Mexican Fútbol Legend Rafa Márquez Gets Caught Up in the Failed Drug War

Aug 18, 2017
11:56 AM

Rafa Márquez (Photo by MauriVelaz07/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Mexican fútbol legend Rafael “Rafa” Márquez has had to twice endure attempts by the United States to destroy his storied career, first during his dismal tenure in the MLS with the New York Red Bulls, and now facing sanctions for conspiracy to launder money for criminal drug syndicates in Mexico.

Seriously though, Márquez, perhaps Mexico’s most revered and decorated soccer legend, is facing what he calls “mi partido más difícil” and what could be the end of his career, and it all revolves around the failed Drug War that has destroyed tens of thousands of lives on both sides of the border.

Who Is Rafa Márquez and What Happened to Him?

How did all this drama occur? On August 9, the United States Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) released the names of its latest list of people, including Márquez, suspected of helping to launder drug monies. In this particular case, the list focused on Mexico and alleged Guadalajara mid-level drug trafficker Raúl Flores Hernández.

Márquez, known as “El káiser de Michoacán,” plays for the Guadalajara-based soccer club Atlas in Mexico’s Liga MX. At this club as a young boy, he got his start in fútbol, signing with them in 1992 and making his first team debut in 1996. Twenty-one years later and Márquez is back with his boyhood club after stints at renowned clubs such as Monaco and Barcelona. Márquez is the only Mexican to have raised the UEFA Champions League cup in victory, having won it twice with the Catalan side. In addition, Márquez has played with the Mexican National Team, winning the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup, and just last year scoring the winning goal against the United States in Mexico’s first victory for El Tri at the U.S. soccer team’s hallowed grounds in Columbus, Ohio. Márquez has captained the Mexican national team in an unprecedented four World Cups, and head coach Juan Carlos Osorio had already shown his hand that Rafa would captain Mexico to a fifth World Cup before revelations put all that, and Márquez’s entire career, in jeopardy.

It should be first and foremost noted that being listed on the Treasury Department’s list does not denote guilt. In fact, it doesn’t even predict whether criminal charges will arise, let alone that Márquez will have his day in court to clear his name or be found guilty of any wrongdoing. If the United States wanted to press charges against Márquez in their multi-year probe, they could’ve easily questioned him, or even had him arrested, just two months ago. On June 1, he played a friendly for Mexico against the Republic of Ireland just hours outside of DC at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

Now added to OFAC’s Drug Kingpin sanctions list, Márquez can no longer do business with U.S. nationals or U.S. businesses, but isn’t a threat worthy enough of being arrested or having enough evidence of even being charged of a crime? This administrative action is reminiscent of the FBI’s “No Fly List,” with its nebulous information on who qualifies to be on the list, and unclear means of getting off it, all without ever being charged of a crime.

Problems With the Sanctions List

The OFAC sanctions list is problematic by its very nature. As detailed in a 2014 report published by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR):

OFAC’s blocking powers are essentially unchecked. There are no specific criteria governing how an entity is designated or any evidentiary standards to ensure that a designation is proper. An individual or group is not provided sufficient notice of the violation allegedly committed or adequate access to the evidence upon which OFAC’s decision to freeze assets is based. Nor is OFAC under any deadline to respond to requests to unblock assets. Individuals or groups can be forced to wait years until a determination is made, during which time their assets remain frozen.

(Note: it should be stated this report in particular was related to the administrative measure of adding suspected terrorist collaborators to OFACs sanctions list, though the process and certainly the outcomes are essentially the same for those sanctioned under the Kingpin Act.)

No evidence has been publicly submitted of Márquez’s alleged collusion with drug traffickers. It isn’t clear what administrative process took place to add Márquez to this unfortunate list of names. Since he does not know what is being used against him, there is no way for Márquez to refute the allegations against him.

According to the LCCR:

Another flaw in the designation process is OFAC’s reliance on inaccurate information. As one practitioner commented, OFAC operates under a “shoot first, ask questions later mentality.” There are no evidentiary standards set forth in the regulations. As a result, OFAC is susceptible to relying on incorrect news reports and discredited “sources” as a basis for designations. Much of the “evidence” relied on by OFAC is also unreliable hearsay.

As a Mexican national, Márquez isn’t allowed certain constitutional guarantees that we as U.S. citizens know and have grown up with (such as the burden of proof is on the state, as well as the notion of due process) so that Márquez be given a chance to clear his name in a court of law in a reasonable amount of time.

Again, the LCCR:

OFAC also generally refuses to provide access to the classified information that it claims supports the designation.151 As a result, the designee remains largely ignorant of the grounds for OFAC’s action and unable to adequately defend itself.” (ibid)

An Unfair and Unjust Application of the Law

As well, it has to be understood that this is the United States we are talking about, and a U.S. under the repressive leadership of Donald Trump at that. On top of its paternalistic relationship with Latin America, full of military interventions, coup d’etats, electoral interference, and bullying trade relationships, the U.S. has the stained history of being politically motivated to use these types of economic sanctions against countries like Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.

Back to the LCCR:

The wide discretion accorded to OFAC to designate entities as terrorists, combined with the lack of transparency in the process, has given rise to abuse and discriminatory enforcement of the law.” (ibid)

In fact, earlier this year, the Trump Administration added the Vice-President of Venezuela Tareck El Aissami to the same list that Márquez is currently on. The ongoing feud between the capitalist U.S. and socialist Venezuela is well-known. Even the New York Times, the liberal icon and corporate paper that is no fan of the Bolivarian Revolution, wrote that “The Treasury announcement, however, included no evidence for the accusations (against El Aissami)”

This latest August release of sanctions, the largest ever by the U.S. in a single instance, occurred less than a week after embarrassing transcripts were published between Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto and Trump. In that release, Trump was thoroughly embarrassed as it was revealed that he practically begged the similarly unpopular Mexican president to stop saying Mexico would not pay for the wall Trump campaigned to build on the US/Mexico border. “I cannot live with that,” Trump said to Peña Nieto of the latter saying Mexico would never pay for Trump’s wall.

Trump also campaigned on scapegoating Mexicans and those of Mexican descent, in particular going after those he blamed for stealing jobs and for drug use in the U.S., like gangs and the cartels in Mexico. Currently his attorney general is attempting to reignite the Drug War by advocating for asset forfeiture policies and attempting to enforce drug laws on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Given Trump’s failures at the legislative level, his plummeting approval ratings, his attempt to resurrect Reagan-era drug policies, his ongoing and highly public gaffes on issues as broad as fighting Nazis, climate change, as well as his recent embarrassments with his south-of-the-border counterpart, would anyone really be surprised that Trump would attempt to deflect attention by going after a Mexico he scapegoated during the election campaign and one of its most popular athletes?

On the recent ESPN podcast “Max & Herc,” Sebastian Salazar rightfully noted, “Forget soccer, forget sport, [Márquez] was one of the most important Mexican figures of the last twenty years.” To host and former Mexican club soccer and U.S. men’s national team player Hérculez Gómez, Márquez “was a symbol of all that was still pure in the eyes of Mexican citizens.”

Now that well-deserved reputation is in jeopardy.

Other Reasons to Target Márquez

Perhaps it’s not just Trump lashing out either. The U.S. worked with Mexican officials to freeze Márquez’s assets stemming from these allegations. Why would the powerful in Mexico be threatened by Márquez?

As most folks know, the number one sport in Mexico is soccer, and the most popular league there and in the United States (according to TV ratings) is the Liga MX. The Liga MX, where Márquez plies his trade, is highly visible and profitable, with ownership coming from such diverse wealthy parties as Carlos Slim, one of the richest people in the world, to some of the biggest companies in the world, like media conglomerate Televisa and building materials company Cemex. And the stars of the Liga MX, for whom folks tune into every weekend night and Sunday morning to watch, are virtually powerless cogs in the machine, locked into a system that barely affords them any control of their product as workers.

For instance, the players themselves are many times constricted by which club they are able to play with, are sometimes traded without consultation, and many times not paid their legitimately owed wages for work produced on the pitch. The owners have a stranglehold on control of the league in a system ironically named the  “Pacto de Caballeros” (“The Gentlemen’s Pact”). The workers are taken advantage of with little to no recourse because they are unorganized and have no union to represent them, unlike professional players in the United States. Whether it be U.S. football, basketball, baseball —even the MLS!— players in the U.S. are much more empowered than players in Mexico, who are treated poorly at times because of this lack of proper collective representation.

Much of the conversation around this issue has been changing, and there has been talk of the formation of a players’ union by the players themselves, to stand up to the owners and ownership groups and assert their economic and labor rights as workers.

And who is leading the fight to unionize and is its most visible proponent of such a move by the players?

Rafa Márquez.

According to an article published by Tom Marshall of ESPN, Márquez himself has stated that “those that govern and control [the Mexican game] are those that rule the country in Mexico. We can’t fight with them, we have to have a dialogue with them” How much of a threat to their power and bottom line do the Liga MX owners view this attempt to unionize? How much do they see Márquez himself as a threat?

Impossible to Separate Drug Operations From Everyday Life in Mexico

This is speculative, of course. Frankly, it is entirely possible that Márquez did have investment funds flow through narcotics cartels completely without his knowledge. Given how large the syndicates and their financial networks are, many people in Mexico, especially wealthy professional athletes, probably knowingly or unknowingly have connections with unscrupulous narcos.

As Guadalajara-based journalist Duncan Tucker wrote in 2015:

Consequently, Tapatíos, as Guadalajara natives are known, can never be sure when they shop, eat, drink, dance, fill up their gas tanks, or even pay their rent that they may be inadvertently helping the Jalisco New Generation cartel and other gangs that have terrorized the population and paralyzed the city with narco-blockades.

The growth of drug cartels in Mexico is directly tied to the failed U.S./Mexico War on Drugs and drug prohibition in general. Drug use in the U.S. provides a demand that folks in Mexico are able to supply. U.S. monies from these addictions flow into Mexico. Unfair trade agreements decimate traditional means for people to living and thrive, making the underground economy the only way to survive for some. The U.S. criminalizes drug use, spiking costs and creating even larger flows of money. U.S. military assistance pours into Mexico to fight these large cartels, thus further perpetuating this war without end. Drug policies which criminalize drug use and don’t treat it as the public health crisis that it is (which is the current administration’s position, see Jeff Sessions) only continue to perpetuate this problem indefinitely, causing more pain and suffering from those stricken by addiction and those living under the yoke of the current condition in Mexico.

The Horrors of the Drug War in Mexico and the US

The numbers are shocking. Since 2006, when Mexico ramped up its Drug War efforts with the assistance and financial support of the United States under the presidency of President Felipe Calderón, as many as between 60,000 to well over 100,000 people have been killed in narco-police violence.

Just recently, one of the largest and most well-known traffickers, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was arrested as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency tactic previously used in Afghanistan and Iraq to take out top-level suspects. This “high-value targeting” calls for elimination of cartel commanders like the arrest of Guzmán. Unfortunately and predictably, this has led to a power vacuum among who is left in the cartel and their enemies vying for control of the narcotics trade, leading to the hemorrhaging of country that was already bleeding . According to Kate Linthicum of the Los Angeles Times, this past June was the deadliest month on record for Mexico, and this year is becoming easily the most violent on record ever.

It is a sad and vicious cycle: Drug criminalization in the U.S. promotes demand, supplied from Mexico. Profits fuel the rise of Mexican drug cartels, who arm themselves with easily obtainable weapons from the U.S. Then the U.S. uses the same failed counterinsurgency tactics in their prior imperialist wars abroad, and the cycle of narco violence is perpetuated again and again…

Many caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s Drug War are those charged with reporting on the war. This has earned Mexico the dubious distinction of being second to Iraq as the world’s most dangerous country for reporters, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. One of the latest was Javier Valdez, a reporter who was killed during the day in May of this year in front of his office. According to Jesse Franzblau of The Intercept, Valdez’s publication Ríodoce published an interview with an individual caught up in the ongoing feud between two cartels. Warned by one of the cartels not to publish the interview, Valdez decided to continue to shine a light on the situation. Valdez choose to continue to raise his voice rather than be silenced.

It’s clear that the illicit drug trade is fueling the violence, but what is fueling the drug trade? Demand from the United States. While marijuana decriminalization efforts continue in many states, it is still illegal in most of the U.S. As well, other illegal drug use is on the rise, in particular opioids like heroin and fentanyl. Usage has increased so much that according to ‘The (Washington) Post’s analysis of mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” it is considered one of the reasons why the mortality rate for people aged 25–44 has increased between 2010 and 2015. Currently Mexico is now the number one exporter of heroin to the United States, and with Sessions already recommitting to the criminalization of all Schedule I drugs, it seems the situation will only get worse.

This is in stark contrast to the case of what took place in Portugal. Facing its own opioid epidemic, in 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs and began to treat the problem as a public health issue. Those caught in possession of outlawed drugs were directed to treatment programs, not court and not jail. The results have been dramatic. According to Lauren Frayer of National Public Radio, Portugal “experienced a 75 percent drop from the 1990s. Portugal’s drug-induced death rate has plummeted to five times lower than the European Union average.” Lives saved and spared a descent into the underground economy that grips the United States and Mexico.

Which Way Now?

With so many lives tragically and unnecessarily lost through drug use and its associated violence, it seems foolish and even unempathetic to think about fútbol and a wealthy athlete, given what is taking place in Mexico and the U.S. And yet both issues are related, and because of one, we have the other. If we are to better understand the Drug War and how to end it, we must know about its victims like Márquez. And while it’s clear that the standard of evidence to gain economic sanctions is lower than the standard to prove guilt in a court of law and that nothing has been proven in a court of law, it is still very possible that at best this could get resolved fairly quickly without being nothing but a blip in Márquez’s famed career.

According to Salazar on ESPN’s “Max & Herc” podcast, “If [Márquez] is innocent, if there is not a real true streak of malice to what he’s done… I think it is a horrible shame. He’s not been found guilty, he’s not been charged with a crime. He’s not had a chance to defend himself. A reputation and a career could be broken.”

Yet regardless of what happens to Márquez’s case and career though, culpability or otherwise, it is clear that in the end, these actions by the United States won’t do anything to stem the flow of drugs into the country, and those drug profits to fuel the endless killings and misery, from the streets of East Oakland to the calles of Los Mochis. The Drug War fails because the you can’t arrest your way out of a health problem. Only by reaching and embracing that conclusion will we overcome the violence inherent in the underground drug economy on both sides of the border.

Lo mismo de lo mismo policías corruptos que potismo
Mordidas y extorsión alza las manos esto es una revisión
Sin justificación
Quiero ver tu identificación dime que traes encima
Te ves muy sospechoso parado en esa esquina
Vamos camina dormirás en los separos
Malditos puercos sin sirenas
Las noches en el barrio ya no son amenas
Tampoco para los hermanos que cruzan fronteras
La migra muros y la guardia nacional
Matan migrantes y párese tan normal
Asesinos no necesitamos opresión
Presos políticos liberación revolución para
El sistema judicial mal manejado
Y en el juzgado un abogado que es pagado por lo que llaman estado
Delincuente si lo matan accidente
Si lo atrapan eficiente
Si no encuentran culpable lo fabrican
Y nos quitan nuestra libertad de gritar
Ya no mas brutalidad inconformidad de la represión
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido amigo
Testigo pregúntaselo a TEGO estamos contigo prohibido
Olvidar quien es el enemigo verdadero
Policías, empresarios y políticos rateros
—Akil Ammar, “Policías en helicóptero”


Joel Tena is a proud father, husband, son, Mexican. When he’s not desperately trying to explain to his son Juan Carlos Osorio’s rotaciones to El Tri’s starting XI, he’s in the streets of Oakland fighting for social, racial, and economic justice. He tweets from @joeltena.