After last year's fan violence in Queretaro, has Fan ID technology ensured safety for Liga MX fans?

QUERETARO, Mexico -- More than a year since a fan riot left 26 injured during a Liga MX match at Estadio Corregidora in March 2022, emotional scars remain.

"Really, really sad, all the fights and images," lamented Martin, a rideshare driver as he drove up a small hill to the venue where brawls in the stands spilled onto the pitch during Queretaro's match vs. Atlas on March 5, 2022. "Soccer is just a game."

In what was one the darkest days in Mexican soccer, Queretaro fans -- some wielding parts of advertisement boards, metal gates, and chairs as crude weapons -- clashed with outnumbered Atlas supporters. Seeking safety, hundreds of families and attendees ran onto the field to avoid the chaos, with some parents removing jerseys off their children that could possibly identify them as Atlas fans.

Shocking videos and photos were posted on social media that showed unconscious bodies lying in pools of blood, while being beaten and stripped.

"We were cornered and what they did was open the gate of the stadium to the field. We ran down and from there it was chaos. Everyone started running, we didn't know where to go. We didn't know if they were going to hit us," one fan told ESPN Mexico after the incident.

With a reported attendance of 14,463 that day -- which could have been higher in a stadium with a capacity of 34,000 -- Queretaro state governor Mauricio Kuri said in the aftermath that the number of security personnel "was insufficient" with only 290 guards present of the 400 requested.

Officials stated that no one died that day, but that has been disputed by unverified reports of deaths at the stadium. Numerous arrests followed, including four law enforcement officers for "unjustified omission of their duties."

Three days after the incident, Liga MX issued a number of sanctions and bans. Queretaro's home games were played behind closed doors for one year, while the club's barras (supporter groups) were suspended for three years from the stadium and one year at away matches.

In addition, Queretaro's ownership group was suspended for five years from league-related activities, and given a fine of 1.5 million pesos ($84,000 USD). The league then transferred the club's ownership to Grupo Caliente, which also owns Liga MX side Club Tijuana.

While incidents of fan violence at Liga MX matches have occurred at least once a year since 2013 (outside of the period from 2020-21 impacted by the coronavirus pandemic), the images from the Queretaro-Atlas match brought widepread condemnation, including from FIFA.

"Measures will be implemented that will mark a 'before and after' in the protocols that must be observed and followed," Liga MX president Mikel Arriola said after the riot. "We are facing the problem head-on, with the aim of changing this negative image from [that game]."

After scenes of violence, a new era with 'Fan ID'

With Mexico set to co-host the 2026 men's World Cup alongside the U.S. and Canada, the incident in Queretaro put the issue of fan safety in the spotlight. After the riot, Arriola admitted that co-hosting duties could have been "at risk if Mexico didn't resolve and didn't show a capacity" of addressing the issue.

In November 2022, the league announced it would implement a "Fan ID" technology that utilized online registration and facial recognition software at stadiums for security, and thereby not allowing fans to enter anonymously.

Domingo Guerra, a vice president for Incode, the company that developed the Fan ID software, described the technology being akin to security measures seen at other venues. Fans needed to register on a website with their email, upload a photo of themselves and also scan a form of identification.

"Imagine if you're going to an event or a club and there's a bouncer outside, they will check your ID to make sure you can go inside. At a very high level, that's what our technology is doing," Guerra told ESPN. "It's going to verify that it's a real person with a real ID and then keep that [information] locally on the person's device."

According to Guerra, "if something ever goes wrong, God forbid another kind of incident like what happened last year, then [Liga MX] can decide to block certain people from going into any stadium, any game."

The technology went into effect for Queretaro's match on March 19 vs. FC Juarez, when the one-year ban on the general public was lifted. The technology then became mandatory on April 16 for attendees across all Liga MX stadiums.

In a March 4 news conference ahead of the Corregidora's reopening, Arriola said that: "With what we've learned in Queretaro, we're very certain that it will go from being the worst example to being a safe and reliable stadium because the fans deserve it."

On March 9, Queretaro announced that they had "satisfactorily complied with the protocols, procedures, and specifications outlined by Liga MX and the Queretaro state government for the reopening of the Estadio Corregidora" and reopened for the March 19 match.

Liga MX did not respond to several requests by ESPN to speak with Arriola about the league's ongoing fan safety measures, but the league said in a statement in April that more than 760,400 attendees had signed up for Fan ID.

'Soccer should be something beautiful'

Security and law enforcement patrolled nearly every corner and road leading to the stadium ahead of the April 2 match between Queretaro and Pumas, the second home game with fans since the ban had lifted.

Along with an imposing police presence, fans walked past substantial lettering of "Tolerancia" (Tolerance) written across the the venue, a surface-level update to the venue that was painted months after the riots.

One Queretaro supporter, wearing the jersey of Brazilian legend Ronaldinho -- who briefly played with Los Gallos Blancos from 2014-15 -- felt at ease with the heightened amount of law enforcement.

"Honestly from what I've seen, I do feel safer. You do notice a lot more security and also the simple fact that there's municipal and state patrols. The difference is much more noticeable," said Salvador Jimenez, a local resident who was visiting for the first time since the stadium reopened.

"I was initially a little worried, but everything is feeling safe," he added. "Soccer should be something beautiful and not something that we have to be afraid of."

Another person in attendance, who only identified as Daniel, said he was at that game where the riots broke out last year.

"I was here that day that it happened," he said. "I was in a state of shock, you didn't know what to do, but I never felt in danger because I was there among my own [Queretaro supporters]. If it was the reverse, it would have been ugly."

As he entered the stadium's main gate he added: "I'm very happy, we needed a little excitement here in Queretaro and to provide support for our local team."

To the credit of numerous Fan ID support staff walking around Queretaro's stadium, the process appeared to be a straightforward one with little-to-no issues even minutes before kick-off.

As the game went on, an announced crowd of 17,890 cheered with anxious energy. The match seemed destined toward a scoreless draw before Queretaro winger Pablo Barrera's cross in the 86th minute deflected off Pumas defender Miguel Barbieri and into the back of visitors' net, sending the home crowd into a frenzy of roaring cheers and emotions.

Adding more drama to the situation, the goal was initially ruled offside, before a video assistant referee confirmed that the goal had counted, leading to even more exuberant celebrations. The party continued into injury time, where Queretaro held on for a narrow 1-0 victory.

Despite the on-field heroics and the all the safety measures leading up the game, altercations did break out in the stands. With police using laser pointers to identify offenders in the stands, six fans were ejected due to "disturbing the peace" in the match. No other incidents were reported.

Initial progress but sporadic incidents continue

Despite the new security measures and a "zero-tolerance policy," there were still incidents of fan violence across the league. In the first week of the Fan ID's league-wide use, a total of 16 fans were banned from stadiums, including seven fans from Monterrey's match on April 16 match against Santos Laguna.

On April 21, when images emerged of a Tijuana supporter kicking a visiting Leon fan in the head outside of the Estadio Caliente, Fan ID was used to identify three persons involved in the fight. One individual was given a five-year Liga MX stadium ban, while two others were given a two-year Liga MX stadium ban. Since then, there have not been any reported incidents of fan violence.

With all that in mind, has the league done enough to avoid another major scene like the one seen in March 2022? The issue with barras, who were blamed for the March 2022 incident, won't go away either -- especially since the league didn't entirely ban the Queretaro groups.

Though it's important to stress that a very strong majority of Liga MX matches are safe and typically have fans from opposing teams sitting side-by-side, there are no guarantees that the league has entirely stamped out problems that can emerge, even with Fan ID. Liga MX has taken steps in the right direction, but like the emotional scars that remain from last year, so do concerns about whether fan violence can be stopped.