Legendary Mexican soccer player Rafael Marquez Alvarez and a well-known band leader are among 22 people sanctioned for alleged ties to a drug trafficking organization, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Wednesday.
The sanctions are the result of a multi-year investigation of the drug trafficking organization allegedly headed by Raul Flores Hernandez, the department said in a statement.
It will also sanction 43 entities in Mexico, including a soccer team and casino.
It is the single largest such designation of a drug trafficking organization ever by its Office of Foreign Assets Control, the statement said.
Marquez, 38, is a former defender for Barcelona, Monaco and New York Red Bulls who currently plays for the Mexican soccer club Atlas in Guadalajara and is captain of the Mexican national team. He did not practice with Atlas on Wednesday.
Later in the day, Marquez denied having any links to drug traffickers.
"I categorically deny any kind of relation to this organization," Marquez said in a statement, adding "today is my most difficult match; I will try to clear all of this up."
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Flores Hernandez allegedly operated independently in the northern city of Guadalajara but maintained alliances with the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. The attorney general's office said Flores Hernandez was arrested July 20 and is being held while his extradition is pending.
The Mexican Attorney General's Office also seized related assets Wednesday, including the Grand Casino near Guadalajara, according to the U.S. statement.
Mexican prosecutors said they were working closely with U.S. authorities on the investigation and added that Marquez came voluntarily to the Attorney General's Office to provide a statement.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and author of the book "Deal," said the 64-year old Flores Hernandez has been in the business since the 1980s.
"He is extraordinarily crafty in the way he strategizes and the way that he navigates between cartels," Vigil said.
But, the former agent added, Flores Hernandez has remained a mid-level drug trafficker, never forming what one would call a cartel, and of late had aligned himself with Nemesio Oseguera of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
Vigil said Flores Hernandez had a real talent for laundering drug proceeds by setting up front companies. He said it would be difficult to imagine that Marquez didn't know who he was dealing with because Flores Hernandez has been around for so long.
"Raul Flores Hernandez has operated for decades because of his longstanding relationships with other drug cartels and his use of financial front persons to mask his investments of illegal drug proceeds," John E. Smith, director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in the statement.
Federal drug trafficking indictments against Flores Hernandez were returned in March in Washington and the southern district of California.
The U.S. government referred to Marquez and 34-year-old norteno singer Julio Cesar Alvarez, better known as Julion Alvarez, as people with longstanding relationships with Flores Hernandez who "have acted as front persons for him and his (drug trafficking organization) and held assets on their behalf."
Alvarez has been nominated for Latin Grammys and has won Billboard awards. His latest album, "Not a Devil, nor a Saint," released in May was his fifth No. 1 on the Billboard list of regional Mexican music.
Alvarez's manager did not immediately respond to an email request for comment. A spokesman for Universal Music, the parent company of Alvarez's record label Fonovisa, declined to comment.
But Alvarez posted a video to his Facebook page saying "absolutely nothing is going on."
Alvarez called Marquez a friend and sent him a hug: "Everything they are saying there can be cleared up."
President Enrique Pena Nieto's office confirmed Wednesday that a photo of the president and Alvarez had been removed from Pena Nieto's Instagram account. The office declined further comment.
The U.S. statement did not say that Marquez or Alvarez face charges in the United States.
Marquez is famed as a tenacious defender whose crunching tackles have sometimes seen him sent off in high-profile matches. In Mexico he is revered as one of the country's all-time greats, though many U.S. fans remember him for a studs-up, head-butt foul on Cobi Jones that earned him a red card at the 2002 World Cup.
Marquez debuted in Mexico's top-flight league in 1996 with Atlas and moved to AS Monaco of France's Ligue 1 three years later. In 2003, Marquez joined Barcelona and spent 10 years there, helping the Catalonia super-club win Spanish league and Champions League trophies.
Advancing into his 30s, Marquez then had stints with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer, Leon of Mexico and Hellas Verona in Italy's Serie A before returning to Atlas.
A longtime fixture of Mexico's national team, he led "El Tri" at four World Cups and has hoped to become only the third player ever to compete in five. Marquez has scored 13 goals wearing the green jersey in 158 appearances between 1997 and 2017, according to statistics published by the Mexican Soccer Federation.
Speaking in a briefing to reporters, a high-level Treasury Department official said the association between Marquez and Flores Hernandez went back at least 20 years and Marquez served as "an important" frontman for money laundering. Under the terms of the briefing, the official could not be named. Among the entities that the department cited were his soccer academy and health and rehabilitation clinics.
Marquez's children's foundation was also linked to Flores Hernandez, though it also had a number of corporate sponsors. It claimed to have provided food, educational and sports programs for about 1,000 low-income kids.
Vigil said cartel figures have long been drawn to soccer stars and musicians.
"They love soccer ... so they love to associate with sports figures," Vigil said. "Who else do they like? They like these norteno singers, because these guys create ballads about their exploits and it adds to their legend, to the folklore."
The sanctions freeze all U.S. assets of the people and entities named and forbid U.S. citizens from doing business with them.