The Messi Scandal: From Charity Soccer to Money Laundering Accusations

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Come the start of the World Cup in June, soccer fans in Argentina will be investing their hopes and dreams in the astonishing talents of their iconic striker Lionel Messi, who over the last decade has broken countless records and opposition defenses alike. But hanging over Messi’s head is an ongoing scandal that has seen his name mentioned alongside infamous drug lords and multi-million dollar money laundering schemes.

In December last year, Messi headlines moved from the sports section to the front pages, as a spate of reports in the Spanish media revealed a transnational money laundering investigation had turned its eye on the superstar’s charity soccer games, and that Messi’s own father, who manages his financial affairs, had fallen under suspicion.

The Spanish authorities moved quickly to squash the claims that Messi’s father Jorge was under investigation, and although they admitted they had interviewed Messi, alongside his Barcelona teammates Dani Alves, Jose Manuel Pinto and Javier Mascherano, they stressed the Messi family was not yet implicated in any wrongdoing.

In honor of the World Cup, InSight Crime is chronicling how soccer and organize crime intersect. See other stories here.

However, the investigation continues, and what has emerged so far is a tangled tale of shady characters, murky financial deals, and suspicious businesses that stretch from the soccer fields of Europe to the underworld of Colombia.

A Charitable Business

At the root of the Messi scandal is a series of soccer matches, the “Battle of the Stars,” in which a “Messi and Friends” team competed against a “Rest of the World” squad. The games saw Messi and his fellow soccer stars tour the Americas, playing games in Mexico, Peru, the United States and Colombia, with takings from the gate ostensibly going to selected charities.

In 2012, the Messi tour rolled into Colombia for matches that investigators suspect may have been used to launder profits from transnational drug trafficking. The theory investigators developed is known as “row 0” ticket sales, where dirty money was used to buy tickets that would never be used; then organizers would boost attendance figures by letting people in free at the gate. The newly laundered money would find its way back to the drug lords’ pockets through the companies that organized the event.marin

The chain of suspect business deals that would come to ensnare Messi in the investigation into this alleged scheme begins with Guillermo Marin (right), a hawk-featured sports and celebrity PR agent from Argentina, who has represented such megastars as basketball player Kobe Bryant and the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt.

Marin and his company, Imagen Deportiva, have been the chief organizers of Messi’s “Battle of the Stars” matches, working alongside Jorge Messi and the charitable Leo Messi Foundation. For the Colombian leg of the tour, Marin entrusted the event to a company that is now the focus of the investigation, Total Conciertos.

The decision was a strange one. Organizing the events involved complex logistics and millions of dollars, but the company was only founded in March 2012 — just two months before the matches — with capital of around $250,000, five employees and no experience organizing sporting events (see pdf attached).

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

On top of this, according to El Espectador, the owner of Total Conciertos, Andres Barco (below left), was convicted of fraud in 2008 and faces five open investigations for fraud, theft and falsification of documents. His partner, Harigsson Gonzalez, has been the subject of four investigations for fraud and breach of confidence.

barcoTotal Conciertos was not the pair’s only business venture. They also have set up several businesses in Miami and in the hub of regional enterprise — and money laundering — Panama. In Colombia, their previous company, Total Entertainment, secured the rights to organize tours for legendary Mexican singer Vicente Fernandez in partnership with D&L Inversiones, a company partly owned by suspected drug trafficker and money launderer Luis Enrique Perez Mogollon, alias “El Pulpo.”

A powerful and murky figure in the Norte de Santander region, El Pulpo maintained a foot in both the underworld and the legal world until he was gunned down in a restaurant in April 2012. Investigators believe the hit came after warring drug lords drew him into the power struggle that tore apart what was then Colombia’s leading mafia, the Rastrojos.

Neither Imagen Deportiva nor Guillermo Marin responded to InSight Crime’s request for an interview, while Total Conciertos’ phone lines have now been disconnected and Barco and Gonzalez could not be reached for comment.

Total Disaster

By the time Messi’s Battle of the Stars matches took place in 2012, Total Conciertos was already on the radar of Colombian money laundering vicentefernandezinvestigators. According to El Espectador, in February 2012, prosecutors received an anonymous tip that four Colombian businessmen, among them Barco and Gonzalez, were planning to use the farewell tour of Vicente Fernandez (right) to launder money for the likes of the Rastrojos and their drug lord business partner Daniel “El Loco” Barrera.

It was the Spanish leg of Fernandez’s tour, also organized by Total Conciertos, that ultimately led to the investigation into the Messi charity games. After looking into the warnings about the tour coming from Colombia, Spanish investigators unearthed evidence of a range of suspicious dealings.

According to a report by El Pais, Vicente Fernandez was convinced to sign with Total Conciertos for the tour when Barco offered to pay him 800,000 Euros (about $1.1 million) — more than twice the going rate. Barco also convinced Fernandez to ditch his opening act in favor of Pipe Bueno, a Colombian singer who has faced years of accusations his convicted drug trafficker father has funded his career.

Authorities also discovered suspect financial arrangements linked to the concerts, including a small tobacconist in Madrid that had lent Total Conciertos 130,000 Euros ($176,000) — a loan made possible, the owner told investigators, because the shop’s takings on average total 20,000 Euros ($27,000) a day, and he generally kept 60,000 Euros ($81,500) in cash in the shop safe.

According to an unnamed witness in the case who spoke to El Pais, come the concerts, the venue gates were thrown open to mask the fact that thousands of tickets had been bought not by fans of the Mexican crooner, but by Colombian narcos. The proceeds were then transferred back to Colombia via Spanish bank accounts, he claimed.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The investigation into the concerts has so far led to four arrests and 12 indictments, but Spanish authorities have refused to name those involved. A spokesman from the Spanish Civil Guard’s Central Operations Unit (UCO) told InSight Crime Spanish law prohibited naming them because it could prejudice the legal process and ongoing investigation.

Vicente Fernandez, who has not been implicated in the case, was never paid for many of the concerts and is currently taking legal action against Total Conciertos.

Embattled Star

Investigations into the Battle of the Stars tour have yet to find concrete evidence that Total Conciertos used the matches to launder drug money, but they have unearthed a raft of strange financial dealings. Among the barrage of claims and counter claims the revelations unleashed, one thing is clear: Someone is lying.

The first to go on the record was the Messi camp. On December 16, Leo Messi Management (LMM) released a statement denying the allegations about Messi’s father. The statement asserted LMM and Messi only participated in the match to secure a donation for the charity chosen by the Leo Messi Foundation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and that following the game they donated $100,000 to a Colombian charity.
“Neither the LMM nor the foundation received any income from the staging of the matches,” the statement read.

However, a UNICEF spokesperson told El Mundo that UNICEF “did not receive any money and did not participate in the selection of any charity [to receive proceeds from the matches].”

Messi’s Argentine partner, Guillermo Marin, then issued a statement on December 18 distancing himself from Total Conciertos, which he said he had contracted to stage two matches.

“For this company’s failure to meet requirements in Medellin, which left us with a significant debt, we decided to cancel the show in Los Angeles and now we are involved in legal proceedings,” he told Argentine newspaper Hoy.

A day later, Total Conciertos’ Andres Barco spoke to W Radio, responding to revelations that the Spanish police had taped conversations between his associates in which they discussed a 4 million Euro ($5.4 million) fee Barco was to pay Guillermo Marin. Barco denied paying such a fee but claimed Marin had demanded around $2.5 million for expenses such as travel and hotels, and that the only charitable donation made was one that came out of his own pocket. He claimed the match had lost millions of dollars and left him broke.

“I have nothing left to lose,” he said.

On December 20, Barco’s partner Harigsson Gonzalez told El Espectador the Messi matches were “at no time charity games, they were purely commercial.” He claimed he had paid Guillermo Marin a “high price” for the right to put on the events, including payment for Messi, and that the idea to donate some of the proceeds to charity was his idea alone.

The main protagonists in the Messi scandal, all of whom deny any links to money laundering or the drug trade, have now retreated from the public eye, leaving more questions than answers.

Burned by the media furor the case sparked, the authorities have also retreated into an information lockdown. A weary spokesman from the Spanish Civil Guard would only confirm that the investigation was ongoing. Their counterparts in Colombia told InSight Crime they could not comment as the investigation was still in its preliminary stages, while the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which has been widely reported to be also working on the case, refused to confirm or deny their involvement.

Fraud, corruption, money laundering or just shambolic business dealings — all that is clear for now is that the investigations continue. Messi, his family, businesses, representatives and foundations have remained silent on the scandal since the initial LMM statement. Come the World Cup, Argentina fans will be thinking of the old soccer cliché and hoping he lets his feet do the talking.

In honor of the World Cup, InSight Crime is chronicling how soccer and organize crime intersect. See other stories here.

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