•The leaders of the now dominant Cali drug cartel, Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, are believed to control the Cali soccer franchise América. That's comparable to having John Gotti own the Dallas Cowboys. No, corrects Tom Cash, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in charge of Florida and the Caribbean, "it's like having John Gotti with the Cowboys—and nobody giving a damn."
In Colombia, however, conversation after conversation about soccer comes to this point: With the death of Escobar and the decline of the brazen Medellín cartel, the strongest ties between narcotics and sport have been broken. "I could not certainly say there is no influence, but I think the main problem is behind us," says Colombia's president, César Gaviria, who will leave office later this year, "in some cases because the people don't exist any-more." Gaviria produces a small giggle. "We can't talk about Escobar's influence on Nacional because he no longer exists."
But some observers would argue that Escobar's spirit lives on each time the Colombian national team takes the field. No one suggests that any player has dealt drugs or laundered money. Still, more than half of the players on the team have been associated with América, Millonarios or Nacional, three clubs considered to have been or still to be in bed with narco-traffickers.
Faustino Asprilla, Colombia's dynamic forward, has been a sensation all season for Parma in the prestigious Italian league. But even that success story has unseemly roots. While Escobar was in jail in 1991, he reportedly authorized Nacional to sell Asprilla to Parma for $4.5 million. "You cannot deny the influence [drug money] has had on the national team," says Francisco Santos, managing editor of the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily. "[The cartels] financed the progress Colombian soccer has had." But understanding that is one thing; saying it out loud is another, as Santos well knows.
On Sept. 6, 1990, the South American soccer federation banned international play in Colombia for a year after six men wielding pistols and submachine guns demanded that referees ensure a Nacional victory over the Brazilian team Vasco da Gama in a game in Medellín on Aug. 26. Santos, an outspoken critic of narco-trafficking and of Escobar, wrote a column that read, in part, "Our soccer is plagued by money from drug trafficking and its corrupting influence." On Sept. 19 Santos was kidnapped by members of the Medellín cartel. Eight months later he was released unharmed from a farm outside the city.
It's no shock that the cartel had taken offense. Escobar had long been el padrino of Medellín soccer, building fields, spending money on stadium lights and uniforms and insisting that Nacional use only Colombian talent at a time when his archrival, Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, was buying players from all over the continent for his club, América. In 1989 Nacional served international notice that it had arrived by winning the South American club championship, known as the Liberators' Cup. "Soccerwise, Escobar's a hero," says Juan Carlos Pastrana, editor of the Bogotá newspaper La Prensa. "I don't think there's been anybody else like him in soccer in Colombia."
Yes and no. Five of the nation's pro teams are reportedly under investigation by Colombia's Security Administration Department on suspicion of laundering drug money; sources say two of the clubs are América and Nacional. Other law enforcement officials suspect that narco-traffickers have made inroads on the Júnior team of Barranquilla. Last year team owner Fuad Char was denied entry into the U.S.
Colombian authorities insist, however, that in recent years the sport has been cleansed considerably. There have been public stock sales and an influx of legitimate sponsors. But much of the drug influence has simply moved underground—a reflection of the Cali cartel's approach, which is more buttoned-down than that of the Medellín cartel's.
That is another reason Higuita doesn't fit anymore. He lacks discretion. Consider his unrepentant attitude toward his recent time in jail. "The best moments of my life are the ones I spent in jail," he says. "I learned true friendship. In jail I found a different kind of loyalty—from the so-called delinquent, the so-called narco-trafficker, the so-called terrorist. I learned to know his heart, and it is a noble heart."
Not only did Higuita accept the $50,000 for helping to free the kidnapped girl, but he also placed a phone call to Roberto Escobar, Pablo's brother, when Roberto was in jail last year. During the call, which was monitored by Colombian authorities, Higuita pleaded with Roberto to get him back in Nacional's good graces after he punched a reporter while he was recuperating from a serious knee injury. Roberto agreed and then called a director of Nacional. Higuita was given another chance.