Cocaine cartel targets football: Drug barons have taken their war to the First Division

THE FANS called him 'Torito', Little Bull, for his head-down charges straight at goal. At 23, Omar Dario Canas, striker for Atletico Nacional of Medellin - one of Colombia's top football sides - was being hailed as a future international and had the world at his feet.

Those feet, as well as his hands, were tightly bound when police found his body on 4 February in a desolate spot in the north of Medellin. Beside him were the bodies of three other men of similar age. All four had been bound and shot at close range.

In Colombia, most footballers find a patron, a wealthy benefactor who guides their career and cuts them in on 'under the table' transfer fees. Canas's patron, it seems, was the hunted cocaine baron and football fanatic Pablo Escobar, the man believed to control the Nacional club through 'front men' shareholders.

Police believe the footballer was borrado (rubbed out) by the vigilante group known as Los Pepes (People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar). For many fans of Nacional, their striker's murder was proof that the rival cocaine cartel from the city of Cali, home of the Nacional club's arch rivals America, is involved in the shadowy vigilante group.

The ghosts of Colombia's cocaine traffickers are almost tangible in the country's big football stadiums, with most of the top clubs, and many of the players, controlled by drug money. My companion, Ancesar, a Medellin worker, was not referring to ghosts when he turned to me during a South American Cup match at Nacional's Atanasio Girardot stadium the other night. 'Pablo's probably over there on the eastern terraces right now,' he said. 'He never liked to miss a big game.' Nacional were at home to a Brazilian side, Internacional of Porto Alegre.

The world's most wanted man, Escobar, risking capture and standing on the terraces in the rain to watch his team? It seemed unlikely, not least because of the search we went through at the turnstiles - for guns, not alcohol. But Ancesar's remark reflected a widespread feeling in this city that Escobar has almost magical powers. It is a feeling also fuelled by admiration for a local boy who, at least in terms of material reward, made good in the face of traditional class barriers.

And, for many people here, football is far more important than any would- be stigma from exporting bags of white powder.

Many Colombians believe football was behind the assassination in Bogota of the Colombian Justice Minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, seen as the first major salvo in the traffickers' battle against the state. In 1983, a few months before he was shot, Mr Lara had revealed that cocaine money was behind most of Colombia's First Division clubs and promised to clean them up. His death put the clean-up on long-term hold.

A close Escobar ally and a Medellin cartel boss, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, openly owned the Millonarios First Division side of Bogota until he was killed in an ambush by security forces in December 1989. It emerged he had been paying his players illegally in dollars from Panamanian bank accounts, bypassing Colombia's foreign currency regulations.

Missing from Nacional's line-up against the Brazilians was their international goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, renowned for his penchant for venturing into the midfield. He had been badly injured the previous week. Higuita, a personal friend of Escobar, is thought to have benefited from the patron's generosity. He has been receiving death threats for years.

Another self-confessed friend of Escobar, Francisco Maturana, is manager of Colombia's national team. In his autobiography, Maturana admitted that many players were effectively owned by wealthy fans or patrons.

Maturana caused further speculation over the influence on the game of the drug cartels last month. He announced that the assistant manager of the national squad, Hernan Dario Gomez, would make a better team boss than him. When not with the national side, Maturana manages America of Cali. Dario is manager of none other than Atletico Nacional of Medellin. Whatever was on Maturana's mind, he changed it a few days later and remains in charge of the Colombian squad.

(Photograph omitted)