Rafael Marquez to make World Cup history despite alleged links to one of Mexico's biggest drug cartels
After being named in Mexico’s squad for the World Cup on Monday, Rafael Márquez will have the opportunity to become just the third player after Germany’s Lothar Matthaus and fellow Mexican Antonio Carbajal to appear in five World Cups.
Yet Márquez belongs to an even more select club as the only player heading to Russia who has been sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department for alleged ties to the drug trafficking trade. Márquez has not been charged with a crime and strenuously denies any involvement.
When his name first appeared among 21 Mexican nationals accused of assisting drugs lord Raul Flores Hernandez, nicknamed El Senor in August, Márquez vowed to clear his name.
“In the same way that I have done throughout my professional career I will confront this, my most difficult match, and I will try to clarify all this,” Márquez said.
Ten months later and there is precious little clarity. Marquez, alongside Grammy nominated musician Julión Álvarez, has been designated as a “front person” for Hernandez’s drug empire, effectively laundering his drug money through legitimate enterprises.
Arrested last March for alleged trafficking of cocaine from South America to Mexico, Hernandez was not at the level of El Chapo or Pablo Escobar, but seems to have acted as a go-between for the notorious Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels.
The Treasury department has linked Marquez to Flores through nine companies, clubs and foundations attached to the former Barcelona defender, including the Rafa Márquez Foundation Football and Heart.
The Treasury Department stated that, “Both men (Márquez and Álvarez) have longstanding relationships with Flores Hernandez, and have acted as front persons for him and his drug trafficking organisation and held assets on their behalf.”
Under the “Kingpin Act”, the US government can freeze any of American assets belonging to Márquez, who played for New York Red Bulls for two years. It also prohibits any American citizens and businesses from doing business with Márquez.
This has led to the strange sight of Márquez training with the rest of the squad without any of the usual sponsors logos on his kit. Brands such as Coca Cola and Citibank want a good 20 bargepoles between themselves and Marquez.
“In order to have Rafa Márquez focused 100 percent on sports and knowing the personal issue he is going through, … we have consulted different experts and decided to take actions that we believe will not harm or involve actions that may harm Rafael Márquez or the Mexican Football Federation,” the MFF said in a statement with one of the all-time great deployments of the phrase “personal issue”.
Márquez also sat out Mexico’s recent friendly against Wales in Los Angeles, presumably out of fear that he could be arrested on American soil.
Yet none of this has affected Márquez’s standing as a national icon in Mexico. Marquez has appeared 143 times for Mexico and has captained them at the past four World Cups.
Even though his 39-year-old legs are creaking, there was no doubt that he would be accommodated in coach Juan Carlos Osorio’s final 23. “We believe there is room for Rafael to help,” Osorio told ESPN. “There is a mental part, in which experience and leadership allows playing in tough moments of world-class matches, and doing it with the same ease, leadership and criteria that only Rafa could.”
On the week that the sanction list appeared, Mexico president Enrique Pena Nieto published pictures of himself rafting with Márquez. Again at the team’s official send-off last week, Nieto, who has continued country’s ruinous war on drugs, was pictured laughing alongside Márquez.