Travel north beyond the bright lights of Buenos Aires, past the scholarly metropolis of Córdoba and you will eventually reach the small capital city of La Rioja. It was in La Rioja where, one night in late November, an all-out brawl erupted on the pitch of a third-division soccer game. Eight players were ejected and the match was altogether abandoned. As 33-year-old captain Franco Nieto trudged towards the parking lot with his wife and 40-day-old daughter, an opposing player, assistant coach and fan ambushed him. One slammed a brick into his head, knocking him unconscious.

He died from head trauma five days later.

Nieto’s death at the hands of his rivals is just the latest example of how the florid violence that permeates every level of Argentina’s most popular religion is only getting worse. According to the NGO Salvemos al Futbol, almost half of the football-related deaths since 1922 have occurred in the last 20 years. Many regular stadium devotees have stopped bringing their families to games and local stars have left the country to play in greener, safer pastures.

Barras bravas, the term for the Argentina’s mobs of football hooligans, are the main culprits. For as long as there has been organized fútbol in Argentina, there have been barras bravas. Every major football club in Argentina has one (many minor clubs too), and they all take the word fanaticism to zealous new heights.

Violence

On November 6th of this year, a fan was killed and a four-year old was gravely injured in a shootout between barras of the same club, Almirante Brown. On November 10th, another firefight, this time between barras of Sportivo Dock and San Telmo, left two dead.

November 12th brought the next rumble, an inter-club battle between fans of Ituzaingó that ended in one fan being beaten to death and another shot in the head. At the end of one week, the total tallied five deaths and scores more injured.

As Nieto’s case demonstrates, barras do not hold their own players sacred. A few days after the Ituzaingó killings, players from third-division side Textil Mandiyú alleged that their club president entered the team hotel with a group of 40 barras in tow, and commenced to rob them of game checks and personal items.

In 2011, three fans snuck in a closed-door San Lorenzo practice and beat up a star defender. In 2010, in the midst of a historic slide into the second division, fans from legendary club River Plate rushed the field in the middle of the game, insulted and shoved their own players, then disappeared back into the crowd. Most of the harmless on-field streakers I see get tackled like they have an atom bomb strapped to their chest. River security was nowhere to be seen.

The madness didn’t stop there. After the game, River fans tore up their own stadium, throwing guard rails and seats onto the field. They attacked each other, reporters and even law enforcement. At the end of the night there were an estimated 70 people injured, including 35 police.

Money

Barras have used the threat of violence to extort, traffic drugs, take over businesses and generally act with the sort of brash impunity you would expect from a dictator, not a mongoloid sports fan.

Barras have a virtual monopoly on all money transactions happening in and around their stadium. If you have paid for anything from beer to food to parking to weed to blue dollars to game tickets to concert tickets at a local stadium, chances are your money went straight into their already stuffed pockets.

When they’re not directly robbing the players, as in the case of Textil Mandiyu, barras charge cover at fan events where coerced players sign autographs. There are accusations that some of the bigger barras have taken up to 30 percent of players’ salaries and up to 20 percent of the huge transfers paid when a European club has picked up a local footballer.

If you’re in the mood for a little excitement with your sports watching experience, your local barras bravas will let you get drunk, high, and watch the back of a flag with them, all while enduring flying smoke bombs and bags of piss, starting at just USD $150.

Business is good. A November 2011 New York Times article estimated that barras bravas at the top clubs, like Boca’s La Doce, could earn more than AR$300,000 (back then that was USD $70,000 per month), with the leaders then earning approximately USD $15,000 per month.

Almost none are held accountable for breaking the law. With barras moving drugs, tickets and merchandise right under their noses, law enforcement, club officials, and politicians are either looking the other way or complicit in the act.

Politics

If you want to know how intertwined football and politics are in the country, just look at the current and former club presidents. Buenos Aires mayor and 2015 presidential candidate Mauricio Macri was president of Boca, Sergio Massa, another opposition candidate, was president of Club Atlético Tigre, Presidential Secretary Aníbal Fernández is now president of Quilmes, Hugo Moyano, secretary general of one of Argentina’s most important unions, is president of Independiente and Máximo Kirchner, the President’s son, is heavily involved with Racing club.

While there is no open relationship between political figures and barras bravas, it is common knowledge that politicians pay them for activities such as turning up at marches and political events, getting out the vote or displaying huge signs at matches. During the years-long battle between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the Grupo Clarín media group, the barra brava for River Plate once unfurled a giant flag reading “Clarín Miente” (Clarín lies). Central de Rosario once displayed a banner reading, “Nestor Vive” (Nestor Lives),” referencing the deceased ex-President.

Barras receive money from some trade unions, and are used as a “shock force” to dissuade others. Prosecutors assert that some barras have even killed union workers.

When the world cup happened in Brazil this past summer, the official Argentine Football Association (AFA), then led by Julio “the godfather” Grondona (that was his real nickname), allegedly gave a united group of barras bravas known as the HUA 1,000 free tickets to go see the games, according to Clarín. That’s right, 1,000 hooligans got tickets to the world’s most popular sporting event free of charge, courtesy of the organization responsible for regulating Argentine football.

Love for the Game

Quiero ver a La Doce, con todas sus banderas

Las sombrillas los bombos, aunque la AFA no quiera

Yo soy hincha de Boca, yo no soy delincuente

Quiero ver a La Doce, como toda la gente

If you’ve ever been to a football game in Argentina, or any mass-scale entertainment for that matter, you never forget it. The crowds make your average fan fervor seem like a banquet dinner in comparison. Audiences move in waves of human arms and heads, jumping, singing, chanting and yelling like one massive organism. For ambience, it doesn’t get more electrifying.

Which is perhaps why, before every game, the fans of La Boca, and of other teams around Argentina sing full-throated welcomes to the barras bravas as they enter the arena, just like the one posted above:

I want to see La Doce, with all its flags

The sunshades, the drums, even though the AFA doesn’t want them

I am a fan of Boca, I am not a criminal

I want to see La Doce, like everyone does

Argentine football fans look to the barras bravas for their soul, energy and emotion. They know that no matter what happens during the game, the barras will be chanting their favorite songs. No matter what player leaves for Real Madrid or Manchester City, the same barras will be perched on the paravalanchas, screaming their guts out.

Barras bravas have taken power and wealth from politicians and club presidents with little more than feudal street tactics. Any ruthless mentality or lack of formal education only improve their status as working-class heroes. For many young residents of the Argentine slums, the way of the barras bravas symbolizes the only path to glory, and until that changes the unbridled passion of Argentine fandom will be inseparable from its darker, destructive impulses.