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Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city

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Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city
News

News

Unprecedented wave of narco-violence stuns Argentina city

2024-04-22 01:14 Last Updated At:01:20

ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — The order to kill came from inside a federal prison near Argentina's capital. Unwitting authorities patched a call from drug traffickers tied to one of the country's most notorious gangs to collaborators on the outside. Hiring a 15-year-old hit man, they sealed the fate of a young father they didn't even know.

At a service station on March 9 in Rosario, the picturesque hometown of soccer star Lionel Messi, 25-year-old employee Bruno Bussanich was whistling to himself and checking the day's earnings just before he was shot three times from less than a foot away, surveillance footage shows. The assailant fled without taking a peso.

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A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

ROSARIO, Argentina (AP) — The order to kill came from inside a federal prison near Argentina's capital. Unwitting authorities patched a call from drug traffickers tied to one of the country's most notorious gangs to collaborators on the outside. Hiring a 15-year-old hit man, they sealed the fate of a young father they didn't even know.

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

It was the fourth gang-related fatal shooting in Rosario in almost as many days. Authorities called it an unprecedented rampage in Argentina, which had never witnessed the extremes of drug cartel violence afflicting some other Latin American countries.

A handwritten letter was found near Bussanich's body, addressed to officials who want to curb the power drug kingpins wield from behind bars. “We don’t want to negotiate anything. We want our rights," it says. "We will kill more innocent people.”

Shaken residents interviewed by The Associated Press across Rosario described a sense of dread taking hold.

“Every time I go to work, I say goodbye to my father as if it were the last time,” said 21-year-old Celeste Núñez, who also works at a gas station.

The string of killings offer an early test to the security agenda of populist President Javier Milei, who has tethered his political success to saving Argentina’s tanking economy and eradicating narco-trafficking violence.

Since taking office Dec. 10, the right-wing leader has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983.

His law-and-order message has empowered the hardline governor of Santa Fe province, which includes Rosario, to clamp down on incarcerated criminal gangs that authorities say orchestrated 80% of shootings last year. Under the orders of Governor Maximiliano Pullaro, police have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits.

“We are facing a group of narco-terrorists desperate to maintain power and impunity,” Milei said after Bussanich was killed, announcing the deployment of federal forces in Rosario. “We will lock them up, isolate them, take back the streets.”

Milei won 56% of the vote in Rosario, where residents praise his focus on a problem largely neglected by his predecessors. But some worry the government's combative approach traps them in the line of fire.

Gangs started their deadly retaliations just hours after Pullaro’s security minister shared photos showing Argentine prisoners crammed together on the floor, heads pressed against each other’s bare backs — a scene reminiscent of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele’s harsh anti-gang crackdown.

“It’s a war between the state and the drug traffickers,” said Ezequiel, a 30-year-old employee at the gas station where Bussanich was killed. Ezequiel, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, said his mother has since begged him to quit. “We’re the ones paying the price.”

Even Milei's supporters have mixed feelings about the crackdown, including Germán Bussanich, the father of the slain gas station worker.

“They're putting on a show and we're facing the consequences," Bussanich told reporters.

A leafy city 300 kilometers (180 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires, Rosario is where revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara was born, Messi first kicked a soccer ball and the Argentine flag was first raised in 1812. But it most recently won notoriety because its homicide numbers are five times the national average.

Tucked into a bend in the Paraná River, Rosario's port morphed into Argentina's drug trafficking hub as regional crackdowns pushed the narcotics trade south and criminals started squirreling away cocaine in shipping containers spirited down the river to markets abroad. Although Rosario never suffered the car bombs and police assassinations gripping Mexico, Colombia and most recently Ecuador, the splintering of street gangs has fueled bloodshed.

“It’s not close to the violence in Mexico because we still have the deterrence capacity of the government in Argentina,” said Marcelo Bergman, a social scientist at the National University of Tres de Febrero in Argentina. “But we need to keep an eye on Rosario because the major threats come not so much from big cartels but when these groups proliferate and diversify.”

Drug traffickers keep a tight grip over Rosario's poor neighborhoods full of young men vulnerable to recruitment. One of them was Víctor Emanuel, a 17-year-old killed two years ago by rival gangsters in an area where street murals pay tribute to slain criminal leaders. No one was arrested.

“My neighbors know who’s responsible,” his mother, Gerónima Benítez, told the AP, her eyes shiny with tears. “I looked for help everywhere, I knocked on the doors of the judiciary, the government. No one answered.”

A fearful existence is all Benítez has ever known. But now, for the first time in Argentina, warring drug traffickers are banding together and terrorizing parts of the city previously considered safe.

Imprisoned gang leaders in Latin America have long run criminal enterprises remotely with the help of corrupt guards. But according to an indictment unveiled last week, incarcerated gang bosses in Argentina have been passing instructions on how to kill random civilians via family visits and video calls.

Court documents say the bosses paid underage hit men up to $450 to target four of the recent victims in Argentina’s third-largest city. The killing of Bussanich, two taxi drivers and a bus driver in less than a week in March, federal prosecutors say, “shattered the peace of an entire society."

Street emptied. Schools closed. Bus drivers picketed. People were too terrified to leave their homes.

“This violence is on another level,” 20-year-old Rodrigo Dominguez said from an intersection where a dangling banner demanded justice for another bus driver slain there weeks earlier. “You can’t go outside.”

Panic was still palpable in Rosario last week, as police swarmed the streets and normally bustling bars closed early for lack of customers. A diner managed by Messi’s family, a draw for fans, reported quiet nights and less profit. Women in one neighborhood said they carry 22‐caliber pistols. Analía Manso, 37, said she was too scared to send her children to school.

Pope Francis last month said he was praying for his countrymen in Rosario.

Assaults and public threats continue. This month, a sign appeared on a highway overpass warning Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich that gangs would extend their offensive to Buenos Aires if the government doesn't back down.

Authorities have sought to reassure the public by sending hundreds of federal agents into Rosario. The AP spent a night with police last week as officers patrolled neighborhoods logging suspicious activity and setting up checkpoints.

Georgina Wilke, a 45-year-old Rosario officer in the explosives squad, said she welcomes federal intervention, including the military, to get crime under control. “We've been hit very hard,” Wilke said.

Omar Pereira, the provincial secretary of public security, promised the efforts represent a shift from failed tactics of the past.

“There were always pacts, implicit or explicit, between the state and criminals,” Pereira said, describing how authorities long looked the other way. “What’s the idea of this government? There is no pact."

But experts are skeptical a tough-on-crime approach will stop drug traffickers from buying control over Argentina’s police and prisons.

“Unless the government fixes its problems with corruption, the crackdown on prisons is unlikely to have any long-term effect,” said Christopher Newton, an investigator at Colombia-based research organization InSight Crime.

For years, Rosario's 1.3 million residents have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go while the violence endures.

“It’s like a cancer that grows and grows,” said Benítez from her home, its windows protected by wrought-iron bars.

“We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.”

A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A chain lock reinforces the locked door of a gas station that started closing shop at night after the killing of a worker at a nearby station a few weeks before, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The order to kill came from inside Ezeiza Prison from gang leaders who hired a 15-year-old hitman to kill gas station worker Bruno Bussanich on March 9. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand inside the Pinero jail complex in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

An inmate looks out from a window at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Inmates play soccer at Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The Pinero jail complex stands in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei’s tough-on-crime message has empowered hardline governor Maximiliano Pullaro’s efforts to clamp down on incarcerated criminal groups, which he said planned 80% of shootings in Rosario last year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A police officer stands guard on a street in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. President Javier Milei has promised to prosecute gang members as terrorists and change the law to allow the army into crime-ridden streets for the first time since Argentina's brutal military dictatorship ended in 1983. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Prison guards stand behind the entrance to Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Authorities have ramped up prison raids, seized thousands of smuggled cellphones and restricted visits. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A banner hangs over a bus stop asking for justice regarding the murder of bus driver Cesar Roldan in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez wipes her eyes as she speaks about her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, during an interview at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Geronima Benitez holds a photograph of her son Victor Emanuel, 17, who was murdered by drug traffickers who were never arrested two years ago, at her home in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Benítez said her son’s killer still lives down her street and is not convinced a prison sentence would make a difference. “We, on the outside, live in prison,” she said. “Those inside have everything.” (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police patrol the streets of Rosario, Argentina, as a family that collects disposed cardboard to resell pushes their children in a shopping cart, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of Claudio Ariel Cantero covers a wall alongside a supportive message of him written by his family, in Rosario, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Cantero, known as “El Pajaro,” or The Bird, was the leader of the criminal organization called “Los Monos,” or The Monkeys, and was shot to death at a bowling alley on May 26, 2013 in Santa Fe. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A resident who did not want to be identified shows the gun she keeps at her home for self-defense as she poses for a photo in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The homicide rate is five times the national average in Rosario. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

People hang out at a park in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Lionel Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Police officer Georgina Wilke drives her patrol car in Rosario, Argentina, late Monday, April 8, 2024. Agents fanned out across hardscrabble areas, spending hours logging neighborhood activity and setting up checkpoints on major thoroughfares. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A child rides a bicycle past a mural of Gabriel Ignacio Romero, a resident who was murdered on the sidewalk outside his home the previous year, in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. For the past decade, the 1.3 million residents of Rosario have watched warily as presidents and their promises come and go. What endures, they say, is violence. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A mural of soccer player Lionel Messi covers a building in Rosario, Argentina, Monday, April 8, 2024. The birthplace of Messi and revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara morphed about a decade ago into the country’s drug trafficking hub, as regional crackdowns pushed the trade south. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

A prison guard sits in a watchtower at the Pinero jail in Pinero, Argentina, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. President Javier Milei has called for harsher penalties against drug traffickers and military intervention. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Bayer Leverkusen is two games from European soccer immortality.

The new champion of Germany has two cup finals in four days — starting Wednesday in the Europa League against Atalanta — to complete a previously unthinkable unbeaten season in domestic and continental competition.

On Saturday, Leverkusen will be heavily favored to win the German cup final against a Kaiserslautern team that finished 13th in the second division, not so far from falling into relegation playoffs.

And so the biggest remaining challenge for coach Xabi Alonso’s team is game No. 52 of 53, in Dublin against an Atalanta that is finishing the season strong.

It feels fitting because the Europa League has been a regular drama for Leverkusen.

Three times in six games in the knockout rounds the team was 2-0 down deep into the second half and still behind entering stoppage time: In both round of 16 games against Qarabag and in the semifinals return leg against Roma.

In another streak-saving Europa game, at West Ham in the quarterfinals, Leverkusen was set to advance on aggregate score yet needed an 89th-minute goal by wing-back Jeremie Frimpong to draw 1-1 and stay unbeaten.

“We don’t want to wait until the last seconds of the game,” said Patrick Schick, whose three stoppage-time goals against Qarabag in March were key to advancing 5-4 on aggregate. “We would like to make it clear, really, earlier.”

There have been other stellar teams in European soccer who added the elite Champions League to their domestic league title, unlike Leverkusen playing in the second-tier Europa League.

Still, Manchester United in 1999, Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona in 2011 and Manchester City last year were wealthy clubs whose success could have been expected. Each started their season with established, star-packed teams led by coaches — Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola — who'd already won multiple domestic and European trophies.

This is Alonso’s first full season coaching at the top level. His team was in relegation trouble last season. There was no superstar transfer signing in the offseason.

“For me it’s very special,” the 42-year-old Alonso said last week. “My first title as a coach was the Bundesliga. It was super, it was very special. But a title in Europe would be wonderful and hopefully we will be able to say that.”

Alonso twice won the Champions League as an elegant midfielder, with Liverpool and then Real Madrid, who will play Borussia Dortmund for this season’s Champions League title. That June 1 final at Wembley Stadium is between two teams involved in the failed Super League breakaway in 2021 — Madrid driving it forward, Dortmund declining its invitation.

Bayer Leverkusen and Atalanta were nowhere close to being invited to the breakaway three years ago and today represent soccer projects that won respect from neutral fans across Europe.

Both are based in provincial cities, each with more than 100 years of history, reaching surprise peaks. Before this season, they had only ever won three trophies: Atalanta’s Italian cup in 1963 and Leverkusen’s 1988 UEFA Cup – the forerunner of the Europa League – and Germany cup in 1993.

While Leverkusen once lost a Champions League final, to Madrid in 2002, and Atalanta was minutes away from a semifinals place in 2020, neither has felt entitled to European success.

Their modest stadiums in Leverkusen and Bergamo add up to a combined capacity of about 51,000 that could fit into the Dublin venue, formerly Lansdowne Road, that will host them Wednesday. For a showpiece European final, the official limit is 48,000.

Leverkusen and Atalanta do not figure in UEFA research of the top-50 earnings list of European clubs for total matchday income from ticket and hospitality sales.

Two well-run clubs, relying on smart transfer dealings — albeit underwritten, respectively, by pharmaceutical giant Bayer and Boston Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca — had combined total revenues last year that added up to about the same $500 million as Manchester City’s player wage bill alone.

Yet both Leverkusen and Atalanta, under coach Gian Piero Gasperini since 2016, play easy-on-the-eye soccer in attack and team-first defense.

“They play one against one on the whole pitch,” Schick said of Atalanta. “Wherever you move, you have one defender behind you so they don’t leave you the space to breathe.”

Atalanta has been a refreshing force under Gasperini and already has a place in the Champions League next season. In any normal year they would be popular first-time European title winners.

What Leverkusen has done is not normal, though, and a legend could be just days from being created.

AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Leverkusen team poses prior to the start of the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Leverkusen team poses prior to the start of the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta players celebrate at the end of the Europa League semifinal second leg soccer match between Atalanta and Marseille at the Bergamo's stadium, in Bergamo, Italy, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini attends a Media Open Day at the Giulio Onesti Olympic Center in Rome, Italy, Thursday, May 16, 2024. Atalanta will play Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League soccer final scheduled for May 22, 2024 in Dublin. (Alfredo Falcone/LaPresse via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's Josip Stanisic, center, scores a goal during the Europa League second leg semi-final soccer match between Leverkusen and Roma at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Thursday, May 9, 2024. (Bernd Thissen/dpa via AP)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Leverkusen's head coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with the trophy as his team won the German Bundesliga, after the German Bundesliga soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and FC Augsburg at the BayArena in Leverkusen, Germany, Saturday, May 18, 2024. Bayer Leverkusen have won the Bundesliga title for the first time. It is the first team in Bundesliga history, that won the championship unbeaten for the whole season. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

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