Wire-like intrigue unfolds in La Boca

If you’ve followed Argentine football for any length of time, you’ll be aware that aside from what goes on on the pitch, things off it can be by equal measures fascinating and depressing. Just recently, though, it all seems to have moved onto a different level entirely.  The latest developments surrounding Boca Juniors remind me of nothing so much as the first series of The Wire (which I’m re-watching, coincidentally, at present), with political intrigue, a lot of money, and possibly one of your holiday highlights all involved. If you’ve ever wanted to go to La Bombonera as a tourist and wondered why your ticket costs quite so much, you might be surprised at the answer.

You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you. — Lester Freamon, The Wire, ‘Game Day’

Just substitute the word ‘drugs’ for ‘football tickets’ in that quotation above, and we’re starting to get the picture here.

San Lorenzo goalkeeper Pablo Migliore is a good friend of some of the barra bravas of Boca Juniors (the club he used to play for and is a lifelong fan of), and was recently released from  jail, where he’d been held on a charge of aiding and abetting a murder. Following his release, San Lorenzo have released him themselves – his contract’s been terminated by mutual consent, but everything he’s said in public on the issue seems to suggest he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.

(As an aside, for those who share my sentiment that Migliore’s innocent until proven guilty, audio tape of him talking on the phone which proves he was aware that he was harbouring a murderer has been broadcast all over the Argentine media in the last couple of months. We’re not talking about a possible misunderstanding here.)

What follows is a précis of this article on canchallena.com (in Spanish), the sports website of La Nación, one of Argentina’s biggest newspapers. Basically, I thought it would be interesting for an Anglophone audience (especially if you’ve seen The Wire), and am thus summarising it here. This is not a direct translation, it’s my own explanation, based on the article linked to.

So, let’s start at the beginning. The murdered man was called Enrique Cirino. Judge Manuel De Campos had a warrant out for the arrest of Maximiliano Mazzaro, one of the top men in La Doce, Boca Juniors’ barra brava. An aside: normally, people translate barra brava as ‘hooligan gang’. That’s not accurate. English hooligans – who, for those reading from other countries, thankfully don’t really exist any more – were nothing like as organised, or run on anything like the same level of business as Argentina’s barras. Essentially, barra bravas are more akin to mafia gangs, except that they identify themselves with football clubs rather than with a region or town. Of course, not all barras are like this – some have a lot more influence, money and connections than others – but it’s safe to say that La Doce are one of the worst.

Pablo Migliore had already been photographed, a couple of years ago, attending a Boca Juniors match away to Tigre with Boca’s barra. This was after he’d signed for San Lorenzo, by the way. Mazzaro went to him asking for help, and as far as the recordings that have been made available publicly make clear, he got that help – Migliore spent about a month behind bars, but Mazzaro is still at large as I type.

After Migliore’s arrest, the ticketing situation at Boca Juniors’ home games went haywire. If you came to Buenos Aires during the last couple of months, maybe you noticed this. Prices rocketed (even by the normal extortionate levels tourists pay to get into La Bombonera) as availability plummeted. The reason? If you go to a game as a tourist at Boca, you have two options; either you do what I was brave/stupid enough to do two weeks after moving to BA, and go down there before the game and hope the ticket you buy from a tout is real (turns out I was stupid; my ticket was real, and I only paid 66% over the odds for it, but I had my mobile phone stolen on the way out of the ground), or you take the sensible option and pay way over the odds to go in with a tour group and guide.

The investigation into Cirino’s murder led to a major crackdown on ticket reselling practices in La Bombonera, and even affected the number of places made available to tourists to get into the most recent superclásico. Before Boca’s home match against Newell’s Old Boys last Thursday, in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores quarter-finals, there were reports that 30 barras had been arrested. The total number of arrests was 51 barras and fans, as well as Boca employee Gustavo Gómez. Gómez wasn’t the only Boca employee targetted; Carlos Mechetti also turned himself in on Friday afternoon, whilst numerous other barras are said to have received tip-offs (allegedly from police employees) that they should stay away from the Newell’s game in order to avoid arrest.

Mechetti is in charge of Boca’s membership department, and his part in this secondary case is tied up with that fact. Two police who’d been placed as ‘spies’ inside the club – at least in part to investiage the resale of member’s tickets to matchgoing non-members and tourists – got as far as obtaining their own member’s cards, with numbers around 160,000 and 190,000. A check against the club’s own records reveals that Boca member’s cards only run to numbers around 106,000, which goes some way to confirming the police (and everyone else’s, for that matter) theory that false membership cards are being used to cover for ticket resales.

Mechetti, as well as being involved at Boca, is also an employee of AFIP – the Argentine tax office. You see how that Lestor Freamon quote I started this post with begins to look relevant now? AFIP suspended Mechetti on Friday from his duties at the Ezeiza customs office (Ezeiza is the area of Greater Buenos Aires where the international airport is situated). He’d been working there since March 1975, but had been previously suspended in 2010 for suspected smuggling; they’d also found US$800,000 in cash, stored in shoeboxes, whose origin he couldn’t explain.

Mechetti’s office in La Bombonera is suspected of handing the fake member’s cards to members of La Doce, who would sell places at Boca matches on at highly inflated prices; around 200 Argentine pesos per match, depending on the opposition, for Argentines, but rising to 200 dollars or more for the tourist agencies (who would then, of course, charge you and any other gringo coming to Buenos Aires more again for the privilege). It should be said that something similar happens at a lot of Argentine clubs, but it’s only at Boca that this system is so entrenched and so intimately linked to the club’s hierarchy that it’s the only way for foreigners to realistically get into the ground (though River Plate and Vélez Sarsfield are becoming much harder for non-members to get into as well).

It would appear that Mazzaro was one of the central figures in this system, on the La Doce side of things. He also had an import business, which continued to go from strength to strength even when, in the last few years, the Argentine government has introduced strict controls and charges on goods which can and cannot be imported into Argentina. Mazzaro doing well, whilst Mechetti – who had a lot of sway in the customs office – was doing well from Mazzaro’s ticketing sideline? Hmm?

As La Nación put it in the article linked to above, one burning question is whether the buck stops with Mechetti, or whether it goes further up the chain of command at La Bombonera. He’s the only Boca director who’s been publicly implicated until now (although another, Marcelo London, was among the men who weren’t arrested on Thursday night after apparently being tipped off not to head to the stadium for the game), but a lot of questions are bound to be asked in the coming days and weeks.

Being Argentina, political intrigue is never far behind. Aside from Mechetti’s tax office links, Boca themselves are a big club in Argentine politics, not only because of their pull with the people, but also because former club president Mauricio Macri is now the Mayor of Buenos Aires (and the national government’s biggest political opponent), and the current president, Daniel Angelici, is Macri’s man. Martín Ocampo, speaking on behalf of Pro, Macri’s party, told the press, ‘we support any investigation which applies pressure to anyone who might have committed a crime, whomever they are. But at the same time we can’t ignore the fact that all this has happened within a very short time frame; [a local government] decree protecting media in the City [of Buenos Aires], Boca’s resistance to [playing matches at 9:30pm on Sunday, a time slot which would allow government-owned TV Pública to compete with an anti-government opinion show], and this mass arrest.’

He’s got a point, but then, the people running this investigation seem to, as well. The goods being trafficked might be tickets rather than heroin, but in real-life Buenos Aires, as in fictional Baltimore, if you follow the money, you don’t know where it’s going to take you… or do you?

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