LATIN AMERICA

In one of the world’s most violent areas, soccer can be a deadly game

More than 20 professional players have been victims of shootings across Latin America

Arnold Peralta, who was shot dead in December.
Arnold Peralta, who was shot dead in December.Franklin Reyes (AP)

On December 10, two suspects on a motorcycle gunned down Arnold Peralta in the Caribbean port city of La Ceiba, Honduras.

It may have been just another murder in the Central American nation, which holds the world record for homicide rates. But Peralta’s shooting death was particularly painful for many Hondurans because the 26-year-old was captain of the country’s national soccer team.

Many players try to keep away from certain neighborhoods, streets or shopping malls

Prosecutors have found no motive for the killing, and still aren’t sure if it was a robbery attempt.

Peralta, whose casket was draped with the flag of his team Club Deportivo Olimpia at his burial earlier this month, is now part of a growing list of soccer players in the region who have been murdered or have survived shootings.

A search of news portals in the different countries across Latin America shows that there have been more than 20 murders of professional soccer players in recent years.

Chronology of terror

Andrés Escobar. The Colombian midfielder was killed on July 2, 1994 after scoring an own-goal in the World Cup. He was shot several times in the head in the parking lot of a Medellín disco.

Walter Velásquez and René Galán. In February 2002, Velásquez, who played for Atlético Balboa in El Salvador's first division, was gunned down by suspects during a robbery attempt. His teammate, Galán, was wounded in the incident.

Milton Flores. In January 2003, the goalkeeper for the Honduran national team was shot several times inside his car in Tegucigalpa. His girlfriend, who was with him, was wounded in the attack.

Albeiro Usuriaga. A group of hitmen gunned down Usuriaga near his home on February 11, 2004.

David Pontiles. In May 2008, the Alianza de Panamá player died after he was shot several times by two juveniles in Chorrillito, Tocumen, located on the outskirts of Panama City.

Fernando Cáceres. The Argentinean player was badly wounded on November 1, 2009 during a carjacking attempt in Ciudadela, just outside Buenos Aires.

Salvador Cabañas. On January 25, 2010, the Paraguayan soccer star was shot in the head at a bar in Mexico City. He survived the murder attempt.

One of the most high-profile killings was that of Colombian player Andrés Escobar, which took place just days after scoring an own-goal at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Shot several times in the head outside a Medellín disco, Escobar was the target of a vengeance killing for his own-goal error, which helped eliminate Colombia from the World Cup after the United States won 2-1.

Reports surfaced later in Colombia that high-stakes soccer matches were backed by drug-trafficking organizations, mafia groups and paramilitaries.

In another highly publicized case, the Paraguayan Salvador Cabañas barely survived a shooting in January 2011 at a bar in Mexico City while he was still playing for América.

Another survivor is Argentina's Fernando Cáceres, who played in Spain and Argentina. He began walking again a few weeks ago following his long recovery from a 2009 shooting during a robbery attempt.

Uruguayan goalie Alexis Viera, who played for América de Cali, was also a victim of a holdup on August 25. He was shot three times and doctors said he may not be able to walk again without assistance.

Shooting deaths take place in Latin America every day and are more frequent in some countries than others. But special focus is placed on these incidents when they involve a famous soccer player.

In addition to belonging to a special class in Latin America, which places them in the rich and famous category but also makes them targets, many players fail to break their ties with the troubled neighborhoods where they grew up, or with powerful criminal groups once they become famous.

This was possibly one of the causes for the killings of Albeiro Usuriaga – a former player in the of the Argentinean, Mexican and Colombian leagues who was murdered in 2004 in Cali – and Guatemala’s Carlos Mercedes Vasquez, who was found dismembered in November 2010 alongside a note that explained his death was deserved “for messing with another man’s wife.”

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Others players have also become innocent victims for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This happened to Milton Chocolate Flores, the former goalkeeper for the Honduran national team, who was accidentally killed while passing through a dangerous neighborhood in San Pedro Sula in 2004.

Some have been targeted for unknown reasons, such as David El Magic Mendoza, a former player with several Mexican soccer clubs who was shot at close range by strangers in a truck in 2008 while leaving a party in Jalisco state. He survived the incident.

Because of the surge of such crimes, most famous players try to keep away from certain neighborhoods, streets or shopping malls.

Alarms were also set off when it emerged that judicial authorities in Costa Rica had leaked private information about goalkeeper Keylor Navas in October 2014, when he had just signed for Real Madrid. Around 25 judicial police officers were suspended in the case.

English version by Martin Delfín.