In August this year, the sports magazine El Grafico published a story that shook the country: a player from the national soccer team, speaking anonymously, claimed that an international match fixing ring led by a Singaporean criminal known as Dan Tan had paid seven players $10,000 to throw an El Salvador international game.
In subsequent reports, the magazine uncovered the biggest scandal to hit soccer in El Salvador -- and indeed the region -- in decades implicating at least 22 soccer players in possible match fixing. Among the games suspected of being rigged were qualifiers for the Brazil 2014 World Cup and several friendly matches -- including a friendly against the United States' DC United played in Washington on June 18, 2010.
Cristian Villalta, chief editor of El Grafico, explained to InSight Crime how the match fixing works:
"It is an international mafia, which sub-contracts local organized crime groups to pressure players, referees, coaches, etc. In Italy, this same group, coordinated by Dan Tan [a Singapore-based crime boss], used links to the traditional mafia for match fixing, according to the evidence that came out in the trial of various professional soccer players, among them a former member of the Italian national team. In Mexico, this activity is linked to drug trafficking. Some experts say there are criminal networks that have moved from arms trafficking to the more lucrative and less dangerous match fixing."
(See more of the interview with Villata below.)
The first traces of match fixing in El Salvador came from a reporter who, after returning from a match, said that an informant had told him about a local player that liked to flash his money, showing off the Euros he had amassed. At the time, the reporter's editors dismissed this as an eccentricity, said Villalta.
But there were other unusual signs, such as a strange game of soccer between an unofficial El Salvador team and a Costa Rican team in Ciudad Quezada, a small town 100 kilometers north of San Jose. The game was not announced to the media, the players did not wear the official uniforms, and the tickets were leftovers from one of the Costa Rican team's previous matches.
After this match -- and after various watchdog organizations, journalists and both public and private investigators on the trail of the swindle had compared notes -- came first suspicion, then verification that a group of Salvadoran footballers had become involved in an international ring that was using the national team badge to make money by losing games.
"In exchange for money, which is most commonly offered to the goalkeeper, defenders, or the team's most destructive players, the players commit to playing below the levels they are capable of," said Villalta. "This can mean committing fouls until they are sent-off, scoring an own goal, or even ensuring a certain number of goals are allowed, either in a specific time period or throughout the whole game. The [fixers] need on average seven players per team on a side, six that start the match and one on the bench who can receive instructions by cell phone or instant messaging."
Since El Grafico uncovered the story, the Salvadoran Soccer Federation -- the maximum authority in Salvadoran soccer -- has banned 14 players for life, a decision ratified by the world's soccer body FIFA. However, the investigation has been so slow that one of the main suspects was able to flee the country before facing charges.
Impunity, the National Malady
Soccer is El Salvador's national sport. The national team is not a powerhouse. It is ranked 83rd in the world by FIFA, and ninth in its World Cup qualifying region, which encompasses North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The country's national team has not qualified for a World Cup since 1982, when the team entered the Guinness Book of Records for losing 10-1 against Hungary, the biggest margin in World Cup history.
Nevertheless, wherever there are Salvadorans, there is passion about soccer. It was there in the Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) stadium in Washington DC, where El Salvador's national team often plays -- at least until the day El Grafico broke the match fixing scandal, which included details of how an El Salvador national team match played at RFK is now the subject of a match fixing investigation by the Salvadoran authorities.
Most of DC United's hardcore fans are Salvadorans and whenever the team plays at home, its most loyal supporters paint their faces in the black, red and white of the Washington team. When the El Salvador national team plays in the stadium, the same fans change colors to those that have, at least until now, made them suffer most -- the blue and white of the El Salvador team. It will be a while until the national team returns to play in Washington and maybe a little longer before the fans reach into their pockets to pay to watch them play.
"You can forgive them for being bad players, but not for being thieves," one fan told InSight Crime in Baltimore, after the national team lost 5-1 to the United States in the Gold Cup last July.
The saga of the "tainted soccer ball" (pelota manchada), as El Grafico has labeled it, has so far followed what has become the classic script for stories of combating organized crime in El Salvador -- or more accurately not combating it.
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The media allegations led to a Hollywood-esque response from the Salvadoran authorities. This included raids on players' houses directed by a leading figure in the Attorney General's office who explained the findings to TV cameras, and a press conference staged by the country's soccer federation announcing the temporary suspension of the 22 suspects.
However, nobody issued an arrest warrant against Miguel Angel Montes Moreno, the national team goalkeeper and prime suspect in coordinating, recruiting and paying players on behalf of the match fixers. Instead, Montes made a relaxed getaway, flying to the United States, and following in the footsteps of Salvadoran congressmen suspected of money laundering, drug traffickers with friends in the police and army coronels accused of murdering Jesuits.
The tale of corruption in Salvadoran soccer flooded the social networks and kept the morning talk shows buzzing. Everyone had an opinion, and everyone was writing about it. They were all angry. There was some shared ground, such as the calls for the toughest punishments for the "traitors to the motherland," which should be extended to directors and coaches. There was also a complaint: why was society so angry about soccer but prudish, ideological and partisan when it comes to discussing corruption of other institutions, such as the police, congress or the executive? And why is there such an unequivocal demand for punishment when El Salvador has kept silent over atrocities such as murders, massacres and rapes?
InSight Crime Interview with Cristian Villalta, Editor of El Grafico
Why El Salvador? Our team is not one you would think would attract the attentions of international betting rings.
El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Bolivia, Zambia ... in all these countries there have been incidences of match fixing. What they have in common is semi-professionalism, governing bodies with little resources and/or will to combat the threat, and footballers that are not well paid. And the fixing takes place in games that these countries were going to lose anyway, so suspicions weren't aroused. Mexico is going to beat El Salvador nine times out of ten. What the mafia is interested in is how El Salvador loses; that they lose 4-1 or 5-0, for example.
Is it big business in El Salvador?
El Salvador is one small piece of the match fixing world in terms of money flows, but the infilitration is so deep that we already have 22 players suspended from a professional league that has no more than 40 star players. In just one game, in October 2010, which was organized for the express purpose of rigging it, more than $10 million changed hands on the illegal gambling market.
Twenty two players is a team or two. How deep does this go? Coaches? Referees? The local league?
There is a structure that has permitted this to spread and guarantee impunity.
In the United States there is a lot of anger among Salvadoran fans. Do you believe the national team was one of the few things that had the capacity to build a sense of national cohesion in El Salvador?
Definitely. But it was impossible to maintain an oasis of innocence in a rotten society. Now the team is a metaphor for the country.