US lifts sanctions on team tied to Colombian drug cartel

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Treasury Department on Wednesday said it removed the professional Colombian football team America de Cali from a blacklist of groups owned by people linked to the illegal drug trade.

The team, a 13-time national champion that has fallen on hard luck, was blacklisted in June 1999 "because it was under the ownership or control of Cali Cartel leaders Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela and other designated individuals", the Treasury Department said.

America de Cali, founded in 1927, last won a national championship in 2008, but it has since struggled and slid into second-division club football in late 2011.

America de Cali's head coach, Mr Eduardo Lara, said in November that he had received an anonymous message threatening to kill the team leadership if they did not improve and return to first division football.

America de Cali's corporate entity "recently completed a transparent process of restructuring and bankruptcy procedures under the oversight of the Colombian government", the US statement read.

By removing the team from the list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (the so-called SDN list), any of the team's assets in the United States have been unblocked and Americans will be able to do business with them.

In the 1980s the Cali cartel, under the leadership of the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, dominated cocaine exports to the US and Europe. However, with the demise of Pablo Escobar's rival Medellin cartel, Colombian police focused on the Cali group and arrested and imprisoned the brothers in the 1990s.

The two, however, remained active behind bars and were eventually extradited to the US, where they are serving lengthy prison sentences.