For a soccer club mired in debt and with a long list of defeats, a duffel bag stuffed with US$7 million was a godsend. And that was just the petty cash.
Times had been tough for Bogota’s Independiente Santa Fe soccer 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 bags full of cash started arriving in about 2002 and for a while the club’s fortunes took a turn for the better.
Santa Fe lured Argentinian players to its ranks and by this year the team were savoring 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 czar 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. US investigators say Lozano shipped as much as 960 tonnes of cocaine to the US and Europe over the past five years.
The organization, called the El Dorado cartel, allegedly laundered part of its US$1.5 billion profits through the club.
Unfortunately, for Colombian soccer 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 more of the 18 first division clubs are under investigation for money laundering.
Ties between Colombia’s powerful drug organizations and soccer 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 Atletico Nacional, Millionarios belonged to rival drug trafficker Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, of the Cali cartel, owned shares in the America de Cali club.
The latest revelations of money laundering have finally forced the Colombian government to act. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a lifelong fan of Santa Fe, has announced a “zero tolerance” policy for narco-soccer, which he denounced as “repugnant.” In a recent speech he said he would put and end to the “macabre relationship between criminals and soccer.”
The links between Santa Fe and the El Dorado cartel started to emerge last spring in reports from informants and undercover police agents.
In June, 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 US$103 million and 17 million euros (US$22.3 million) in cash found in several vehicles parked throughout Bogota. The cash, prosecutors said, was to be laundered through the Santa Fe club.
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. A number of news organizations reported several weeks ago that the cartel’s top boss, Julio Alberto Lozano, turned himself in to US authorities in Miami last month, but Colombian investigators said nearly a month later they had not received confirmation he was in custody.