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Rafa Marquez's Stunning Role in Allegedly Aiding a Drug Kingpin and His Next Legal Steps

Rafa Marquez has been identified by the U.S. Treasury in a drug trafficking case, but he isn't facing criminal charges. Here's what the Mexico legend is confronting in this highly unusual career twist.

Rafael Márquez, the captain of the Mexico national team, a four-time World Cup veteran and one of the most celebrated Mexican soccer players in recent decades, is used to garnering headlines. Just not these kinds.

Márquez has been designated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as a “front person” of alleged drug kingpin Raul Flores Hernandez’s trafficking enterprise. The designation freezes any of Márquez’s assets that are located in the U.S. or controlled by U.S. persons. This includes bank accounts, real estate holdings and other items of value. The designation also generally prohibits U.S. persons and businesses from engaging in commercial transactions with Márquez. The 38-year-old defender was one of 21 Mexican nationals and 42 Mexican entities—Club Deportivo Morumbi among them—implicated by the OFAC as assisting Flores Hernandez.

According to the OFAC, Flores Hernandez “heavily relies” on a group of persons and businesses “to further his drug trafficking and money laundering activities and to maintain assets on his behalf.” Among them are Márquez and Mexican singer Julio Alvarez. “Both men,” the OFAC charges, “have longstanding relationships with Flores Hernandez, and have acted as front persons for him and his drug trafficking organization and held assets on their behalf.” Márquez and Alvarez are alleged to have cloaked Flores Hernandez’s drug-funded investments as legitimate business transactions.

Márquez has dismissed the OFAC’s allegations as completely untrue. In a statement, Márquez says he “categorically” denies having “any kind of relation” with drug traffickers and that he “will try to clear all of this up.”

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OFAC’s designation of Márquez is authorized under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, better known as the Kingpin Act. President Bill Clinton signed the Kingpin Act into law in 1999. The main goal of the Kingpin Act is to deter drug trafficking into the U.S. by threatening to take away the ill-gotten gains of traffickers and to disrupt their ability to conduct future business with Americans.

To accomplish that goal, the Kingpin Act enhances the U.S. government’s capacity to freeze American assets of foreign narcotics traffickers as well as persons and businesses who substantially assist them. As an additional form of deterrence, the Kingpin Act subjects Americans to potential criminal prosecution and million dollar fines if they enter into transactions with implicated persons and entities, such as designated soccer clubs and casinos. The Kingpin Act has been praised as helping the U.S. more effectively impede the movement of drugs into the country and weakening cartels. The Act’s critics, however, bemoan that it fails to provide adequate safeguards for foreign parties who are not afforded the same constitutional safeguards as Americans.

The OFAC raises its accusations as it continues a multi-year, multi-national investigation into Flores Hernandez. The investigation has included the participation of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Government of Mexico. Flores Hernandez, who allegedly has formed “strategic alliances” with Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, faces federal drug trafficking indictments in the District of Columbia and the Southern District of California.

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What’s next for Márquez: Cooperate or remain silent?

While Márquez’s designation will prove disruptive if he has assets in the U.S. or if he conducts businesses with Americans, it should be stressed that Márquez has not been charged with a crime at this time. This is an important point for a number of reasons, the most significant of which is that the U.S. government will not attempt to extradite him. Márquez can continue to go about his life in Mexico.

Endorsement considerations may, however, become a concern for Márquez. He reportedly has several endorsement deals, including one with Adidas. Any endorsements deal for Márquez with major companies contain a “morals clause.” Such a clause would enable the company to exit the contract on grounds that the athlete has encountered a serious legal issue or otherwise attracted negative publicity. Márquez’s representatives are poised to play a crucial role in navigating through morals clause issues. They would attempt to allay concerns by companies with which Márquez has endorsement deals that he will overcome this controversy.

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Márquez, who played for the New York Red Bulls from 2010-12, is also not necessarily barred from traveling in the U.S. However, his OFAC designation would complicate his ability to obtain a visa. Márquez’s attorneys may also worry that as soon as Márquez enters the U.S. he would be handed an indictment or a subpoena. 

Of similar concern for Márquez is the impact of his OFAC designation on his playing career with Club Atlas and his status as Mexico's captain for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Márquez should be able to continue to play internationally since he has not been charged with a crime and there is no indication yet either FIFA or Atlas would seek to discipline him. Also, since the World Cup will be played outside of the U.S. (Russia), the OFAC designation shouldn't impact his availability.

To the extent Márquez would like the OFAC to lift his designation and more broadly convince to the U.S. government to leave him alone, he would likely need to provide the OFAC with information of value. Indeed, one motivation for the government to pursue persons who allegedly facilitate drug traffickers is that they might be willing to provide critical intelligence to help the government take down traffickers and cartels. Facilitators’ willingness comes from self-preservation: doing so would get them out of trouble. Put another way, the OFAC likely does not “want” Márquez —it wants what Márquez knows about Flores Hernandez, who, as explained above, has been charged with federal crimes.

So would Márquez talk with the U.S. government or with the Mexican government? Possibly, but accused facilitators of drug traffickers often fear retribution by drug kingpins and cartels—even if the accused’s connection to those criminals is tenuous and indirect. Often the more likely response is to simply remain silent.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.