June 17 2022
I had become bewildered by the fact that Colombia’s two central parties had almost completely vanished from the political scene after more than a century of dominating national politics. When I looked into other contexts, it turned out that there too parties were extremely weak or in the process of weakening. It seemed to me that since most of the political science literature, the old sociological literature, and a rising gang within sociology thought that parties were crucial—even indispensable—forces within democracies, it would be a good idea to write a dissertation about a context in which parties used to be central, but no longer: if parties were not where mobilization power resided, then where? And just like that I found myself in the field as the 2022 Colombian Congressional and Presidential elections unfolded, running into a collection of different social units that hold mobilization capacity with intriguing variation in their internal characteristics, the way they integrate upwards to “parties,” and downwards to their followers. Holocausto Norte, a group of soccer supporters, is a surprising one, as I will now explain.
It is Sunday, May 1st, 2022, and the stands are shaking to the rhythm of Once Caldas’ strong supporters, their barras bravas. The music comes from behind my back, invading the stadium from North to South. It is impossible not to feel the energy racing through La barra, Holocausto Norte (North Holocaust), as they called themselves; perhaps an unfortunate name combining aggressiveness and obliviousness. The match is about to start. Once Caldas is the soccer team of Manizales that gained international recognition in 2004, after winning South America’s most important soccer club tournament, La Libertadores, against the mighty Argentinian team Boca Juniors. Once had its golden decade in the 2000s, winning the national soccer tournament in 2009 and 2010. La barra, Holocausto Norte, grew with it.
Holocausto is full of young people with tons of tattoos. They are led by a group nearing their mid-forties that were in their early twenties when they first organized La barra in the early 2000s. Two-thousand people or so organized in forty groups, “parches”, make Holocausto. Each parche has one representative; they are the organizational subunits of La barra. Each comes from one neighborhood in the city, has their own space in the north stadium stands, and has a representative on Holocausto’s board. For the past twenty-four years, representatives have met every Monday at 7:00 pm for about two hours. This board is La barra’s agora and decision-making council, where representatives exercise both voice and vote. They meet at Holocausto’s office next to the stadium’s entry one that looks like a big storage facility. On this Sunday, some of the instruments from the band lie scattered at the back of the office. The ones they are taking to the match are already out. Old pictures of the team hang on the walls next to trophies on standing shelves. Beneath them the campaign posters of their recently elected Chamber of Representatives candidate and the famous picture of the liberal party’s martyr Luis Carlos Galán, killed in 1989, lie.
La barra’s candidate, Juan, ran with the endorsement of four parties: the recently resurrected New Liberalism that Galán had created in the 80s; Dignidad, a new party branching out of Polo Democrático, the party that once tried to unite the left in the 2000s; ASI, a party representing indigenous communities; and the Christian party MIRA. A rare combination it is. Holocausto has mobilized politically in the past 24-years; they are an “organization,” Juan tells me. Even further, he asserts, “it’s a democratic organization.” Juan won three consecutive elections for the City Council of Manizales, followed by two terms as departmental legislator, before “jumping” to the national House of Representatives. Holocausto embodies the most organized structure behind his campaigning. It is not only his core constituency but also his mobilization engine.
Because life is full of ironies, Juan’s entry to politics was through the rightwing New Party, created to support the first term of president of Álvaro Uribe—the iron-fist, love-and-hate president from 2002 to 2010 who presided over both the expansion of the army and a series of blatant human rights violations like the systematic killing of at least 6,402 young innocent boys, falsely presented as guerrillas who fell in combat. The New Party was created in 2003 by “the white elites” of Caldas under the leadership of Adriana Gutiérrez and Oscar Iván Zuluaga and quickly merged with The U Party after a 2003 political reform. In a calm and soft voice, Juan tells me that he has never supported Uribe; quite on the contrary, he agrees with everything, emphasizing “everything,” Uribe’s 2006 opponent and left-wing candidate, Carlos Gaviria Díaz, thinks. But The New Party was a convenient place at the time, and, in any case, Juan’s true organization is La barra. He remained with the The U Party for four more elections. In the most recent one, however, he quit a year in advance, initially running with The Green Party before ending up with the four-party coalition led by The New Liberalism. The only reason as to why Juan has been invited and welcomed in such diverse party structures is because he has his own structure supporting him.
It is not the case that Juan owns or controls La barra. Instead, La barra feels represented by him, and has decided to mobilize for Juan in a stable and longstanding arrangement. This is evident in my conversations with members of Holocausto about the ongoing presidential election. For this election, Juan is obligated to support the candidate of the New Liberalism coalition, the centrist Sergio Fajardo, but La barra is behind left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro. La barra reached that decision during a meeting the previous Monday. They will help with leafleting, serve as election witnesses, convince people to vote, and transport them to voting centers. This week, they will talk with the national campaign to articulate their efforts. This mobilization for Petro’s presidential campaign is similar what they have done for Juan in the past. Alejandra, from one of the two feminist parches of La barra, explains that this political work is anchored in their centers of strength, which are mainly the city’s neighborhoods.
The stakes are high in this election. If Petro wins, it will be the first time in history that a left-wing candidate reaches the presidency, as well as the first time that an African Colombian woman–Francia Marquez–a “nobody,” as she sometimes refers to herself in the plural form of “los nadies” (“the nobodies”), gets elected as vice-president. Francia rose to prominence after decades of advocating for human rights and environmental justice for Afrocolombian communities of the Pacific Coast, while struggling to overcome several layers of oppression and violence—racism, patriarchy, poverty, and political targeting, including a 2019 assassination attempt.
Alejandra’s political work is inspired more by Francia Marquez than Gustavo Petro. When I ask Alejandra what Francia represents for her, she tells me in a reverential tone: “Francia Marquez, for me, represents dignity. Dignity, strength, empathy, she means berraquera (a distinctly Colombian word encapsulating toughness, initiative, and ability).” Alejandra has pushed for the creation of the second parche of women within Holocausto: futboleras. The first was Fortineras, but futboleras likes to do things a bit differently, including a more feminist agenda. And besides, being recognized as a parche means having a voice and vote in La barra’s agora, and Alejandra has quite a few things to say.
She explains to me in a clear voice: “we want to claim our role in a popular ‘barra’ and also outside of it. And well, for some time now, La barra has also taken strong positions to support us in terms of feminism. We consider ourselves a feminist parche and la barra has already determined that it must be anti-fascist and feminist. We are doing pedagogy so that all the girls experience that context of being a woman in a popular ‘barra’ and more so in Holocausto Norte.” She shows me proudly the picture of a huge flag they made which covers the entirety of the stadium’s North stands. It reads: “The Revolution will be feminist and soccery (futbolera) or nothing at all.” Pushing for this feminist agenda was not an easy thing to do in an environment of young aggressive males, she explains. Alejandra, like the other members of Holocausto, experiences La barra as a democratic organization.
Once has played well, but hasn’t scored yet. In fact, we are losing 1:0. Before the end of the first haft of the match, I am fully into Once, already suffering our loss, and if I knew the songs I would sing. But the band does not stop and parches do not ease, they chant harder: “Balls, balls, today, whatever it takes, we have to win!” La barra’s band of more than twelve people and huge instruments is impressively in tune. It is not only uplifting but also nice to listen to. Crazy Jhon tells me proudly, as I look at a young woman that is playing a huge drum, “we had a school of music; now, they teach themselves!”
Holocausto has gone well beyond having a school of music. They have also created a non-profit foundation that supports their social work. Crazy Jhon has a directive role in leading the projects. He defines himself as someone who does “social” rather than electoral politics. When, I ask him “Why Crazy?” He replies, “Oh, it’s because I liked some weird music when I was a kid.” In any case, no one knows who Jhon is in Holocausto, you have to ask for Crazy Jhon. Through the non-profit “Voces de aliento” (Voices of Hope), La barra organizes soccer matches, works with other barras, and teaches courses for kids, among other social work. Since their founding in the early 2000s, one of the central aims has been to transform their relationship to violence—not only against other barras and the police but also within Holocausto. La barra’s members come from a lot of places in the city—not only spatially but also in terms of social class. In some of these areas, hardship and violence are the norms. Crazy Jhon says: “We took away that idea that the violent barrista [member of a barra] was the one that really [was harsh] … we converted the barrista, a tough social barrista, tough—that if they come and touch him, he defends himself—into one that will never go looking to provoke or attack anyone, never. There is a code that all the barras must have, which is respect for life.”
La barra is an organization with particular sociological characteristics. Members of La barra belong to an imagined community. La barra has given a sense of purpose and belonging for over two decades to many of its members. They are Holocausto Norte. “We celebrate part of Christmas together,” Crazy Jhon tells me. They hold values that they attacheto La barra. They have their rituals. They could easily draw a boundary between friends and enemies—friends are those with Once. I even felt this this take hold of me; I am not and never have been a soccer fan, and the older I grow the less I enjoy watching soccer. But there, with Holocausto, I was completely into Once; I experienced dizziness—surprised by the emotional power the experience had aroused in me—and was rapidly able to connect to a “we.”
In an unfair act of destiny, we lose the match and have no chance of advancing to the next stage of the national soccer tournament. We stay 30 more minutes after all the other stands clear; it’s for safety, Crazy Jhon explains: it is common that barras get into fights with fans of the other teams or with other barras after the match, so Holocausto, as a prevention measure, stays a bit longer while the others clear the stadium. Then we walk out, say goodbye, and leave . I go with Vero and Juan; he tells me in the car about his recent experience in the department of Arauca, on the other side of the Andes next to Venezuela, a region at war, torn apart by different contending armed actors. As a recently elected member of Congress, he visited to see what post-conflict meant in a region of Colombia. Juan tells me that he is for peace and that is what he is trying to represent. A representation that stands not on any party or idealized form by which parties operate in democracies, but on its own mobilization engine, Holocausto.
Crazy Jhon and Juan agree that they are one of the most organized barras in the country. Crazy Jhon tells me that there are more than 20 barras and more than 200,000 barristas nation-wide. Not a minor political force by any means, but with little unifying force and hence fragmented. Most of them are with Petro in this presidential election. Petro and Francia have won the first round of the presidential election with 40.32% of the vote and are facing Rodolfo Hernández, a surprising businessman with little experience in politics and a populist appeal, in a runoff election. The fight for intermediate units, engines of mobilization, will prove critical. Holocausto has already made up its mind.
Holocausto has very particular characteristics, not necessarily shared by other engines—whether families, unions, peasant organizations, or businesses—except for their independence. They all are independent engines that can mobilize regardless of their party affiliation. Because of this independence, Holocausto has been invited by eight different political parties to join them. My point here is that the engines of mobilization are not anchored in parties. Holocausto is a completely autonomous structure; La barra is an autonomous entity and imagined community. Other structures rely on different characteristics, but, likewise, they are the building pieces of parties, true engines of political mobilization. I suggest we try to understand these smaller social units where political mobilization and imagination lie and that aggregate to build parties. In a world in which political parties are increasingly growing weaker, what are the social configurations that mobilize politically? How do these smaller pieces articulate and de-articulate? What explains their stability and rapid movement from one side to the other of the ideological spectrum? Those are some questions I propose we center on.
Nicolás Torres-Echeverry is Neubauer Doctoral Fellow in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, interested in processes of political change and stability. His research centers on the democratic opening tied to third-wave democracies and the forms of contesting for power that have emerged in Global South countries after the transition.
Find him on twitter at @NicolsTorresEc1