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Queretaro fans fear bloody soccer brawls have been influenced by cartels

The Estadio Corregidora sat dark and silent, the glow of half a dozen security lights the only thing softening the night sky over its 34,000 empty seats.

La Corregidora becomes a city unto itself when the Querétaro football team plays at home, with thousands of noisy vendors and fans filling the squat oval stadium and unpaved parking lots that surround it. That’s how it should be on Thursday Los Gallos Blancosas the team is known, was set to face San Luis in a crucial playoff-impacting game for both.

Instead, the game was played behind closed doors in Morelia, a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, as a result of sanctions imposed on Querétaro FC after the side’s last home game two weeks ago ended in a bloody riot that left 26 people hospitalized.

The latest victim of the riots was released just hours before kick-off on Thursday, according to Mexican officials. The number of casualties remains controversial, with critics questioning the accuracy of the government’s figures.

Fans clash March 5 during a Mexican soccer league match between hosts Querétaro and Atlas

Fans clash during a Mexican soccer league match between hosts Querétaro and Atlas March 5 at Corregidora stadium.

(Sergio Gonzalez / Associated Press)

And while some in this colonial hub 135 miles northwest of Mexico City say the harsh penalties imposed by the Mexican league and the country’s soccer federation unfairly punish fans unconnected to the rioting, see others see the moment as a transformative moment that could change the sport – and Mexico – for the better.

“I think it definitely will. Because it is necessary” a Gallos said the season ticket holder, who gave his name only as Alvaro, while visiting friends at a quiet restaurant tucked away along the tangle of narrow streets leading to the city’s historic central square.

Since many here believe the fan violence that has tainted Mexican football could be linked to criminal gangs or drug cartels, it’s best to remain anonymous when speaking about it.

“In a country like this, the drug dealer behind it all,” nodded a woman seated nearby, who also declined to give her full name. “There is no evidence. But we know it.”

At least one game per year has been interrupted by fights or clashes with police since 2013, with the exception of 2020-2021 when attendance was restricted by COVID-19 protocols. A brawl ended in gunshots.

But the uproar during Querétaro’s match against Atlas of Guadalajara, the reigning Mexican champions, was notable for both its brutality and the fact that its horrific results were captured and shared on social media. Fans attacked each other with knives, chairs, belts, metal bars and even a corner flag pulled from the field. Some were left unconscious, their bloodied bodies stripped naked and left on the cold concrete.

The violence appeared premeditated and choreographed, witnesses said, not the result of a typical fan passion spiraling out of control.

“What we saw was not a normal argument between fans,” said Enrique Alfaro, the governor of the state of Jalisco, when asked about media reports that members of a local drug cartel may have been involved. “There was something that looked different.”

It was one of the worst soccer riots in Mexican history, leading to 27 arrests, according to Guadalupe Murguía, Querétaro state interior minister.

And Mikel Arriola, the politician-turned-President of Liga MX, and Yon de Luisa, President of the Mexican Football Federation, responded quickly, approving sanctions that affected not only Querétaro but the other 17 teams in the league.

Fans were beaten and stripped of their clothing during a bloody brawl on March 5.

Fans were beaten and robbed of their clothing in a bloody brawl that broke out between Querétaro and Atlas fans at Corregidora Stadium on March 5.

(Sergio Gonzalez / Associated Press)

Querétaro must play all home games in empty stadiums next year, a supporter ban that also extends to the club’s youth and women’s teams. the Gallos Blancos‘ organized fan group has been banned from home games for three years and four team owners have been banned from any association with Mexican football for five years.

The club was also returned to Grupo Caliente, which runs the rival Liga MX team in Tijuana, with orders to sell ownership of the team by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the league’s other teams have been ordered to introduce mandatory badges for their organized supporter groups, with members restricted to certain areas of each stadium where they will be surrounded by police. Security will be increased around Liga MX under the direction of the League Office.

During an appearance Thursday before Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the country’s bicameral parliament, Arriola indicated he wasn’t done yet and said he hoped to stamp out the so-called entirely barras bravas, fanatical and often violent fan groups similar to those that have plagued European football.

“I never really find anything unfair,” said Paul Foster, a Texas billionaire who is part of the ownership group of league MX club Juarez FC. “There are consequences and actions and reactions. We as owners are responsible for making sure our fans are safe and that nothing happens here.

“So I don’t really see it as unfair.”

Liga MX is the most popular soccer league in North America, and its televised matches average twice as many US viewers as the domestic MLS. It’s the Mexican version of the NFL and NBA rolled into one.

But in Querétaro, a city of millions that suddenly no longer has a team to cheer for personally, the sanctions are seen in nuanced terms.

“It’s very complicated,” said Paulina Hernández, a journalist who writes about football. “There are a lot of people who go to the stadium not to cause problems, just to watch the game. But in such a situation you have to do something.”

Querétaro is one of Mexico’s quietest and safest urban centers, blending small-town colonial charm with a modern urban sprawl of industrial and commercial activity. That’s what makes the violence that erupted at the city’s soccer stadium so shocking.

“We are outraged, embarrassed and deeply sorry by these horrific events and we commit as an industry to work to ensure that we do not experience anything similar in any stadium,” De Luisa said.

He and Arriola see themselves as reformers charged with modernizing and cleaning up Mexican football, turning those kinds of talks into meaningful action after years of inertia. In a country weary of violence, the Querétaro uprising has given them both the opportunity and broad public support to do just that.

According to the government, more than 33,000 people were murdered in Mexico last year. That’s more than a third more than the number of homicides in the US, where there are 200 million more people. And femicide, the murder of women through gender-based violence, has more than doubled in Mexico in the past six years.

Part of the national dialogue that emerged from the Querétaro uprising has incorporated football violence into these broader societal trends. Reducing violence in the stadium and eliminating the influence of drug cartels, real or imagined, the argument goes, could have positive repercussions elsewhere.

“Directly or indirectly, everyone was involved in the violence. And we all have to pay at least part of the price,” said the fan, who identified himself as Alvaro.

“Everyone agrees that this has crossed the line. Now we have to change football.”

Fans clash during a Mexican soccer league match between Querétaro and Atlas

Fans clash March 5 during a Mexican soccer league match between Querétaro and Atlas at Corregidora stadium.

(Sergio Gonzalez / Associated Press)

It’s happened before.

Colombia’s rapid rise in world football in the 1980s and 1990s was largely funded by the cartels, who wanted to capitalize on their generosity by betting heavily on the team. As a result, the national team traveling to the United States for the 1994 World Cup was under almost unbearable pressure.

When an Andrés Escobar own goal resulted in defeat and the side’s elimination from the tournament, the popular defender paid for the mistake with his life, a murder later blamed on a cartel leader.

The country and its fans learned the obvious lesson and drug traffickers were ousted from the sport, while banners bearing Escobar’s likeness continued to be unfurled at Colombian games years after his death.

“Directly or indirectly, everyone was involved in the violence. And we all have to pay at least part of the price. Everyone agrees that this has crossed the line. Now we have to change football.”

Alvaro, a Querétaro season ticket holder, was afraid to give his full name

In Mexico, the Querétaro uprising and its aftermath have also created space for broader discussions on other issues. When the city’s women’s team, which played no role in the violence, was also ordered to play their games in empty stadiums for a year, Mariana Covarrubias, a writer, activist and college professor, launched a campaign to help Mexico, using the hashtag #equalpaynotequalblame move young women’s league out of the roof it shares with the men’s league MX.

“We have recognized that the problem lies deeper than the sanctions. The structure of the clubs means that although there are two leagues, the women are tied to the men,” she said.

Covarrubias, who didn’t call herself a football fan two weeks ago, now sees the sport as a vehicle for the changes she feels are overdue.

“We weren’t that interested because we didn’t care about football,” she added. “But now we care.”

Back in La Corregidora, which sits on a bluff overlooking the southern edge of town, two joggers quietly padded along the chain-link fence that lined the parking lots Thursday night while a bored security guard sat on a box outside his guard shack, wearing a light blue face mask pulled the nose.

The only sound outside the stadium came from crickets and a warm wind, while Querétaro’s ‘home game’, moved to Morelia due to Liga MX sanctions, ended in a 2-1 win 120 miles away.

Appropriately, two of the three goals were scored on penalties.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/story/2022-03-20/queretaro-fc-fans-silenced-brawl Queretaro fans fear bloody soccer brawls have been influenced by cartels

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