Red-carding the cartels

For a football club mired in debt and with a long list of defeats, a duffel bag stuffed with $7-million was a godsend. And that was just the petty cash.

Times had been tough for Bogotá’s Independiente Santa Fe football club. The last time it won a Colombian league title was in 1975, the club was racking up debts and often players were not paid on time. Then, investigators say, the duffel bags full of cash started arriving in about 2002 and for a while the fortunes of the club took a turn for the better.

Santa Fe lured Argentinian players to its ranks and by this year the team was savouring the possibility of a Colombian first division league title for the first time in 35 years. But the source of the funds that transformed the club’s fortunes was not a kindly benefactor. The cash is said to have come from Julio Alberto Lozano, an emerald tsar turned drug lord, who bought shares in the club through friends and family.

As he built up what police say is today Colombia’s most powerful drug cartel, he used the Santa Fe football club as a front. American investigators say Lozano shipped as much as 960 tons of cocaine to the United States and Europe in the past five years. The organisation, called the El Dorado cartel, allegedly laundered part of its $1,5-billion profits through the club.

Unfortunately for Colombian football the story of Santa Fe is not an isolated case. For years the sport has been tainted by its association with drug barons and criminals and three other of the 18 first division clubs are under investigation for money laundering.

Ties between Colombia’s powerful drug organisations and football have existed for more than three decades, since the heyday of the flashy cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s when drug lords bought teams as their playthings. Pablo Escobar owned Atlético Nacional, Millonarios belonged to rival drug trafficker José Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, of the Cali cartel, owned shares in the América de Cali club. The capos pumped the teams with cash to buy top international players and boost salaries locally.

But the latest revelations of money laundering have finally forced the Colombian government to act.

‘Macabre relationship’
President Juan Manuel Santos, a lifelong fan of Santa Fe, has announced a “zero tolerance” policy for narco-football, which he denounced as “repugnant”. In a recent speech he said he would put an end to the “macabre relationship between criminals and football”.

The links between Santa Fe and the El Dorado cartel started to emerge last year in reports from informants and undercover police agents.

In June last year prosecutors announced that a criminal investigation into several team owners was under way and one was arrested in Buenos Aires carrying a false Guatemalan passport. A witness told investigators he personally saw the cash-stuffed duffel bag taken to the offices of Santa Fe and handed over to its managers.

In October police seized $103-million and €17-million in cash found in several vehicles parked throughout Bogota. The cash, prosecutors said, was to be laundered through the Santa Fe club. Days later the team’s biggest corporate sponsor, Aguila beer, withdrew its funding.

Then it was revealed that the club’s auditor, who was gunned down in July after being questioned by prosecutors, had also been auditor to former top paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso and a partner of Escobar in the 1980s. Several news organisations reported in November that the cartel’s top boss, Lozano, turned himself in to United States authorities in Miami in November, but Colombian investigators said nearly a month later they had not received confirmation he was in custody.

Cesar Pastrana, the club’s president, said the “doors were open” to investigators but emphasised that “no one is guilty until proved otherwise”.

The Colombian Congress is one step away from approving a Bill that would make financing of football clubs more transparent, creating incentives for football clubs to become private companies and imposing a requirement for each club to report transactions and player trades to a special unit of the finance ministry that investigates financial crime and money laundering.
“Either we change football or it will be over for us,” Santos said. “I am not going to permit the demise of Colombian football.”

One way money is laundered through football is that a club buys a player for, say, $100 000 but puts it on the books as $1-million. It can also inflate salaries and ticket sales.

Jairo Clopatofsky, the head of the Colombian government’s sports agency, Coldeportes, said Colombian football as it stood was “non-viable”. The measures the government was seeking were a “lifeline” for Colombian football, he said.

But for Santa Fe the future remains uncertain. As the investigations began, the club’s fortunes slumped.

“All this about mafia money in the club has to have affected the players. It’s disheartening and it has affected us fans,” said Climaco Garcia, a shopkeeper dressed in a bright red jersey with his team’s symbols, as he left the stadium after a recent Santa Fe match. “There had been rumours for years but we just didn’t want to believe it.”

The club’s president resigned recently after another defeat and Santa Fe is reportedly planning to sell off its three foreign players, including Argentinian star midfielder Omar Pérez. With neither big-name sponsors nor drug money to bail out their club, Santa Fe’s disillusioned fan base must reconcile themselves to the reality that the club’s chances of winning a Colombian league title seem more distant than ever. —


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