Mexicans were shocked to see a familiar scourge taint a national hero’s image on Wednesday, when the U.S. government accused soccer legend Rafael Márquez of laundering money for a drug cartel.
Having won four La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues with Barcelona, plus more than a dozen other trophies during a career that has stretched over two decades, Márquez is Mexico’s most successful soccer player of all time. The veteran defender has captained Mexico in a record of four World Cups and was in line to lead them into a fifth next year.
A respected leader on and off the field, Márquez is also known for his charity work with disadvantaged youths. In a country stained by cartel violence and political corruption, he is a hero to millions and a symbol of national pride.
But according to a multiyear investigation involving several U.S. and Mexican agencies, even Márquez is not immune to the reach of Mexico’s many drug cartels.
The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Márquez and 21 others under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for their links to a vast but little-known criminal network run by Raúl Flores Hernández.
In what it described as the largest single action it’s ever taken against a Mexican cartel, OFAC also blacklisted 42 businesses, including nine linked to Márquez. All but one are located in the western city of Guadalajara, where the veteran star is currently playing for his boyhood club Atlas.
The Kingpin Act enables the U.S. government to freeze any assets the designated individuals or entities hold under its jurisdiction and prohibit U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
“This is my most difficult game. I’ll try to clear all this up as soon as I can.”
Julión Álvarez, a popular banda singer, was also designated alongside Márquez.
“Both men have longstanding relationships with Flores Hernández, and have acted as front persons for him and his [drug-trafficking organization] and held assets on their behalf,” OFAC said in a statement.
The news caused embarrassment for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, who once praised Álvarez as “a great example for Mexican youth” and had posted a photo on a boat ride with the singer earlier this week. The president hastily deleted the image from his Instagram page.
The allegations against Márquez were even more devastating, though the soccer star categorically denied them. “I’ve never participated in any of the organizations that have been mentioned,” he told the local press on Wednesday night. “This is my most difficult game. I’ll try to clear all this up as soon as I can.”
The Mexican government said earlier that Márquez had appeared voluntarily at the attorney general’s office to give a statement. An investigation is underway but he does not presently face criminal charges.
As Mexico’s cartels embroil the nation in what stands to be the most violent year on record, the sanctions against Márquez are a reminder of how the fallout from the seemingly endless drug war has contaminated broad swathes of society.
Tom Marshall, a Mexican soccer expert based in Guadalajara, described the accusations as a “massive shock.” He said Márquez was an authority figure within the Mexican game who had been preparing to take on a prominent role as a sporting director or even president of Mexico’s soccer federation.
“It’s hard to see him playing for the national team again, unless he comes forward with a very swift and coherent explanation,” said Diego Petersen, a columnist for Guadalajara’s El Informador newspaper.
Flores, the alleged head of the criminal organization, is a relatively unheard of figure who has operated in Guadalajara and Mexico City since the 1980s, forging ties to the powerful Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office revealed on Wednesday that Flores was arrested in 2013, released in 2015 and recaptured last month. Federal courts in D.C. and California’s Southern District indicted him for drug trafficking in March.
“Raúl Flores Hernández has operated for decades because of his longstanding relationships with other drug cartels and his use of financial front persons to mask his investments of illegal drug proceeds,” said OFAC director John E. Smith.
Flores’ financial network included a popular nightclub, a third-division soccer club and a casino that was seized by the Mexican authorities. The nine businesses linked to Márquez include a soccer school, several health and fitness centers and his Rafa Márquez Foundation, a charity supported by Barcelona F.C. Mexican agents reportedly raided two of those firms on Wednesday.
Petersen, who has written frequently about money laundering in Guadalajara, said Márquez is known for investing in local businesses but warned against judging him before the investigation is concluded.
“If the information didn’t come from the United States then we’d never know who’s laundering money in Mexico.”
“In Mexico money launderers present themselves as successful entrepreneurs. They meet with politicians and they’re celebrated by the business class,” Petersen said. “It’s possible he could have done business with them without realizing it was dirty money.”
Guadalajara, Mexico’s second biggest metropolis, became a major money laundering hub after a group of Sinaloan narcos, including a young Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, settled there in the early 1980s.
The U.S. government has blacklisted more businesses in Guadalajara than in any other city, including bars, restaurants, tequila firms, apartment blocks, shopping malls, shoe stores, pawn shops, gas stations, an ostrich farm and a clinic for vaginal rejuvenation. Many continue to operate as Mexican authorities turn a blind eye.
Petersen hopes the joint U.S.-Mexican investigation will lead to further collaboration in a crucial but often overlooked area of the drug war.
“In Mexico we go after kingpins but not the business owners or investors who support them,” he said. “If the information didn’t come from the United States then we’d never know who’s laundering money in Mexico.”
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Guadalajara