Colombia And The Clinton List

In 2011, at the blog of mine that preceded the Minnow Tank, I talked about an executive order from Bill Clinton that, it would eventually happen, had a direct effect on the Colombian soccer scene. As per this site’s mandate, and events that transpired a few weeks ago (before launch), I feel it proper to revisit that order here.

The order was Executive Order 12978, signed on October 21, 1995. The order freezes the American assets of any person or organization connected to particular Colombian drug kingpins, and bars anyone who does business in or with the United States from also doing business with those frozen entities. In Colombia, being so frozen is known as being on the Clinton List. While focusing specifically on Colombia, the order was strengthened in 1999 when Congress passed the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, colloquially called the Kingpin Act. The Kingpin Act essentially extends the Clinton List to be able to be applied to any country, not just Colombia.

The thing is, of course, that Colombian drug kingpins like soccer as much as the rest of Colombia. And not only do the kingpins have, shall we say, significantly more power to influence events than the average Colombian citizen, but investing in soccer clubs is seen as a viable method through which to launder money. And if you’re going to funnel money through a soccer club, it might as well be your favorite club. The country’s biggest kingpin, Pablo Escobar, was a big fan of Atletico Nacional, and spent a fair portion of his drug money to finance the club. Atletico National was also the primary club of Andres Escobar (no relation), the defenseman who was infamously shot to death in Medellin five days after giving up the own-goal that would knock Colombia out of the 1994 World Cup. ESPN’s 30 For 30 episode ‘The Two Escobars’, which you can watch here if you haven’t already, contends that nobody would have dared to touch Andres had Pablo not died the previous December.

Since Pablo had died before the creation of the Clinton List (though he assuredly was an inspiration for it), Atletico Nacional managed to dodge being affected by it. America de Cali, though, was not so lucky, as they had drug patrons of their own in the form of Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela. The Orejuelas were two of the four original kingpins placed on the list, America de Cali were added in 1999 after the Orejuelas were tossed in jail (Gilberto is today an inmate in Canaan, Pennsylvania; Miguel is held in Edgefield, South Carolina). It meant that not only would any US-related sponsors not want anything to do with the Red Devils, they also couldn’t financially benefit from international competition… which meant they missed out on a $200,000 payday when they won the 1999 Copa Merconorte. They were reduced to paying their players about $3,000 a month. (MLS’s minimum wage for 2014 was $36,500, by comparison.) It took until 2013 for the club to finally extricate themselves from the Clinton List.

By then, another club had been sweating bullets over the potential of being added themselves. Independiente Santa Fe was staring down the list in 2010 after the arrest of four traffickers who sought to launder their money by buying part of their club. Ultimately, though, Santa Fe skated, and remained off the list.

But Pablo Escobar’s role in the story persists. The fate that his death spared Atletico Nacional was simply transferred to another club, Envigado FC.

It seems bitterly ironic now that as recently as September, VICE’s Joseph Swide told of Envigado’s having served as a beacon of Colombia’s future. What Swide had in mind was that El Equipo Naranja was a youth pipeline, with three of their alumni being selected for the Colombian squad at this year’s World Cup, all midfielders: Freddy Guarin (currently of Inter Milan), Juan Fernando Quintero (currently of FC Porto), and golden boy James Rodriguez (of AS Monaco as of the Cup; he signed for Real Madrid less than two weeks after it ended). But he also told of what happened when Pablo Escobar was hunted and brought down for good.

Envigado FC was founded in 1989, and as of now lingers around the lower-mid reaches of the Colombian top flight, not competing for honors, but not really a relegation threat either. It’s named after its hometown. But one might be mistaken for thinking that it’s actually named for La Oficina de Envigado- the Office of Envigado- which began life as the enforcement wing of Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. The founder of the club was Gustavo Adolfo Upegui Lopez, a personal friend of Escobar, who himself grew up in Envigado. A few years later, the Office split from the Medellin Cartel due to a falling-out between Escobar and Office head Diego Murillo Bejerano; the Office would go on to aid in the manhunt that led to Escobar’s death. The Office assumed the contacts that made Escobar so powerful, and as a result, they became the new top dog in the Colombian underworld. Gustavo Adfolfo was killed in 2006 by the Office; Envigado FC passed to his son, Juan Pablo Upegui Gallego.

The Office was added to the Clinton List on June 26. On November 19, both the club, and Juan Pablo personally, joined them there. As the official press release from the US Treasury Department states, “Upegui Gallego is a key associate within La Oficina and has used his position as the team’s owner to put its finances at the service of La Oficina for many years… The diversity of those designated today – targeting a variety of companies and influential cartel members, including the majority owners of a professional soccer team – will strike at the financial core of this violent criminal network and impede its efforts to operate in the legitimate financial system.” Several of Envigado’s shareholders also landed on the list. If Envigado FC wants off the list, each and every ounce of connection to the Office, including every single person now on the list that is involved with the club, must be completely financially and personally divested from the club to the Treasury Department’s satisfaction, including Juan Pablo. That is not going to happen quickly. It may not happen at all.

It takes money to fund a prosperous youth system. Envigado’s has just dried up, and there’s no telling how long it will be before it returns, or if it ever will. That small threat of relegation has just gotten much larger, and that’s the least of their concerns now.

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