Latin America at Heart of FIFA ‘Cartel’

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Twelve of the 14 defendants indicted in the bribery scandal involving international soccer organization FIFA are from Latin America and the Caribbean, just another face of the corruption that permeates the region’s football industry.

On May 27, the US Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging nine FIFA officials and five executives with racketeering, conspiracy, and corruption offenses.

The officials stand accused of soliciting over $150 million dollars in bribes and kickbacks from sports media and marketing executives between 1991 and 2015, according to the US Department of Justice press release. In exchange, the executives were granted media and marketing rights for major soccer games and tournaments. The bribes also allegedly involved the selection of the 2010 World Cup host country and FIFA’s 2011 presidential elections.

“The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey stated in the press release. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”

The defendants include two current FIFA vice presidents, from the Cayman Islands and Uruguay, the presidents of the Costa Rican and Venezuelan soccer federations, the former presidents of the Nicaraguan and Brazilian soccer federations, the former presidents of the two regional soccer confederations in the Americas, and three Argentine sports marketing executives.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the FIFA scandal centers on bribery in exchange for lucrative contracts, a different kind of corruption — involving organized crime — has also long plagued Latin American soccer.    

Indeed, the overlap between crime and soccer in Latin America ranges from fan clubs involved in drugs and arms trafficking to soccer teams owned by criminal groups who use them to launder money and win the support of local communities.

Argentina’s fan clubs, known as “barras bravas,” are perhaps the most famous for inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity, but this phenomenon has also been seen elsewhere in the region in places like Uruguay and Brazil

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Soccer and Crime

Meanwhile, several famous narcos have sponsored soccer teams, including notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who financed the professional soccer team Atletico Nacional in the city of Medellin. Escobar’s rivals, the Cali Cartel, owned the soccer team America.

More recently, in 2010, Argentine authorities nabbed Luis Agustin Caicedo Velandia, alias “Don Lucho,” a major Colombian drug dealer who had been hiding out in Buenos Aires, when an investigation into the finances of a soccer club led them to him. Don Lucho and his associates laundered up to an estimated $1.5 billion through soccer clubs. 

Also in Argentina, investigators have recently uncovered a massive transnational drug trafficking and money laundering network operating under the façade of several companies and soccer clubs. In addition, soccer greats including Argentine superstar Lionel Messi and Brazilian legend Pele have had their names dragged through the mud when family members have been linked to money laundering schemes. 

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