Jhon Viáfara, a roving midfielder for Colombia’s national soccer team, was arrested on suspicion of seeking to export cocaine to the United States. This is but the latest in a string of cases of Colombian soccer players, some of them among the country’s elite, being involved in drug trafficking after retiring from the sport.
Viafara’s gang is suspected to be part of a transnational network with links to the Urabeños, one of Colombia’s major criminal organizations. Viáfara and his associates are believed to have moved shipments of cocaine via the Pacific Ocean with speedboats, semi-submarines and other vessels between 2008 and 2018, seemingly bound for the US. Viáfara was allegedly in charge of coordinating shipments and paying those carrying out the transports.
The Eastern District Court in Texas has requested his extradition, along with four others from the same gang.
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Viáfara started his career at Deportivo Pasto in 1998 before going on to have an international career, playing for Portsmouth and Southampton in the UK and Real Sociedad in Spain. He played 43 times for the Colombian team and featured in the 2004 and 2007 Copa America.
InSight Crime Analysis
Viáfara is just the latest Latin American football player who made a career change into criminal activity.
Edinho, one of Pelé’s sons, was arrested several times for drug trafficking and money laundering. Mexico’s Rafael Marquez played in the World cup in Russia last year, while being under investigation for his links with drug trafficker Raúl Flores. Goalkeeper Omar ‘el Gato’ Ortiz, linked to the Urabeños, declared being guilty for involvement in at least two kidnappings. Former Brazil and Inter Milan star, Adriano, was linked to drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro.
Although players from across Latin America have been linked to criminal actors making this a regional phenomenon, Colombia stands out negatively.
Generations of top Colombian players such as like Albeiro Usuriaga, Andrés Escobar, Wilson Pérez, René Higuita, Freddy Rincón, Felipe Pérez, Juan Guillermo Villa and Elson Becerra were all linked to Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations.
In February, Diego León Osorio, who briefly played for Colombia’s national team, was sentenced to five years of house arrest after trying to smuggle a kilo of cocaine on a flight to Spain in 2016.
Organized crime and football have been closely linked in Colombia, with many cases of drug lords being involved with football clubs, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
Envigado FC was largely owned by Oficina de Envigado’s Gustavo Upegui. Medellin’s football club Atletico Nacional was used to launder money by its president Hernán Botero from 1970 until 1984, when Botero was extradited to the US. Notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar has also been linked to this club, and would invite players to play with him in his self-build prison La Catedral. America de Cali was financially supported by the Rodriguez brothers, who were at the head of the Cali cartel. Phanor Arizabaleta, a leader of the Cali cartel, was involved with Independiente Santa Fe until the end of the 1980s.
In more recent years, Colombia’s top criminals have sought to keep lower profiles, mostly avoiding the evident connections the cartel leaders had with the football clubs. The new generation of drug traffickers, known as “the Invisibles”, have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection.
However, examples such as Viafara’s suggest that these two worlds still remain interconnected.