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Shadow Of Shame
S.L. Price
May 23, 1994
THE SPECTER OF VIOLENT DRUG CARTELS HANGS OVER THE SPLENDID COLOMBIAN NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM
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May 23, 1994

Shadow Of Shame

THE SPECTER OF VIOLENT DRUG CARTELS HANGS OVER THE SPLENDID COLOMBIAN NATIONAL SOCCER TEAM

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The devil died in December, and thousands mourned. A shower of gunfire, and there was Pablo Escobar, a punctured corpse on a rooftop in Medellín, leaking like just like every judge and cop and political candidate he disposed of without a blink. Escobar was the most savage entrepreneur of our time, a drug dealer without equal, and on the day of his burial so many went to thank him that his widow and children could not get close to the grave.

There were debts, you see. Escobar had done plenty for Medellín—rebuilt neighborhoods, paid for funerals—and so many people considered him Robin Hood that it mattered little that the streets kept spitting up kids hooked on coke or gunning toward brutal ends. Yes, most Colombians were relieved when the drug lord was cornered and killed by special security forces. But his death was always viewed differently in Medellín, where even today people go to lay red roses on the mound in Jardines Montesacro cemetery, all under the vulturous gaze of a one-eyed man squatting under a tree at Escobar's feet.

Debts. Across town René Higuita stands in an empty stadium, another Medellinense paying off what he owes. Four years ago Higuita was one of the world's top goalies. His sudden sorties out of the goal and his Louis XIV curls made him, according to Oscar Córdoba, his successor on the national team, "the symbol" of Colombian soccer. Now nothing and everything has changed. Higuita is still the symbol of Colombian soccer but with a bitter twist: In January he got out of prison after having been held for seven months for, in essence, his ties to Escobar. At 27, in the prime of his career, Higuita has no shot at joining the national team, which has risen at dizzying speed to become one of the favorites to win the World Cup, which will be played in the U.S. in June and July.

Pelé recently called the Colombian team the "best in South America," a stunning accolade for a country playing in only its third World Cup and long overshadowed by traditional South American powers Brazil and Argentina. But it's true. Colombia recently had a 28-game unbeaten streak that included a 4-0-2 run through the Cup qualifying round and a shocking 5-0 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires last September. This Colombian team is dynamic, skilled and—as the class of Group A, the four-nation World Cup bracket that includes the host U.S. squad—impossible to ignore.

Higuita was Colombia's goalie in the last World Cup, in 1990. But this time, says Juan José Bellini, the head of the Colombian Soccer Federation, "we don't need him." Why? On the surface, because he was charged with profiting from the release of a kidnapped girl—the daughter of a former associate of Escobar's—and failing to provide information about the abduction to authorities. Higuita had helped facilitate the girl's deliverance and, for his pains, accepted a $50,000 tip from her father. The charge of illegal profiting was dropped last week, but Higuita must stand trial for withholding information.

There was a deeper reason for Higuita's banishment, however, and that was his open friendship with Escobar—further evidence of the coke king's suspected control of Higuita's professional team, Nacional, one of 16 franchises in Colombia's top soccer league. Like nothing else, Higuita's presence on the '94 World Cup team would trumpet the strong links between Colombian soccer and the drug traffic, subjecting the country to a monthlong bashing in the States. "It would make for a bad sensation worldwide," says Fernando Brito, head of Colombia's version of the FBI. "We're all very aware of that."

Problem is, in the Colombian league Escobar's relationship with Higuita and Nacional wasn't unique.

•In 1984, when Hernán Botero Moreno, then the president of Nacional and an ally of Escobar's, was extradited to the U.S. on money-laundering charges, the league postponed all games in protest.

•Until his death in 1989, a boss of the Medellín cartel was a main stockholder of Bogotá's Millonarios soccer club.

•Leonel Alvarez, a midfielder for the World Cup team, was, like Higuita, photographed visiting Escobar when the drug lord was in prison three years ago.

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