Luke Gosset reports on a disturbing trend of kidnapping players and their families in Argentina, which is persuading stars to leave the country or not return from abroad
Leonardo Astrada, one of Argentina’s best loved footballing sons, was due to announce offic-ially his retirement on the day River Plate clinched the title against Olimpo on the penultimate weekend of last season’s Clausura championship. The 33-year-old midfielder has won more trophies for the Buenos Aires club (12) than any footballer at any club in Argentina and looked forward to a rapturous reception. Unfortunately, he did not travel to the game.
As River were on their way to a comfortable 2-0 away win, collecting the 31st domestic title of their history, Astrada sat anxiously by the telephone waiting for a call from the abductors of his father.
Ruben Astrada was taken hostage on June 26 when a gang armed with Itakas rifles bundled the 61-year-old lift mechanic into their car after ramming his Ford Focus from the rear. They took him to a safe house and told his family to hand over $300,000 if they ever wanted to see him alive again.
While Astrada’s father was in captivity – he was freed in late July – police prevented two further kidnaps, chasing down a car in which Alfredo Moreno, the Boca Juniors striker, and his girlfriend were being sped away and intervening in an attempt to snatch River forward Dario Husein.
The kidnap phenomenon has made being a footballer a risky business in Argentina. Criminals are eagerly cashing in on one of the few sectors of society which enjoys a degree of financial security in a country ravaged by economic crisis. The peso used to be pegged to the dollar as part of the government’s efforts to maintain economic stability, but in August 2001 the currency became so devalued it was left to its own devices. Its worth consequently plummeted and sparked the country’s worst recession since 1986, sending unemployment to record highs.
Unemployment, particularly in the poorer and more marginalised areas of Buenos Aires – the suburbs and abandoned hinterlands of a sprawling city where a third of Argentina’s 36 million inhabitants live – inevitably leads to crime. And kidnapping is one of the more lucrative types. The number of reported kidnaps in BA is staggering. From January to September 2002, 168 “express extortions”, as they are known, were reported to the police. Since then the gangs have gone into overdrive, firmly establishing the Argentine capital as one of the most dangerous and lawless cities in the world.
The effect on society has been so great that 21.5 per cent of Argentines list “public insecurity” as their chief daily concern. The government responded by creating an anti-kidnap unit, which gathers intelligence on suspects and passed legislation to keep the guilty in prison as long as possible. The measures, however, have been largely ineffective.
Up until last year, kidnaps were limited to relatively unknown players, even though the president of Boca Juniors, Mauricio Macri, was taken hostage in 1991. That changed on April 2 last year when a gang abducted the 16-year-old brother of former Boca Juniors star Juan Roman Riquelme 500 metres from his family home and just a block away from the local police station in BA’s Tigre district.
Cristian Riquelme was released two days later following a £120,000 payment, but the crime rocked Argentina to the core and put kidnapping squarely on the political agenda. The publicity surrounding the case intensified when Boca legends Diego Maradona and Juan Sebastian Veron offered to pay the ransom.
“This is terrible,” Maradona said. “It’s a frightening business and it takes you back to the bad old days when kidnapping was standard practice in the country during the era of the military dictatorships [1976-1983].”
The ex-Argentina captain, who on the same day as the incident had rented Boca’s Bombonera stadium for a party to celebrate the 15th birthday of his daughter Dalma, added: “We all know this is something we don’t want any more. For those of us that love Juan Roman it hurts. I would say that if this takes off in our country, it’s never going to stop.”
Veron, meanwhile, has reconsidered returning to his homeland when his career finishes. “What’s happening in my country is very sad. It makes you doubt about the future, about whether it’s possible to live there anymore.” Riquelme’s decision to join Barcelona last summer was made simpler when kidnappers twice threatened to take him hostage after returning his brother. “It’s very difficult to keep on doing my job as a professional footballer here,” he said. “When the chance of joining a foreign side comes up you analyse various things. Right now, in Buenos Aires it’s difficult for people who have a public profile. We’re very exposed. Moving abroad is a solution.”
Another player to reach the same conclusion is central defender Gabriel Milito, who was set to join Real Madrid from Independiente until he failed a medical. His father, Jorge, was kidnapped three months after Riquelme junior. Kept blindfolded throughout the ordeal, he refused to talk about the traumatic incident after his release. Midfielder Eduardo Coudet was so unnerved he persuaded River to let him join Celta Vigo on loan last September. “It’s an ugly thing when people point a gun at your chest,” he said. When he returned in February he swapped his Audi for a Fiat to avoid attention while driving to training. To be seen with an expensive car is asking for trouble.
Few kidnappers are brought to justice and the police – notoriously corrupt and often suspected of involvement – have come under pressure for failing to arrest the perpetrators of crimes which generally raise the ransom and go entirely unpunished. When one ring is disbanded, another pops up.
The mob who took Banfield midfielder Jorge “Loco” Cervera were initially unaware he was a footballer and when they realised – after holding him captive for two hours – let him go in exchange for an autographed club shirt. Incidents like these, though, are rare. For the most part, kidnaps are the work of determined and well organised “professionals”.
Hugo Issa – both the agent of Milito and brother of Diego Issa who plays for Racing Avellaneda – said: “They are people who know what they want and were very well informed about the movements of the Milito family. I spoke to them on the phone but I didn’t always talk to the same person. This wasn’t something done on the hoof.”
Certain outlaws have already gone down in the folklore of the urban underworld. Only 15, a red-haired girl by the name of Silvina has been charged with organising ten abductions and is the main suspect in the Astrada case. Rumoured to be the ringleader of one of the most active groups in BA, she features at the top of the city’s most-wanted list. The teenager, who happens to be three months pregnant, escaped from the La Plata correctional institute for children on June 17, 11 days before the saga kicked off. Several witnesses have confirmed that a young woman with “flaming hair” was seen with the gang which seized Astrada senior.
Leonardo Astrada eventually received his send-off, contesting the final ten minutes in River’s last home game, a 3-1 defeat by Racing, but the game took place in less than ideal circumstances. The words “Daddy, we are waiting for you” were written on the T-shirt underneath the River jersey he took off after the match.
From WSC 199 September 2003. What was happening this month