The US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions against 22 individuals and 42 businesses in Mexico on Wednesday, alleging the people and firms were part of the network of an alleged drug-cartel operative.
The US government called it the largest single action it has taken against a Mexican criminal organization, but the most striking part of the announcement for many in Mexico was the inclusion of a legendary soccer star.
Rafael Alavarez Marquez, known as Rafa Marquez, is considered one of Mexico’s most accomplished and celebrated soccer players.
He debuted in Mexico’s premier league in 1996 with Atlas de Guadalajara in Jalisco state, moving to AS Monaco of France’s Ligue 1 three years later. In 2003, the defender went to Barcelona, where he earned $6.5 million a year and helped take the club to four La Liga and two Champions League victories.
He left Barcelona in 2010, and after stints in the US, Mexico, and Italy he returned to Atlas, the club where the 38-year-old from Michoacan began his career. “Having Rafael Marquez on the team is amazing,” Atlas defender Facundo Erpen said.
He has been a member of Mexico’s national team since 1997 and a captain since 2002, scoring 13 goals in 158 appearances. He has also played in four World Cups and hoped to lead the team to a fifth next year — a goal that is now in serious doubt.
Once his career as a player was over, he was set to take on a high-profile role in Mexico soccer, Tom Marshall, a Guadalajara-based Mexican soccer expert, told Vice News. The accusations against him came as a “massive shock,” Marshall said.
“This is really bad, because he is a role model for children,” Fernando, a young man in a Barcelona shirt, told AFP. Mexico City shoeshine man Mario Rodriguez said the allegation was “absurd, nonsense.”
“In his best version, he has been a incomparable footballer, maybe the best that Mexico has produced,” writes Leon Krauze, a journalist and author who has chronicled the world of Mexican soccer.
The accusations leveled against him involve his alleged role as a front man for an organization led by Raul Flores Hernandez, a “smooth as butter” operator who has allegedly worked with the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels as a money launderer over the last 30 years.
Flores Hernandez was arrested in the US in 2001 on marijuana charges, serving two months of a 10-month sentence.
In 2010, the Mexican government offered 5 million pesos in exchange for information leading to his capture in relation to organized-crime charges. He was arrested in 2013 but was released in 2015.
Mexican authorities again arrested him on July 20, holding him south of Mexico City until August 10, when he was transferred to Altiplano maximum-security prison west of the capital.
The businesses linked to Flores Hernandez included a soccer team — which listed him as its president in 2008 and appears to have helped US investigators link him to Marquez — as well as a casino, bars, and restaurants.
Nine of the 42 companies were linked to Marquez, almost all of them in Guadalajara, which has become a hub for money laundering in Mexico. They included a soccer school, health and fitness centers, and his Rafa Marquez Foundation, officially called Futbol y Corazón, AC.
The foundation was started in 2005, and, according to Mexican news site Animal Politico, it is currently run by his mother, Rosa Alicia Alvarez, who is also a federal legislator from the Ecologist Green Party.
The foundation seeks “to promote the integral development of girls and boys 3 to 16 years old in different marginalized communities in the country, with the end of helping to improve their quality of life, promoting the equality of opportunities and the reduction of social vices like alcoholism, drug addiction, child prostitution and abuse.” It has three centers in Jalisco and Michoacan.
The federal Public Education Secretariat has given it millions of pesos for youth education and sports programs in Jalisco. In 2013, the federal Social Development Secretariat gave the organization just under 5 million pesos to aid 350 children in poverty. In November that year, the Jalisco state government donated 1.8 million pesos for food, education, and consultant services.
According to Spanish newspaper El País, the foundation’s donations increased nearly fourfold between 2010 and 2015, rising from 4.6 million pesos to 23.3 million. The amount exceeded what similar organizations saw and came despite a 2013 Mexican federal law meant to put more scrutiny on nonprofit donations by requiring donors of gifts over a certain value be named.
“There are many organizations from very high-quality educational institutions that have told me that after the new law many [donors] no longer want to donate to them because they have to be identified,” Angelica Ortiz Dorantes, a specialist in asset-laundering prevention, told El País.
The foundation’s last annual report, issued for 2014, tallied total income at 21,899,510 pesos — 19.4 million of which was in cash. The same document reported total outlays of 21,094,198 pesos. In 2015, according to Sin Embargo, the Peña Nieto administration waived for the foundation a debt of over 100,000 pesos related to an unpaid fine.
Marquez is the highest-profile figure to be designated under the Kingpin Act, which was introduced during the Clinton administration.
But Animal Politico identified other players and coaches linked to businesses on the US government’s black list. Among them is Pavel Pardo, a national-team member from Guadalajara.
While it’s not surprising someone like Flores Hernandez would’ve been drawn to a soccer star like Marquez, the depth and breadth of Flores Hernandez’s involvement in criminal activity make it hard to imagine the footballer would not have been aware of his dealings, Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Associated Press.
But OFAC designations are administrative, not judicial, penalties. Marquez’s assets have not been seized, just frozen, and he does not currently face criminal charges. Diego Petersen, a columnist for El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara, told Vice News that judgment should be held until all the facts were known.
“In Mexico money launderers present themselves as successful entrepreneurs,” he said. “They meet with politicians and they’re celebrated by the business class. It’s possible he could have done business without them without realizing it was dirty money.”
“The inclusion of someone on the lists … of the government of the United States is not synonymous with culpability,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope notes. “The accusations of US agencies are not the revealed truth: the gringos also are wrong and also lie.”
OFAC designees can petition to be removed from the list, but it is a protracted process. Should US authorities still decline, Marquez could go before a civil judge, but then the evidence and arguments would be public record, according to Mexican journalist Carlos Puig.
Speaking to the press on Wednesday night, Marquez said, “I’ve never participated in any of these organizations that have been mentioned in these reports.” He added that he considered it his duty to assist authorities and the US and Mexican governments and asked for respect for his family.
“This is my most difficult game,” he said. “I’ll try to clear all this up as soon as I can.”
The Mexican Football Federation released a measured statement on Thursday, speaking highly of Marquez and saying: “We are confident that Rafael Marquez will clarify the situation before the proper authorities, which we will support to be done in a fast and effective way.”
Marquez did not practice Wednesday or Thursday, and his club, Atlas de Guadalajara, has said it hopes for a resolution that allows him to rejoin the team but that he will be off the field until then.
“We are confident that Rafael Marquez will have the guarantees of due process in order to confront the recent accusations,” the team said in a statement.
But the team has proposed terminating its relationship with Marquez, as it has no way to pay him since Mexico’s finance ministry, in accordance with the US action, has frozen his accounts in Mexico. Nike and Gillette have also canceled their sponsorships of Marquez in accordance with the sanctions.
Marquez has not been convicted of anything and faces no charges, and Mexico’s Justice Ministry said he voluntary presented himself to authorities. OFAC designations are reviewed by US government agencies but not by a judge and are not subject to the high evidentiary standards of a criminal court case.
But for many, his inclusion is nonetheless a blemish.
“Marquez was the silent proof that in Mexico there are ways to resist the siren song of dirty money,” Krauze writes. The path he embodied is “closed now with crashing, unmistakable confirmation, for millions of Mexican youths, that nobody can escape the serpentine bite of the narco life.”