How a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist turned one Mexican superstar into a pariah at the World Cup

Rafael Márquez is on a blacklist of people the Treasury Department says have helped launder money for drug cartels.

Rafael Marquez clashes with Germany's Marco Reus during a match between Germany and Mexico at the 2018 World Cup.

MOSCOW — Rafael Márquez, one of the best-known stars on Mexico’s World Cup soccer team, is a standout of the tournament in Russia. But it has nothing to do with his prowess on the field.

Márquez, 39, is on a U.S. Treasury Department blacklist of people it says have helped launder money for drug cartels. His inclusion on the list prohibits American individuals, businesses and banks from having anything to do with him.

So Márquez does not drink from the same branded water bottles as his teammates or wear the same uniform at practices. Instead of being planted in front of sponsors’ logos at every opportunity, as is normally the case for prominent players, “Rafa,” as he is known, is kept away.

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If he is the best player in a game, he most assuredly will not be named the Budweiser Man of the Match. His lodging is carefully scrutinized to prevent him from staying in places that have any American connections, even if it means getting him a room away from the team. And however hard he works on the field, Márquez has agreed to not get paid.

It might get complicated for the banks, after all.

FIFA, world soccer’s governing body and organizer of the World Cup, routed Mexico’s portion of the $1.5 million it sent to each team to prepare for the tournament in euros via banks unconnected with the U.S. financial system.

Corporate sponsors, particularly American ones, that pay to have their brand names splayed all over the World Cup and on its stars are running as far from Márquez as possible.

Márquez, who has been on the Treasury blacklist since August, and several businesses connected to him are accused of acting as fronts and holding assets for Raúl Flores Hernández, who is suspected of leading a drug trafficking organization.

Though he has not been criminally charged, Márquez’s financial assets in the United States, as well as his Mexican assets with ties to the American financial network, were frozen. He has vehemently denied any link to drug traffickers and has hired a team of lawyers to challenge his placement on the list and assuage fretful sponsors.

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One of his lawyers, Jose Luis Nassar, who has acted as a spokesman, has said “we are in a frank phase of collaboration” with U.S. officials to resolve the matter.

But sponsors are treating the superstar like kryptonite just the same.

The Mexican soccer federation and FIFA have known about Márquez’s peculiar situation for months but allowed him to be named to the team and come to the tournament.

Both bodies, in fact, have worked together to navigate his course at the tournament in a way that will avoid any trouble from the Treasury Department, according to several people involved in the planning who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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“FIFA is aware of the situation concerning the player Rafael Márquez and we are in regular contact with the Mexican Football Association,” the governing body said in a statement.

The Mexican federation, in its own statement, acknowledged that it has had to make accommodations for Márquez, who is team captain.

“We take seriously the actions of the U.S. Treasury Department, and we have structured our World Cup operations so as not to violate U.S. sanctions laws,” said the federation, which has significant business interests in the United States, notably with its exclusive commercial rights partner, Soccer United Marketing.

Soccer United Marketing declined to comment.

Having Márquez along in Russia may complicate Mexico’s World Cup bid, but his presence already has been a positive for the team.

As a late substitute to help close out Mexico’s upset of Germany on Sunday, Márquez became only the third player to appear in a fifth World Cup. The achievement might have been cause for celebration and promotions had it come under different circumstances.

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After the game, broadcasters did not rush Márquez for an on-field interview. That would have meant placing him in front of a clear plastic board covered in sponsor logos, including four major U.S. brands: Visa, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonald’s.

FIFA initially, and erroneously, told broadcasters they could not even interview Márquez, before revising that advice to say that they could, provided they did so without displaying sponsor logos.

FIFA also has taken measures to pre-empt contact between Márquez and any of its employees who are U.S. citizens. For instance, if Márquez appears at a news conference that FIFA arranges, the moderator should not be an American.

Even before the World Cup, care had to be taken.

Márquez had stopped playing for his club team, Atlas, which is based in Guadalajara, and had been left off the national team roster for months while his lawyers worked on his case. The Mexico federation only named him to its World Cup team as FIFA’s deadline for rosters loomed.

He missed a warm-up match against Wales at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, apparently because he is forbidden to enter the United States. And at training camps before the tournament, and here in Russia, Márquez’s jersey is plain with no sponsor logos.

Flights, too, have been carefully arranged, since Márquez is not allowed to travel on a U.S.-owned carrier.

Legal experts not involved in the case said some of what FIFA and the federation have done may be out of an abundance of caution, as the Treasury rules are subject to wide interpretation and it would not be worth the risk to violate them.

“The penalties are very severe for this type of thing,” said Oliver Krischik, a lawyer at GKG Law who focuses on Treasury sanctions. Companies that violate the regulations, even unintentionally, face fines up to nearly $1.5 million per violation, while willful breaches can lead to a penalty of up to $10 million and a maximum of 30 years in jail for individuals who knowingly break the rules.

Krischik described the regulations as “gray.”

The restrictions are less onerous on foreign-based businesses. For example, Márquez wears the same Adidas apparel as his teammates, and his personal sponsor, Puma, based in the same German village as Adidas, took to social media to congratulate Márquez on his record-equaling feat.

It was a gesture that many other brands, including Citibanamex and Coca-Cola, judiciously avoided. Adidas and Puma declined to comment.

“In all of our business activities, we take care to ensure we comply with all applicable laws, including U.S. sanctions laws,” Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Despite his legal problems, Márquez remains hugely popular in Mexico, a fact not lost on FIFA or Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose Budweiser brand sponsors the man-of-the-match award at the World Cup, an accolade that is awarded based on a public vote.

Associating the prize with Márquez — he secured one at the last World Cup in Brazil — while he remains on the Treasury Department list almost certainly would be in violation of U.S. law. So a fudge of a kind is being discussed, where he would not be presented with the Bud-branded trophy, according to people familiar with the discussions. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is also connected to the Mexican team through its Estrella Jalisco brand, referred questions about Márquez and the award to FIFA.

“FIFA is committed to comply with the regulations applicable to Mr. Márquez’s legal situation as requested by the respective authorities,” FIFA said.