Football, the most popular sport in Colombia, has been subject to heavy pressures from drug trafficking since the mid-1970s. A new study shows that the illicit trade continues to tarnish the upper echelons of this sport.
That patchy history has unfolded over the course of three decades, with the latest chapter being the legal actions under way for the laundering of 1.5 billion dollars through the Bogotá-based football club Independiente Santa Fe, one of Colombia's 18 first division teams.
Investigations in recent months led to the arrests of five people, in Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Miami and in the central Colombian town of Puerto Gaitán.
Notable among them are two former officials of the government's Technical Investigation Corp (CTI), the entity that supports the national Attorney General's Office.
Luis Caicedo and Claudio Silva were detained in April as part of 'Operation Pacific Basin.' Caicedo lived in relatively humble circumstances in Buenos Aires, marking a sharp difference with the top Colombian drug cartel bosses.
From Argentina, he allegedly coordinated a network of illicit activities throughout the Americas, linked to the brothers Javier and Luis Calle, successors to drug boss Wilber Varela, who was killed in Venezuela and 2008.
Silva is believed to have served as a figurehead. The authorities have seized 118 properties whose titles were under his name.
Arrested in the United States for alleged obstruction of justice is Ricardo Villarraga, former official with the Colombian Administrative Department of Security (DAS), charged in 1994 for abetting the escape of Puerto Rican Fernando Montañez, arrested for drug trafficking.
The Attorney General's Office links Villarraga, who has a son playing for Independiente Santa Fe, to the money laundering case, though his defence attorney denied that his arrest in the U.S. is related to drug trafficking.
Another arrestee also belonged to the DAS: Franklin Gaitán, who was in charge of the organisation's security. The fifth to be arrested is Carlos Flórez, police captain, who is thought to have leaked information to the drug cartel.
The next target of justice authorities is Julio Alberto Lozano Piraquive, who is thought to be living in Mexico and was already sentenced in the United States to 20 years for 'drug trafficking and money laundering,' which won him inclusion in the Red Notice of Interpol (International Criminal Police Organisation).
Lozano allegedly provided money to Independiente Santa Fe under the guise of investments. The investigation cites figures that surpass 25 million dollars between 2006 and 2008.
Involved in the plot are also former club presidents dating back to 1985, such as the assassinated César Villegas, sentenced for drug-related money laundering in the 'Proceso 8,000', which investigated the ties between the Cali drug cartel and the electoral campaign of former Colombian president Ernesto Samper (1994-1998).
Luis Eduardo Méndez, who headed the club from 2003 to 2007, was sentenced to 70 months in prison for helping Montañez escape. When Montañez was recaptured, he confirmed that Méndez had received money from drug traffickers.
In the middle of the scandal, the football club's current president, César Pastrana, issued a statement assuring that none of the people mentioned has ties to Independiente Santa Fe, and reiterated willingness to provide all information necessary.
'The relationship between the 'narcos' and football has left innumerable inconclusive legal investigations' in Colombia, designer and football fan Camilo Alejandro González, told IPS.
Investigative journalist Fabio Castillo published a report in 1987 entitled 'The Horsemen of Cocaine,' which laid out the ties that existed at the time.
'Atlético Nacional (football club) had as its principal shareholder Hernán Botero, seen in a large photo in which he held up a fistful of dollars during a football match that his team lost,' wrote Castillo.
'Remember that in the 1980s and 90s, most people wavered between desire and ethics. They wanted the team managers to create winning teams by hiring famous footballers, at the same time they ignored or hid the disappointment they may have felt about the participation of narco- trafficking money,' sociologist Fernando Morales told IPS.
'It was an era when many idolised Pablo Escobar (notorious Colombian drug lord, killed by police in 1993) because he built houses for the poor and supported neighbourhood football teams,' Morales said.
The 1980s and 90s were also an era of great football triumphs. In 1989, the Atlético Nacional club won the Liberators Cup (the prestigious South American club tournament) and in 1993 the Colombian national team beat powerhouse Argentina 5-0 in qualifying for the 1994 FIFA World Cup -- a victory that fans continue to boast about.
The Colombian squad played in the FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) World Cups of 1990, 1994 and 1998.
In 1991, while serving time in La Catedral prison in Medellín, Pablo Escobar received a visit from the national team's goalie at the time, René Higuita, famous for ability and his agility in the goal.
In 1994, footballer Andrés Escobar (no relation to Pablo) was assassinated in his home city of Medellín after scoring a goal against his own team, which meant Colombia's elimination from the World Cup in the United States. 'That loss sparked fury among those betting on the match, and surely some were linked to narco-trafficking,' said football fan González.
Other teams have experienced similar situations. Los Millionarios club belonged to drug trafficker Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, who was killed in a military operation in 1989. The clan of the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, extradited to the U.S. in 2004, owned shares in the América de Cali football club.
González, who supports Los Millionarios, is confident that the club's new president, José Roberto Arango 'will renovate it, selling some shares and the trademark, as well as bringing in new investors -- this time legal ones.'
'A similar process can be seen at the América de Cali club,' he said.
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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