Drugs, death and salsa: Why America vs Deportivo Cali is more than a game

Colombian powerhouses America and Deportivo Cali share a city but not much else in common. In 2007, FourFourTwo's Daniel Neilson dared to venture into one of the continent's hottest derbies

The threats began before FourFourTwo had even arrived in Colombia. It had taken four months of delicate negotiations with the Frente Radical Verdiblanco (FRV), Deportivo Cali’s barra brava – one of Colombia’s biggest and most highly organised hooligan groups – before we were permitted to accompany the leaders of this 3,000-strong group into battle against city rivals América de Cali. 

You have to understand we are in a country full of conflict and we have to take precautions

- Colombian contact 'Johnny'

“You must be trustful and reliable or YOU WILL HAVE PROBLEMS IN YOUR FUTURE,” warned one of the many e-mails from our contact ‘Johnny’. “You have to understand we are in a country full of conflict and we have to take precautions.”

Despite a vastly improved safety record and considerable rise in tourism, Colombia is still a country at war. For more than 40 years government forces, left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries have been waging a bloody three-way fight for power, killing thousands of people. Mix in the fact that Colombia is the biggest producer of cocaine in the world and you have a very explosive cocktail.

There is a serious risk of kidnapping and crime throughout most parts of the country

- UK Foreign Office advice

“There is a serious risk of kidnapping and crime throughout most parts of the country,” advises the UK Foreign Office, adding dark warnings of “a high threat of terrorism” and “lives being lost on an almost daily basis”.

The Cauca Valley and its capital Cali is no exception. Set in the heart of guerrilla-controlled countryside, it is home to the Norte de Valley cartel, the biggest drug-trafficking organisation in the world, whose leader Diego Montoya is currently starring in the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.

It is against this violent backdrop that Deportivo Cali and América de Cali came to despise each other. Their first game, in 1931, ended with América banned from all tournaments for a year. Last year saw the murder of one of the FRV’s leaders and, in 1982, dozens died in a stampede at a meeting of the two teams. It was Colombia’s Heysel Stadium disaster.

Like almost everything in this beautiful yet blighted country, Cali’s derby is inextricably intertwined with death and drugs. But it is also famed for the fiery Latin passion that fans of both teams bring to the terraces. 

On the terrace with the barra brava

The very centre of the north terrace in the Estadio Pascual Guerrero is strictly reserved for the upper echelons of the FRV. Anyone else who tries to enter this zone is fiercely held back. At least, that’s usually the case. Today, though, FourFourTwo stands amid the heaving throng. 

In the middle is Franklin, the leader, El Don. Tattoos and cuts scar his heavy frame, long bedraggled hair hangs loose over his torn t-shirt, his eyes are bloodshot from beer and poppers. From this privileged position he conducts his rambunctious and ramshackle orchestra of drums, trumpets and 3,000 coarse voices. He constantly barks orders: “different song”, “sing louder”. 
The stand bounces along with the fans to the beat of five bass drums. A couple of snares tap out a pattern while the trumpets guide the melody. The noise is deafening.

And then comes a goal. 
Bodies and arms flail everywhere, the racket doubles, green smoke is blasted out over the pitch, streamers fall from the sky, the concrete floor sags. Suddenly the whole stand is covered by a giant flag decorated in team’s green and white colours. It’s like sharing a tent with the 3,000 nuttiest fans you’ve ever met. And then the sky appears again and the game, well under way, can be glimpsed through the flags. The exhilaration is literally breathtaking.  

On the opposite terrace, thousands of América’s barra brava known as Baron Rojo Sur are briefly silenced before redoubling their efforts and spitting hatred back north. The atmosphere is as oppressive as the uncomfortable heat.

Deportivo Cali fans rally round the flag

Cali, salsa and violence

Colombia’s third city sits in the southwest of the country, bathed in sweltering heat. Two great mountain ranges cut through the mist, the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Central, flanking the city and its endless sugarcane plantations. It is a dramatic setting for a place in which high drama is part of daily life. Appropriately, and a touch disconcertingly, on FourFourTwo’s arrival the taxi’s radio started blaring "Highway to the danger zone" as we hurtled into the city.

Central Cali is not a pretty place. Modern monoliths have eaten up most of the colonial architecture, but that doesn’t seem to bother the caleños who are strikingly friendly and cheerful. They also pride themselves on being Colombia’s biggest party animals. Salsa is the soundtrack to Cali and from early evening the bars and clubs down the main strip fill with scantily-clad women and smartly-dressed men, ready for a night of knocking back aguadiente – a potent aniseed-flavoured drink made from sugar cane – and dancing off the effects.

By morning they return to the teeming streets, passing stalls selling a bewildering array of fruit and avoiding the manically-driven colourful chiva buses. There is always time to chat with a neighbour, or sup down a strong tinto made from Colombia’s primary export, coffee.

The centre feels safe, and it is; only heavily armed police and newspaper headlines hint at the violence and poverty that still permeate the more rural regions of the province and Cali’s poor shanties. It is one of these less than salubrious areas, in a dimly-lit park below an underpass, that FourFourTwo can be found the night before the game, supping beer with 40 or so members of the FRV who are putting the finishing touches to their derby plans. 

We model ourselves on the ultras of Italy and the hooligans of England, not the barra bravas of Argentina. We are different, very organised and very disciplined

- Deportivo fan Calvo Andres

Our contact, the baby-faced Johnny, explains how the FRV is broken down into seven ‘legions’ around Cali, each with a leader who reports to Franklin. The bespectacled Calvo Andres is one young legion leader with an encyclopaedic knowledge of European hooligans.

“The Headhunters of Chelsea, Millwall Bushwackers, Inner City Firm of West Ham,” he reels off. “We are pioneers in Colombia. We model ourselves on the ultras of Italy and the hooligans of England, not the barra bravas of Argentina. We are different, very organised and very disciplined.”

Andres asks if we have seen their ‘bibles’, the hooligan films Green Street (the one with ‘Frodo’) and The Football Factory. Hector Fabio, another legion leader, joins the conversation. “We were the first ultras in Colombia, starting in 1992. We were radical then because we were more than just waving a flag or singing a song. We live the game everyday. Nothing is more important to us than winning, lifting our team as much as we can.”

Colombian police on manoeuvres

They boast about fights they have had with other fans, but also lament the loss of a fellow verdiblanco at the hands of, they claim, Baron Rojo Sur. It was almost a year ago when 22-year-old Stevenson Galeano Rivera was shot through the forehead during a clash between the two groups.  

We don’t want any more violence. We still support our teams fanatically but it’s not worth the death of a young man

- Deportivo Cali fan leader

“We don’t want any more violence,” one legion head insists. “We had a national congress with all the other barras of Colombia so there wouldn’t be any more trouble at national games. We still support our teams fanatically but it’s not worth the death of a young man.”

Then Franklin stands up and the assembled members hush. “This is the big one. We all need to be there; no excuses, singing together, jumping together,” he shouts to cheers. “I was talking to the players today,” Franklin continues over a chorus of hoots and whistles. “They said they need you to support them. We can change the course of the game, you give them confidence. This is a clasico, and we simply can’t lose.” The throng start to chant: “Come on Deportivo/We are going to win/These fans will never leave you/We’ll never stop encouraging you”.

As we walk out into the night, Andres hands out a 14-page song booklet produced for the game and distributes the latest copy of their glossy monthly magazine Ultra Verdiblanco which features an interview with Deportivo manager Omar Labruna, a eulogy to their lost friend and an advert posted by a local politician seeking to curry favour with the FRV.

NEXT: Cali's class divide