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Mexican soccer remains tainted by links to drug trafficking

June 6, 2014
Former Irapuato FC owner Tirso Martinez was arrested at his home in Leon in February.

Former Irapuato FC owner Tirso Martinez was arrested at his home in Leon in February.

Tirso Martinez Sanchez’s neighbors were taken by surprise when he was arrested by federal police officers at his home in Leon, Guanajuato on Sunday, February 2, 2014.

“We knew the feds were searching and asking for someone around here, but we never imagined it was our neighbor,” a local businessman told Queretaro’s Quadratin newspaper.

Aged 47 and measuring just 5”7, Martinez cut an inauspicious figure. Having ditched the expensive jewelry he used to show off in the director’s box at the Club Irapuato soccer stadium, he now went by the name Luis Angel Aguilar, drove a gray Hyundai Atos and lived in a modest apartment in Leon’s Martinica neighborhood.

A keen gambler, Martinez had reportedly placed millions of pesos worth of bets on cockfights in the local fair just days before his arrest. But he had kept a largely low profile in recent years and the neighbors were shocked to learn that we was one of Mexico’s most wanted drug barons and the subject of a $5 million reward in the United States.

Mexican authorities say Martinez, also known as Jose Martinez, “El Tio” and “El Futbolista,” ran his own drug-trafficking organization and used used to rub shoulders with many of the country’s most notorious kingpins, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Amado Carrillo Fuentes and Arturo Beltran Leyva.

The U.S. State Department estimates that from 2000 to 2003, Martinez “imported, transported, and distributed approximately 76 metric tons of cocaine into the United States.”

As head of the Martinez Sanchez Organization, he used a network of fake businesses to transport large shipments of Colombian cocaine through Mexico and into the United States and Europe, the State Department said. The shipments were transported by road, rail and sea to a network of large warehouses in California and Texas, from which they were redistributed to other cities across the United States.

Martinez also acted as an independent importer, transporter, and distributor on behalf of the Juarez Cartel, members of the Sinaloa Federation, and Colombian traffickers Victor and Miguel Mejia Munera. He is thought to have lived in Leon for the last seven years, while also directing operations from safe houses in Tijuana and his native Guadalajara, and in 2004 he was indicted for cocaine trafficking by a federal court in New York.

Aside from trafficking drugs, Martinez was also “responsible for organizing the laundering and remittance of millions of dollars in drug proceeds back to Mexico,” the State Department said. His money laundering operations allegedly involved three professional soccer clubs: Queretaro, Atletico Celaya and Irapuato FC. Martinez and jewelry merchant Kleber Mayer were joint-owners of the latter club and Martinez is also believed to have been a prominent investor in both Queretaro and Celaya, though he often sought to hide his tracks by operating behind false names.

Martinez’s elaborate soccer network began to unravel in October 2002 when Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Mario Rios Laverde, alias “El Negro,” was arrested in Mexico and extradited to the United States. Rios, who also worked as a soccer agent and promoter in Mexico, was prosecuted for cocaine trafficking by Florida’s Southern District Court and sentenced to six years and three months in Georgia’s McRae prison.

According to Mexican newspaper Excelsior, Rios became a protected witness and informed the U.S. authorities that Martinez was involved in money laundering at Queretaro and Irapuato.

As investigators on both sides of the border unearthed further evidence of money laundering in Mexican soccer, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) took action to cleanse the national game. In July 2004, the FMF dissolved first division sides Queretaro and Irapuato under the pretext of cutting fixture congestion by slimming the league down from 20 teams to 18. Celaya was also dissolved from the second division.

The owners of Queretaro and Irapuato received 10 million dollars in compensation after the two clubs were dissolved – ostensibly because they were adjudged to have the worst finances in the division. However, the real reason for their closure was made apparent when the FMF explicitly banned former Queretaro owners Alejandro and Jorge Vazquez Mellado from reviving either franchise because they were under investigation by the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) for money laundering and links to Rios’ Colombian brother-in-law Giovanni Avila.

Rios claimed that it was Avila, who also went by the name of Paul Solorzano, that had invited him to work in the soccer industry and had put him in contact with Mexican soccer promoter Guillermo Lara in 2001. Rios admitted to having worked for Lara at his agency, Promotora Internacional Fut Soccer, where he helped to arrange the transfer of Colombian midfielder Carlos Gutierrez from Bogota’s Millonarios FC to Mexican side Necaxa in 2002.

In July 2003, the Mexican authorities arrested Carlos Alvarez, another Colombian who played for Necaxa, as he tried to leave the country with almost $1.3 million in cash. Sweating heavily, he told the police he was taking the money to Colombia on behalf of a man, presumably Rios, whom he knew only as “El Negro.” Lara, who had negotiated Alvarez’s transfer to Necaxa, denied any involvement or knowledge of the money.

Guillermo Lara has been blacklisted in Colombia for links to drug trafficking and money laundering.

Guillermo Lara has been blacklisted in Colombia for links to drug trafficking and money laundering.

A prominent agent and promoter, Lara has been dogged by allegations of wrongdoing throughout his career. In 1993 he was declared “persona non grata” by the FMF, which accused him of embezzling almost $30,000 while working as a promoter for the Mexican national team. Lara reportedly fled the country when the PGR issued a warrant for his arrest, but he has since returned and began to resume work with the FMF after Justino Compean became president of the Federation in 2006. The pair had previously struck up a good relationship when Compean was Necaxa club president.

Now said to maintain an informal role as Compean’s chief guru, Lara has become an increasingly influential figure in Mexican soccer circles. He represents dozens of players and in 2012 he handled the sale of Colombian forward Jackson Martinez from Jaguares de Chiapas to Portuguese club Porto, where he has become one of the most sought-after strikers in Europe.

In recent years Lara has also organized Mexican national team fixtures against England, Holland and Italy. “It is clear that there are no decisions, projects or developments related to the national team that are not submitted, studied or analyzed by Guillermo Lara,” ESPN columnist Rafael Ramos Villagrana wrote in August 2012 “The only area where Lara cannot interfere is in the direct management of the national team on the pitch.”

That month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned the Mexican and Colombian authorities of money laundering in Mexican soccer, specifically at clubs Necaxa, Santos Laguna, Puebla and Salamanca FC. Further investigation by the Colombian authorities uncovered payments made by leading members of Colombia’s Norte del Valle Cartel to a number of prominent figures in the world of Mexican soccer.

Carlos Ahumada, the Argentine-Mexican businessman who then owned Santos and Club Leon, reportedly received $94,000 from the cartel, while Lara was allegedly paid $1.2 million. Martinez was also said to have been paid by the cartel, while the now-defunct Salamanca FC received two payments of $880,000 and $875,000.

Lara, who dismissed the allegations against him as “nonsense peddled by people who are unprofessional and unethical,” continues to work with the FMF, despite the Colombian authorities designating one of his companies under the Clinton List, a blacklist of people and businesses related to drug trafficking and money laundering.

“Thanks to Justino Compean, Lara enjoys total impunity, and he’ll surely dodge the accusations against him, as he has done in the past,” Ramos wrote for ESPN.

Lara is ever-present figure during international tournaments and even has access to the hotel rooms of the national team players, Ramos added. With the FMF unlikely to take any further action against him, it seems highly probable that a man with close links to known drug traffickers will not only continue to work on behalf of Mexico’s national team, but also accompany the squad to the World Cup in Brazil next week.

In September 2012, a month after the Colombian cartel payments were reported, Paola Portillo, a 27-year-old woman with alleged links to organized crime, was shot dead in Aguascalientes. Among her possessions, Portillo carried a folder containing the original contracts of Eisner Loboa and Hernan Burbano, Colombian footballers who were then playing for Leon. Both players and the club denied any knowledge of Portillo, but it was never explained why she was in possession of the contracts.

Eisner Loboa and Hernan Burbano's contracts were found on the body of Paola Portillo, who was murdered in Aguascalientes in 2012.

Eisner Loboa and Hernan Burbano’s contracts were found on the body of Paola Portillo, who was murdered in Aguascalientes in September 2012.

Loboa and Burbano both played a key role in securing Leon’s promotion to Mexico’s first division that summer and Burbano would also help club win the first of back-to-back championship titles the following year. However, despite Portillo’s death, there has been no investigation into the two Colombians’ transfers to Leon – further evidence that the FMF and the Mexican authorities are not doing enough to clamp down on money laundering in Mexican soccer.

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