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.
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.
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.”
Editing by Alan Elsner and Kieran Murray