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Originally published Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 10:17 AM

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Amid the drugs and violence, soccer lifts a city

Gunfire crackled during the game, with players and referees running for cover.

The Associated Press

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TORREON, Mexico —

Gunfire crackled during the game, with players and referees running for cover.

Outside Santos Laguna's soccer stadium, gunmen had opened fire on a police patrol. No one was killed this time. This was just the daily fallout from the drug cartel violence that engulfs this city in northern Mexico.

That was eight months ago.

Fast forward to next week, when the same stadium will be the main stage for a big moment in Mexican sports. Santos Laguna will try to win the CONCACAF Champions League against Mexico rival Monterrey. The winner of the two-leg finals advances to Tokyo for the Club World Cup, which was won last year by Spanish giant Barcelona.

"It'd be really nice to give these people something to be proud of, for Torreon to be put on the global scale for something other than negativity or violence," said Herculez Gomez, the American striker and the team's top scorer. "They live, they eat, they breath this team out here."

Gomez grew up in Las Vegas and played in the last World Cup for the United States. He transferred to the first-division team in December from the Mexican club Estudiantes Tecos.

"I was definitely worried coming in," he said. "You fear what you don't know. I'd heard great things about the club, that they were a top-notch club, very professional; very new-age as far as Mexican football goes. I came and that's exactly what I saw."

Santos Laguna plays the first leg Wednesday at Monterrey with the second leg on April 25 at Santos' Corona Stadium.

Santos has been close to success recently, losing three of the last four finals for the Mexican League championship. The team is near the top again this season, thanks in part to the ownership and financial might of Mexican brewer Grupo Modelo.

Much of the credit goes to Alejandro Irarragorri, the club president who took over in 2006 and is intent on keeping the team competitive. He has visited European powerhouses such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City and has tried to learn from those models. The club also has close links with Celtic in Scotland and has showed its ambition by signing Spanish midfielder Marc Crosas, a product of Barcelona's youth system.

"Our vision is that of a business, and when one wants to learn important things you have to look to the leaders, and it is clear that European leagues are leaders in all aspects," Irarragorri said.

The team's Territorio Santos Modelo complex - opened in 2009, and housing the stadium, youth team housing, training facilities and eventually a shopping mall and hotel - is one of the most modern sports facilities in Mexico.

But the city has had myriad problems linked to the drug war. A government assault on organized crime has been accompanied by violence that has left more than 47,000 people dead nationwide since President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of federal police and soldiers shortly after taking office in 2006.

In Torreon, nightclubs closed because of the violence and bars shut early. Get-togethers in homes are the norm with the drug-related turf war between the Sinaloa and Zeta cartels ravaging the city. The army and state police patrol the streets, and the U.S. government advises its citizens not to go to Torreon.

"The city of Torreon had a murder rate of more than 40 per 100,000 population between January and August of 2011," the U.S. government said in a statement "You should defer all nonessential travel."

Despite the fear and chaos, Santos regularly fills its 30,000-seat stadium on the outskirts of the city.

"With all this violence, the stadium has become like a meeting point for the city," taxi driver Aaron Ramirez said. "It would mean a lot here to get to the Club World Cup."

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