a McDonalds sign, 30 arrests and a burnt-out TV van that was trying to cover the party (they set fire to it as the hapless camera crew escaped via the windows). They also fucked up the firework display because they got too excited during the afternoon and let them off too early. 

While all this was going on near the Obelisco, a couple of blocks away left wing socialist groups began to converge on the offices of the Province of Tucuman, now seen as the sordid home of Argentina’s sex trafficking problem. The angry mob decided to show Tucuman the error of its ways (despite the office not really having anything to do with the court’s decision) by smashing up the glass front, attacking the police with concrete blocks and throwing the odd Molotov. This all led to the resignation of the chief of police – not for the protest, but because he was fed up with a government who wouldn’t let his troops defend themselves against a hail of stones. The city centre was a war zone and they only just avoided a football hooligan vs socialist avenger showdown thanks to the police, who were then told off by the government along with the media, who of course shouldn’t be covering things that show the dear country in a bad light.

On to the evening and the second leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana. This cup is South America’s version of the Champions League and is just as fiercely fought for, if not quite as fiercely lauded and sponsored. The final was between Tigre, from Argentina (from the north of Buenos Aires) and Sao Paolo, from Brazil. Tigre suck hard and had ground out a horrible goalless draw in the first leg in Buenos Aires. They were coming up against the might of Sao Paolo’s Lucas Moura and Luis Fabiano (both mighty players, take my word for it). Tigre had no chance. They were dead men walking. And so it proved in the first half when they went down two goals in half an hour. It all got nasty: sly kicks, hair pulling and a bit of a showdown when the halftime whistle was blown. Tigre headed off to their dressing room in a huff to wait for another 45 minutes of football-oriented humiliation.

Except, they don't come back out onto the pitch for the second half. The Fox Sports journalists don't know what's going on until a member of Tigre's coaching staff emerges with a black eye, covered in blood. He says that the Brazilian security ambushed their team in their dressing room, beat them, pointed a couple of guns in their face and generally scared the shit out of them. Tigre refused to play the second half. You’d think the South American football federation would do something about this obvious case of unsporting behaviour. And you'd be right. They immediately awarded the cup to Sao Paolo, basically accuse Tigre of lying (despite the fact that there are blood stains on their dressing room door) and allow wild celebrations led by Lucas to ensue on the pitch.

Since then they have also fined Tigre for basically being whining babies and not manning up to the armed Brazilians. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s Jabba the Hutt, has already said he is concerned about what has happened to Tigre’s players in Brazil, hosts of the World Cup in 2014.

People in Buenos Aires – who are more interested in Carlos Bianchi and Riquelme, two veteran Argentine footballers, coming back to Boca Juniors – have already forgot all of this. Football dominates as ever. But corruption is oozing from every pore of the government, judiciary and police, and people are getting really fucking mad about it. 

Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow

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