Mexico named soccer great Rafael Márquez to its World Cup roster on Monday, making the veteran defender only the third player in history to play in five World Cups. In addition, he will be the first player chosen while under sanctions from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Last August, the U.S. government accused Márquez and several of his businesses of holding assets and acting as fronts for a man it claims to the leader of a drug cartel. As a result, Americans and businesses with operations in the U.S. are prohibited from dealing in any way with Márquez or any of his companies.
Mr. Márquez (known affectionately as “Rafa”) is one of Mexico’s most well-known sports figures, famous not only for his on-field play but frequent outings with politicians, actors and business executives. The fact that he openly socialized with gangsters was known not only by U.S. investigators but everyone he knew: neighbors, teammates, managers, friends and family.
A man of his times
Rafa’s compadre, Raúl Flores Hernández, a slick and charismatic old-timer, is a convicted felon with longstanding ties to drug cartels. For decades, he has used aliases and shell companies to help fellow gangsters evade government scrutiny. In Sinaloa and Jalisco, Mr Flores is a known mafioso and money launderer.
A recent US Treasury Department statement accuses Rafa and singer Julion Alvarez of maintaining “longstanding relationships with Flores… acting as front persons for him and his DTO [drug-trafficking organization] and holding assets on their behalf”.
In addition to its prohibition on business dealings, both men’s U.S.-based assets were frozen. The Treasury Dept also froze the assets of several companies it said were used to launder drug-trafficking proceeds – among them a football club, casino, medical clinic, bars and a music label.
The designation also makes it difficult for both men to travel freely. Márquez missed his team’s exhibition game against Wales in L.A. last week, as he was not allowed to enter the U.S.
Rafa has brushed off the allegations, categorically denying any tie with organized crime.
In a Facebook quote, Julion Alvarez also rejected the claims against him – and ardently defended his friend. “Rafa has one of the longest careers in football,” he said. “Do you really think he’d need to do something like this?”
In many people’s opinion, probably not. Having represented Mexico in four World Cups, winning more than 140 international matches in two decades, it’s likely that Marquez didn’t need any cash.
But is it possible he wanted to?
For here’s the thing: as friends of a mobster, Rafa and Julion did nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, two days before being sanctioned by the US, Rafa was photographed rafting through Sumidero Canyon in the state of Chiapas with Enrique Pena Nieto, the president of Mexico.
Do you think Peña Nieto didn’t know about Rafa’s friends?
Mr Flores, the gangster, was widely-known among Mexico’s political class, a straight-talking outlaw who acted in defiance of corrupt officials – not only because of his money and personality but also because he felt no guilt.
In Mexico, why should he?
Justification or rationale?
Three reasons, I think, explain why most Mexican men (under similar circumstances) would act as Rafa allegedly did:
First, Mexicans generally don’t judge right and wrong on the basis of legality, for Mexicans (in general) are not law-and-order people. After hundreds of years of unfair and unjust laws, they do not equate law with morality. This attitude is reflected in everyday life. Ordinary people reluctantly hand over mordidas (“little bites”) to cops and bureaucrats because they know that at every single level of society, money and interests are what drive law. Guadalajara, Monterrey, Cancun, Mexico City… every Mexican town is awash in laundered money; some claim that it accounts for nearly half the economy. Few Mexicans could resist the temptation of doing what Marquez allegedly did: a non-violent act that helped his friend avoid government scrutiny.
Second, Rafael is part of the Mexican sport elite. As you ascend the socio-economic ladder in Mexico, especially in entertainment, sports and politics, it becomes harder and harder to resist the lure of corruption. This happens everywhere, including Italy, USA and France, but in Mexico, it’s difficult to find a single executive or politician without first-hand exposure to graft “in-your-face”. Fortunately, Mexicans are fairly open about being corrupt; they regard it as unavoidable.
Third, Rafa – like nearly every one of his compatriots – view the Mexican government as a criminal enterprise. This is not uncommon here. There are too many examples to list here, but during the last five years, the number of fleeing governors, mayors and senators has been at an all-time high. If a politician is not making good money in politics, said a famous Mexican leader, then he’s not a good politician. That’s how Mexicans view government.
It also explains how a longstanding mafioso, a man who could keep dirty politicians’ hands off his clients’ holdings, can attain such stature, not only among his peers but among entertainers, executives and sports stars. Distrust of government resonates deeply in the Mexican psyche, and injustice can quickly rise as a driving force. It’s not a coincidence that Chapo Guzman, the infamous narco now locked away in high security facilities in NY, has always been more popular than any governor or politician. His popularity now is higher than ever.
Rafael Marquez is now taking the fall, but the Mexican government may be just as guilty for what he allegedly did. Stated differently, if he didn’t need the money (and it’s fairly evident that he didn’t) maybe this was his attempt – albeit subliminal – to defy a corrupt, incompetent and deeply unfair system.
Enrique Krauze, a well-known historian, wrote on Twitter: “Let’s hope Rafael Márquez proves his innocence. An exemplary football player who gave us much joy.”
But what if he is guilty? What will that say, not only about Rafa but about Mexico?