11222017Wed
Last updateFri, 17 Nov 2017 11am

US names soccer star as drug lord’s ‘front man’

pg1bRafael Marquez,  the captain of both the Atlas soccer club in Guadalajara and the national team, has been sensationally accused of acting as a front man for a Mexican drug trafficker and placed on a U.S. Treasury blacklist.

Marquez’s name features on a list of 21 Mexican citizens and 42 businesses and organizations that allegedly helped launder the profits and hide the assets of drug kingpin Raul Flores Hernandez.

Also included in the list is famed norteño singer, Julion Alvarez, who in 2015 was described by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto as “a great example to Mexican youth.”

In March, Flores Hernandez, 65, was charged in absentia in federal courts in California and the District of Columbia with drug trafficking and money laundering.

Mexican federal police arrested Flores Hernandez on July 20 at an unknown address in Zapopan.  An extradition request from the United States is pending.

Although not considered one of this country’s most high-profile drug barons, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said Flores Hernandez (known here as “El Tio”) has managed to operate “under the surface” since the 1980s by maintaining his “independence” and laundering money for different drug cartels, including rivals involved in turf battles.

“Flores Hernandez 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,” John Smith, OFAC director, said in a press release.

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pg1cThe statement noted that Flores Hernandez relies heavily on family members and trusted associates to further his drug trafficking and money laundering activities and to maintain assets on his behalf.

The OFAC described Marquez and Alvarez as “front persons” for his organization.

Marquez called a press conference in Guadalajara a few hours after the OFAC released its report on Wednesday.

“I categorically deny any kind of relationship with this organization,” the local soccer idol said, without taking questions from reporters.  “I want to reiterate my commitment to helping the different authorities and corresponding governments in any way I am able.”

Earlier that afternoon, Marquez hurriedly left the Atlas training ground and headed to the Guadalajara office of the federal Atotrney General’s Office (PGR) to file a statement underscoring his innocence. The reason for this is unclear, legal observers say, since Marquez has not been charged with any offense in Mexico.

Although Marquez — as yet — does not face criminal charges in the United States, he will have his U.S. visa revoked immediately, and all his north-of-the-border assets  frozen.

Reports show that Marquez has bought and sold several properties in Miami and New York over the past decade, turning in a profit of around $US5 million.

Marquez played for Spanish giant Barcelona between 2003 and 2010, achieving huge success, including two Champions League titles.  He then left to join the New York Red Bulls and became one of the top earners in Major League Soccer (MLS).  He returned to Mexico in 2012, and currently captains Atlas, his boyhood team.

According to the OFAC, there are seven organizations and entities that Marquez is involved in with connections to Flores Hernandez.

They include the Rafael Marquez Football School, the charity Futbol y Corazon A.C., Grupo Deportivo Marquez Pardo, Grupo Nutricional Alhoma (operators of a Johnny Rockets franchise in Tlajomulco), Grupo Terapeutic Hormonal, Grupo Terepeutico Puerto Vallarta and Prospect Health & Imagen, a rehab center for sportsmen and women.

Media reports in Guadalajara Thursday highlighted what is known about Marquez’s relationship with the Flores Hernandez family and their dealings.  In 2008, it was widely reported that the soccer star and the alleged drug trafficker tried to buy a professional franchise in Tepic, Nayarit to compete in Mexico’s Liga de Ascenso, the country’s second tier. Their bid failed, according to Guadalajara Spanish-language daily Mural, because the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) became uneasy after they learned that Flores Hernandez was in the mirror of federal law enforcement agencies probing organized crime.

The other high-profile Mexican named in the OFAC designation, singer Alvarez, also responded quickly to the accusation, posting a message on Facebook in which he admitted knowing Flores Hernandez but denying any involvement with his businesses or affairs. “The little or much that I have, I earned myself,” he wrote. “Perhaps this is a question of envy, jealousy.”

Three businesses Alvarez is allegedly involved in were cited by the OFAC: JCAM Editorial Musical, Noryban Productions and Ticket Boleto SA.

Alvarez, 34, has made a rapid rise to become one of Mexico’s most prominent norteño stars, thanks to help from the powerful Televisa broadcasting network — one of his main backers. President Peña Nieto is also a fan, although a video featuring the two men on the presidential website was quickly removed this week.

Alvarez is due to present two concerts at the Auditorio Telmex in Guadalajara on August 31 and September 1.  Neither have yet been cancelled. He is sometimes referred to as “the king of the box office” for his ability to fill venues despite high-end ticket prices.

In this week’s announcement, the OFAC highlighted its collaboration with several Mexican government agencies during a “multi-year investigation” into Flores Hernandez’s operations.

On Wednesday, shortly after the U.S. Treasury made their list public, officers from the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) visited several of the businesses and organizations cited in Guadalajara.  They included the Gran Casino, a prominent and popular gambling establishment located on Avenida Lopez Mateos near the Avenida Patria intersection.   In a low-key operation, officers cordoned off the area and asked staff to present documentation pertaining to the ownership of the casino.  The manager told Spanish-language daily Milenio that, as far as he knew, Flores Hernandez does not appear as one of the casino’s legal owners.

OFAC designations under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act are not unusual – more than 2,000 individuals and entities have been named since June 2000 – and do not necessarily mean that criminal proceedings will be brought against cited individuals, even though the findings are handed over to the U.S. Department of Justice.

However, the OFAC prohibits U.S. citizens, permanent residents, U.S. foreign nationals, and U.S.-based businesses from transacting with the blacklisted companies or individuals.  

In theory, this makes illegal all future contributions to Marquez’s Futbol y Corazon charity established in 2005 to help disadvantaged children. Some expat residents of this area are known to have donated funds to this nonprofit, helping them build two schools for kids from marginal backgrounds.

As well as having their assets frozen, both Marquez and Alvarez will not be able to earn any money from U.S.-affiliated ventures. In Alvarez’s case, he will forgo all royalties from his songs on iTunes or Spotify.

For Marquez, the situation he finds himself in – he called it “the toughest game of my life” this week – could be career ending. At age 36, he was expected to lead out his team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, making him the first soccer player ever to captain his country in five successive tournaments.

He will now be barred from playing in the national team’s warm-up games in the United States, and his legal situation in Mexico may even prevent him from turning out for his local team, FMF sources say.     

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