Colombian soccer club tries to forget cocaine past

CALI, Colombia,  (Reuters) – Colombian soccer  champions America de Cali are first to admit cocaine dollars  had a hand in their sporting heyday. But after years of paying  the price, they’re trying to wipe the slate clean.

The “Red Devils” became mired in financial troubles after  their drug lord patrons in the Cali Cartel were jailed in 1995,  ending a windfall of ill-gotten wealth that helped the club  assemble one of South America’s priciest lineups.

Now, Cali’s popular mayor is leading a campaign to have the  team removed from a U.S. government anti-drugs blacklist that  has prevented them from having a local bank account or even  getting sponsors for more than a decade.

“The situation’s more and more unbearable,” said the club’s  weary-looking president, Carlos Puente, in the America Sporting  Corporation’s modest headquarters in downtown Cali.“Undeniably, drug traffickers had some economic influence  here but it wasn’t just in this club, it was in any number of  Colombian teams … Traditionally this sport hasn’t had the  cleanest management,” he added. Mayor Jorge Ivan Ospina, an America fan, wants to relaunch  the debt-laden club as a new, legal company, and at the same  time show his city has turned over a new leaf.

In the 1980s and early 90s, the steamy city was flush with  drug money that bankrolled everything from property  developments to a cosmetic surgery boom.

But Cali has undergone a face-lift since cartel kingpins  Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez were locked up. The promotional  possibilities of a successful soccer team are not lost on  officials at city hall.

“The mayor wants to show this is a new Cali,” said project  leader Jaime Gutierrez, who at 25 represents a new generation  of officials seeking to chart a different course.

“We want to break with the past and say to the people,  ‘Don’t bad-mouth your city, don’t destroy your city, don’t  leave your city’,” he said.

Cali’s drive to improve its image fits well with President  Alvaro Uribe’s efforts to lure foreign investors and tourists  to Colombia by cracking down on leftist rebels, armed gangs and  drug traffickers in the world’s top cocaine producer.

BUDGETS

Colombian soccer and drug trafficking used to go  hand-in-hand and violence has sometimes spilled onto the pitch,  with referees and players being bribed and even murdered.

In 1993, drug boss Pablo Escobar was buried with an  Atletico Nacional flag draped over his coffin. The following  year, defender Andres Escobar was shot dead after scoring an  own goal that knocked Colombia out of the World Cup.

But in few clubs were the murky links between the drugs  cartels and sport as strong as at America. Stories abound of  match-fixing, money-laundering and players being rewarded with  lavish parties and prostitutes courtesy of the Cartel.

One former player sparked controversy in 1997 by dedicating  a winning goal to “those who’ve been deprived of their liberty,  especially Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez.”

Today, America draw crowds of up to 18,000 and their first  national championship win in six years in December has given  impetus to the mayor’s campaign. One of Colombia’s best-known  clubs, they claim hundreds of thousands of fans.

Mayor Ospina hopes to find up to 4,000 shareholders willing  to put up a million pesos each, or around $400, to relaunch the  club as Nueva (New) America de Cali later this year. Investors  will be checked for criminal links.

The transformation cannot come too soon for coach Diego  Umana, who is credited with guiding the young, mostly  home-grown team to last year’s championship on one of the  league’s lowest budgets.

Like the players, Umana gets paid with wads of cash from  the turnstile receipts. During a recent hospital check-up, he  realized his health insurance had not been paid.

“I had to pay it myself. Sometimes a player takes one of  their kids, and they don’t have any coverage,” said Umana.

“The club deserved to be put on (the U.S. blacklist), but  that’s in the past. Times have changed,” he said, sitting next  to the pool at the Cali hotel where the team were resting  before a Libertadores Cup clash.

PUNISHMENT

While league rivals have lucrative sponsorship deals and  play exhibition games in the United States, America has relied  on sell promising young players and gate receipts, which have  been robbed on at least one occasion.

Sponsorship deals have been low-key and short-lived. Most  bigger companies are not interested because of the economic  sanctions against the club, fearing they too could get into  trouble with U.S. authorities. The club even had to set up their own factory to make the  players’ uniforms. America’s managers and fans say it is time  for such punishment to end.

“With the wind of change blowing through the club, two  years from now we’ll be setting the standard for the whole of  South America,” Puente said.

But Washington will ultimately decide whether the mayor’s  plans will be enough to get the club off the blacklist kept by  the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Ospina will also have to win over Colombia’s National  Narcotics Board, or DNE, which has a stake in the club seized  from people suspected of links to drug traffickers.

Its share has increased since several more members of the  Rodriguez family were arrested on money-laundering charges last  month, although the arrests may help ease concerns about the  clan’s lingering influence at America.

In Cali, there is optimism for America’s future among  die-hard fans like Estella Castellanos, 64, who went to her  first Red Devils game 58 years ago.

“Thanks to this process everything’s going to turn out  right for America,” said Castellanos, who plans to become a  shareholder by paying in monthly installments from her pension.  “This is a new dawn.”

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