What had, at first, seemed to be severe yet isolated cases of alleged child sexual abuse involving young players at the Independiente football club has snowballed into an scandal that’s drawing attention from across the world.
In a matter of mere weeks, further allegations have now come to light involving the iconic River Plate football club, with authorities also investigating a potential case at a third football club. Earlier this week, the scandal took another dark twist, with the country’s gymnastics squad now also under scrutiny over allegations that officials there abused underage team members.
Adding to the string of allegations, this week explosive and unsubstantiated claims were made one of Argentina’s most famous television shows, when guest Natacha Jaitt accused several people – including high-profile journalists and politicians – of paedophilia.
As the scandal continues to develop, more reports emerge. Last night, at press time, two more victims involved at Independiente had come forward.
On Monday, a doctor and a psychologist at River Plate told the authorities that young footballers and volleyballers at the club had suffered sexual abuse. Authorities also confirmed this week that they are investigating a potential case at a third local football club, Temperley.
“We have other suspects. We haven’t been able to sleep the past few days wondering how to gather the evidence to secure arrest warrants,” public prosecutor María Soledad Garibaldi said during a press conference Wednesday.
“Many kids were contacted but they didn’t fall [victim]. We’re investigating this. Thank God [some of] these acts were not carried out,” Garibaldi added. “We’re all united here — the kids, the parents, and the law.”
It has become clear this week that the scandal is not limited to football. On Tuesday, the Argentine Olympic Committee (COA) said a 40-year-old former gymnast had complained of abuse as a minor.
Asked on Argentine TV how many gymnastics-related cases of abuse there might be, COA president Gerardo Werthein said “it is difficult to know.” But he added ominously that “there are several.”
Like Independente, River Plate is a multi-sport club, one that operates hostels for young players recruited from across Argentina and abroad.
The complaint filed with police concerns the alleged sexual abuse of players in River’s youth teams between 2004 and 2011, according to judicial sources cited by local media.
“A surgeon knew there had been abuse of children who lived at the boarding facility at River,” Andrés Bonicalzi, a lawyer for a rape victims charity, said at a press conference on Monday.
Among the cases were two involving young football players and one concerning a girl on a volleyball team.
“We are investigating the testimony of provincial families whose children are victims of a paedophile network,” Bonicalzi added.
Police raided River’s facilities on Tuesday. The doctor and psychologist are due to give their testimony to prosecutors next Wednesday.
“Children came from their provinces with a dream,” said María Elena Leuzzi, the founder of the Association of Victims of Violation, an NGO that defends minors who suffer sexual abuse and arranged the official complaint to police by the River Plate medical staff.
“They robbed them of their childhoods and their bodies,” she said.
Argentina’s Football Association (AFA) said Wednesday that it will closely monitor boarding houses where youth players.
“We want this to be investigated” said Dante Majori, the president of AFA’s youth and children’s committee.
“We want to contribute with law [enforcement] so that those responsible for these abhorrent acts are caught.”
Majori said the abuse allegations took place before he took on the job last year, and had not been reported until now. But he said that the football federation will launch inspections across the nation, in a bid to get to the bottom of the problem and prevent any further acts happening.
“We’ve set out to revise and carry out a protocol to regulate these boarding houses,” he told the local Todo Noticias TV channel.
For its part, River Plate said earlier this week that it will collaborate with authorities in every way.
The details of the case have brought home shocking truths about the exploitation of young aspiring footballers, many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds. Investigators say that some of the young victims were offered trips to their home provinces and football boots in exchange for sex. Some unconfirmed allegations claim SUBE cards were topped up in exchange for acts.
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“They took advantage of their [level of] maximum vulnerability,” Buenos Aires Province Attorney General Julio Marcelo Conte Grand, told reporters. “They took advantage of their utmost desire to reach professional success.”
AFA said Wednesday that it has reached out to the kids, their families and professionals.
“We’re going to work both inside and outside of the boarding houses with containment and social work for all of children and youth football,” Majori said.
Argentina’s Olympic Committee has been quick to act in response to the allegations.
On Tuesday, it filed a legal complaint against the gymnastics coach who stands accused of abusing an as-yet undetermined number of athletes. The case is being investigated by a local prosecutor.
As part of the probe, authorities raided the headquarters of the Argentine gymnastics confederation (GTP) on Wednesday.
“We have become aware through someone who manages our relationship with the athletes that certain athletes were abused by a coach in the 1990s,” said Gerardo Werthein, the president of Argentina’s Olympic Committee (COA). He did not disclose the identity.
“It’s incredible that so much time has happened and that noone has acted [before],” he said.
The scandal first broke in mid-March after a 17-year-old player with Independiente told a club psychologist that he and another young player had been encouraged to sell themselves for sex.
The youth league player also alleges that players were recruited into the prostitution ring by another club member.
Club directors reported the allegations to the police.
So far, six people have been arrested as result of the Independiente case, including referee Martín Bustos, his attorney, a public relations official and an organiser of youth tournaments. Investigators are also analysing dozens of calls allegedly made to young players for possible grooming.
“The structure of this underage prostitution network didn’t only operate at Independiente. There are other clubs,, public prosecutor Garibaldi said Wednesday.
The 19-year-old who recruited them was abused himself, and is now cooperating with authorities, she explained. At least seven minors were prostituted and 10 more minors are believed to have been potential victims.
The stakes are high for youth players in the country’s sports teams, especially in football where thousands of talented kids train in academies and club youth divisions that have been talent factories where Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, and other stars once polished their skills as children.
Many children in club boarding houses come from low-income families in remote communities, and live far from their parents under the care of clubs, dreaming of a chance to make it big in the hyper competitive world of professional football.
Oscar Mangione, a former psychologist at another famous Buenos Aires club, Boca Juniors, said one problem is that only a tiny handful of the youngsters the clubs take from their homes make it as footballers.
“Football is seen as a way upwards, but that’s not true because from every hundred boys who enter the system only two or three will play in the first division,” Mangione said.
“These abuses occur in a context of vulnerability: many of these youngsters come from distant provinces and are separated from their families. These reports will show that parents need to take more precautions”.
But, he added, “this is not something limited to the clubs, these networks take advantage of the vulnerability of the boys, it is likely that they will also recruit young people in poor neighbourhoods.”
Another Argentine sports psychologist, Miguel Garcia Lombardi, said the way the youth system functions encourages players to see themselves as merchandise.
“A footballer is playing to become a millionaire, we are in the process of marketing football, it starts with the player’s body. We buy the player, we invest in that body to make money.” Lombardi said.
“Sex is just another element,” he claimed.
TENSIONS ARE HIGH
The revelation of more cases of alleged abuse have sparked tensions in Argentina and last weekend, they exploded onto the nation’s television screens.
A Saturday night broadcast of La noche de Mirtha, hosted by the beloved Argentine host Mirtha Legrand, led to controversy after guest Natacha Jaitt accused several people, including high-profile journalists and politicians, of paedophilia.
It was a jaw-dropping piece of television, made all the more shocking by the fact that the unsubstantiated claims by Jaitt were presented entirely without evidence, on a show where guests are seated around a dinner table sharing a meal.
One of the accused, journalist Carlos Pagni, lodged a legal complaint against Jaitt on Monday.
“I did not speak about Carlos Pagni. I said only C.P., meaning Carlos Pérez. As such, I won’t respond about anything related to Carlos Pagni,” Jaitt told prosecutor Federico Delgado, according to media reports.
The accused men spent much of this week dedicating time on air and in print to defend themselves. Some accuse Jaitt, and even Legrand, of lending herself to an intelligence service operation aimed at defaming them.
Legrand “offered up her show for an [intelligence] operation,” Pagni claimed on Monday during his Odisea programme.
On Thursday, at a press conference, Conte Grand and Garibaldi declared that no “media personality” was currently under investigation, effectively dismissing Jaitt’s claims.
“They have been unfairly mentioned,” Conte Grand said.
Jaitt has since posted online that she has evidence which is in the possession of other people and asked for police protection. In the meantime, the scandal continues to dominate the nation’s frontpages and TV screens.