Colombian Sport Has Drug Crisis : Soccer: Cartels have been connected to four top clubs that produce most of the players for national team.


It was the year of living dangerously in Colombia. A presidential candidate was assassinated in August, leading to a declaration of war by the government against the drug cartels. By the end of 1989, the death toll reached more than 300.

Yet, when Credencial magazine polled 344 people in four cities about the year's top news story in Colombia, the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan finished second at 19.8%. The drug war was third at 12.3%.

The winner, 39.4% of the respondents decided, was the national soccer team's qualification for this summer's World Cup in Italy. It will be Colombia's second World Cup appearance, the first in 28 years.

"Our national team is a means to carry on, to forget the problems that the country is suffering through right now," Coach Francisco Maturana said through an interpreter in an interview last week.

But, despite Maturana's efforts to present soccer as an area of Colombian life that is isolated from those problems, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Virtually no area of Colombian life has been immune to the influence of the drug cartels--certainly not soccer, which is the national pastime. Nor has the sport been inured from violence.

On Thursday, the day before Colombia lost, 2-0, to Uruguay in the first round of the Marlboro Cup at the Orange Bowl, a group which represented itself as anti-drug and called itself Purge Colombian Soccer, issued a threat against the national team members and their families.

The group sent a cassette tape to a Colombian radio network, Cadena Radial Caracol, implying that the threat would be carried out if Maturana continued to use players from four Colombian professional clubs that allegedly have connections with drug cartels.

The majority of his players come from teams specified by the group--Atletico Nacional and Deportivo Independiente of Medellin, America of Cali and Millonarios of Bogota. There has been media speculation in Colombia that Purge Colombian Soccer actually is a group of disgruntled professional gamblers that lost money on the teams.

Before Colombia's third-place game at the Orange Bowl Sunday against the United States, Leon Londono, president of the Colombian Football Federation, released a statement that said national team operations will be indefinitely suspended upon its return home today while he seeks assurances of support from his country's government and people. The statement also said the team's preparations for the World Cup, June 8-July 8, will not be affected.

In remarks to reporters later, Londono downplayed the suspension, explaining that the team has been planning a break. An exhibition game against America of Cali scheduled for Sunday has been canceled, but he said the players will regroup within 10 to 14 days to train for their next games in the Marlboro Cup of Los Angeles at the Coliseum on Feb. 20 and 22.

Tournament officials in Miami would not reveal whether there was extra security for Sunday's game. But Maturana did not appear to take the threat seriously.

"I have more important things to worry about than that," he said.

In 1983, the country's justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, said more than half of the 15 teams in the Colombian professional league, known as the Dimayor, received financing from drug traffickers and announced a narco-soccer investigation, the first of three the government would conduct in the decade. A year later, Lara Bonilla was assassinated.

Afterward, the drug lords became more discreet in their relationships with the teams, acting as silent partners. But in its recent war against drug trafficking, the government discovered records connecting some of the most notorious dealers to teams.

The government insisted that the teams either disassociate themselves from the dealers or disband. Then the situation took a tragic turn on Nov. 15, when linesman Alvaro Ortega, who had just worked a scoreless tie between Deportivo Independiente and America of Cali, was gunned down outside his hotel in Medellin by a man carrying an Uzi. Police have connected the murder to a $750,000 bet that was placed on a game the previous month between the same teams. Ortega, 32, made two controversial calls against the Medellin team, which lost, 3-2.

Although no arrest has been made, police suspect cartel involvement. The government canceled the final month of the season and postponed the start of the new season, which was scheduled to open this month, until it is satisfied through an audit of all 15 teams that they have no links to organized crime. That could be an exhaustive process considering that some teams have as many as 2,500 shareholders.

Meantime, some national team players are looking to Europe as a place to remain fit this winter. Three players who will be on the 22-man roster in Italy are playing in European professional leagues. Another recently returned from a tryout in England.

Maturana said that has not disrupted his team's World Cup preparations. The team practices regularly and plans to play 18 exhibition games, including two later this month at the Coliseum in the Marlboro Cup of Los Angeles.

But he said he believes the government's decision to interrupt play in the Dimayor was an overreaction.

"In every country, in every city, in South America, North America and Europe, there are people killed," he said. "This time, it just happened that the killed person was related to soccer. But it had nothing to do with soccer. It didn't happen in the stadium; it happened in the streets.

"The government blew it all out of proportion and turned it into something that had nothing to do with the assassination. Let me make this clear: I can't blame all the assassinations in the world on the drug problem. There is a general hysteria in that we try to blame everything on the drug cartels. If there is an earthquake, we blame it on the drug cartels."

He said he believes Ortega's murder was a "social situation," but he would not elaborate.

Maturana, 40, was a professional player in Colombia for 13 years, 10 with the national team. He coached Atletico Nacional in Medellin for three years before becoming the national coach. But he said he never saw evidence of the drug cartels' involvement with soccer.

"We cannot be oblivious to the drug problem; it's a reality," he said. "But it's a social problem that our governments have to solve, the United States as the consuming country and Colombia as the producing country. It is not a soccer problem."

While it might be a shared problem, Maturana noticed that no reporter has asked the U.S. soccer coach, Bob Gansler, to comment on it. Maturana is regularly questioned about it by the media. He said he does not mind.

"I enjoy answering the questions," he said. "I love my country, and I will defend my country as long as I live."

But Wbeimar Munoz, a reporter for Cadena Radial Caracol, said it is unfair for the media to ask such questions of the coach.

Referring to West German Coach Franz Beckenbauer, Munoz said: "It would be the same as if all you talked about with him was Hitler. We are a country of 30 million people, of which 29,999,000 work from sunrise to sundown and feed their children with honest bread."

Munoz said the government's current investigation has not uncovered any information that links the teams to drug lords. Last February, the Dimayor named a new president, Alex Gorayeb, who is widely respected. Gorayeb, 74, left his position as president of a Cali team seven years ago in disgust when he became convinced that the league was controlled by the cartels.

But, unlike Maturana, Munoz said the government had little choice but to shut down the season if, for no other reason, because it was becoming increasingly difficult to find referees who did not fear for their lives.

In November of 1988, referee Armando Perez, 46, was kidnaped by armed men, who reportedly almost strangled him to death with a nylon cord. After he was released 24 hours later, he told police that, at one point, he received a telephone call from a man who instructed him to "spread the word that we will eliminate any referee who blows his whistle at the wrong time."

That was three days before the final phase of the playoffs began. Millonarios of Bogota, which later was discovered to have connections with one of the kingpins in the Medellin cartel, won the championship. The French sports newspaper, L'Equipe, reported that Millonarios received such favorable treatment from the referees that the team's fans hardly celebrated the title.

In October of last year, according to Sports Illustrated, three other referees received messages in their hotel mail boxes that contained bullets and death threats. One month later, Ortega was killed.

Jesus Diaz, who refereed the game in November between Deportivo Independiente and America, was with Ortega outside the hotel when the linesman was killed. They had just told their bodyguards to go home when a man emerged from the shadows and pushed Diaz out of danger. The man's accomplice fired 18 shots into Ortega. Diaz, an official for 16 years, retired. Other officials said they would not resume work until the government could assure their safety.

It has been suggested that the cartels became active in soccer to launder money, but, considering the relatively small sums of dollars involved in the sport, it is more likely that they did it for sporting--and betting--reasons. It is one way for the cartels to compete for superiority without turning Uzis against each other.

The entire country has been soccer mad since the late '40s, when the government, as a means for taking its citizens' minds off political and economic problems, encouraged team owners to pump money into the sport. They attracted so many foreign players with their big-money offers that the league eventually had to pass a rule requiring teams to have at least one native Colombian on their rosters.

Colombia played in the World Cup for the first time in 1962, then went through a slump that it did not emerge from until the late '70s and early '80s, when more money was suddenly infused into the sport. The 1983 government investigation concluded that much of the financing came from the drug cartels.

For three consecutive years, 1985-87, America of Cali advanced to the finals of South America's Liberators Cup. In 1989, Athletic Nacional of Medellin became the first Colombian team to win the Cup, earning a berth against the European champion, AC Milan, in December's Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo. After Ortega's death, the Italian press called for Milan to boycott the game. Milan played and won, 1-0.

Colombia is not expected to contend for the World Cup championship, but neither would it be a surprise if it advanced at least to the second round. Maturana said it is important for his team to play well in Italy.

"Well-played soccer, that is our goal," he said. "We want to show the world that Colombia has more that is good than bad."

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