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LIVERPOOL’S most recent superstar, Luis Diaz, has hit the ground running in English football, but all is not as rosy as it appears off the pitch.
The Colombian star, who helped the Reds lift their first silverware of the year last weekend, is at the centre of a financial dispute involving his former clubs. According to Colombian club Atletico Junior, Porto FC have yet to give them the €12 million owed to them from the massive deal with Liverpool in January. Junior sued and Fifa ruled that Porto must pay up within 45 days.
This ongoing situation, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond it lies even more problematic details of Diaz’s trajectory to top-flight English football.
The Char family, who own Junior, are one of the most powerful families in Colombia, if not the most. They own one of the South American country’s most profitable supermarket chains, a huge pharmacy chain, radio stations, and, importantly, more than a dozen members of the family hold important regional and national political offices.
Like many wealthy families in the conflict-ridden nation, the Char Clan, as they are known, have been accused of involvement in corruption scandals — the alleged buying of votes — and have even been linked to illegal armed groups tied to the country’s narcotics trade.
It is likely, then, that millions of pounds from Liverpool’s deal with Porto will end up lining the pockets of one of Colombia’s wealthiest and most powerful families — helping to fuel the longstanding conflict and further empowering those who profit from war and authoritarianism.
The Char Clan
The Char family like to portray themselves as rags-to-riches entrepreneurs (a la Trump), yet the actual story of their vast business empire is hardly that of ordinary working Colombians.
Like many Syrian-Lebanese immigrants to Latin America, the Char family saw business potential in Colombia right at the peak of the country’s integration into the world economy in the first decades of the 20th century. Unlike most Colombians, who were either impoverished farm workers or low-paid toilers in the nascent industries, the greater part of these migrant merchant families managed to etch out a comfortable living — even if it was a far cry from the ostentatious luxuries enjoyed by the Char today.
In the early 1950s, the Char family purchased El Olimpico, a medium-sized supermarket in the centre of Barranquilla, Colombia’s largest coastal city, eventually turning it into one of the country’s most popular retail chains. They were able to cement their space in the retail industry through selling their products at extremely competitive prices. Off the back of Olimpico’s success they expanded their business empire into pharmaceuticals, food production, banking, marketing, media, and football.
However, their most important project as a family has been their incursion into the political sphere. Fuad Char, the most senior member of the family, became the (unelected) governor of the Atlantic department on the country’s northern coast in 1984. Since then, the Char have complemented their extensive business empire with numerous political roles — ranging from governorships, mayorships, and senator seats.
Today, in a country in which a small circle of wealthy families dominate political life, they come in first place with a total of 21 national and regional political offices. When these highly influential regional and national roles have not been granted to them by hand, they have been alleged to rely on election rigging and buying votes. Alejandro “Alex” Char, Fuad’s son, who is currently the Mayor of Barranquilla, has been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal in which he is accused of buying millions of votes in more than one election.
If wealth accumulation through ruthless and exploitative business practices and power through nepotism and corruption was not enough, the powerful family have also been linked to extreme-right armed groups. David Char, Fuad’s nephew, recently admitted in court that he had links to drug trafficking paramilitary groups in Barranquilla who helped him secure his role as a house representative.
Even further, an investigative journalist group known as the League Against Silence discovered and leaked several documents in which there is evidence that Fuad Char himself was involved with Barranquilla’s narcotics business and laundered its profits. Perhaps it was never their “competitive” prices that kept them at the top of the retailer market after all.
Liverpool’s hefty contribution to Colombia’s war
For years there has been an important debate within English football about problematic takeovers by billionaire moguls and, more recently, mega-rich Middle Eastern consortiums. Rightly, those critical of these takeovers point to exploitative business practices that change the essence and culture of football clubs and entire leagues, to the widespread evasion of taxes, and, more recently, to the dire human rights records of buyers. The rot in English football, however, goes further than just these obviously problematic takeovers.
The foreseeable argument that Liverpool FC has little to do with Diaz’s origins and cannot control where the money from the deal will end up absolves the club from its responsibility to assure their business dealings do not contribute to human rights violations and violent conflict. Diaz’s undeniable brilliance on the pitch should not blind us to the immense suffering that his multimillion-pound deal will contribute to Colombia’s ongoing violent conflict. Albeit indirectly, the millions that the Char family will inherit from Liverpool’s purchase will surely play a part in Colombia’s rife political corruption, to its narcotics trade (sustained by Western demand for cocaine), and to extreme-right wing terrorist groups.
No amount of silky dribbling or goal-scoring should justify us turning a blind eye to the human atrocities that are directly or indirectly linked to our football clubs.
Liverpool FC’s supporters are known for being vocal against the British Establishment because they too have been direct victims of systemic injustices at the hand of state authorities and their media apparatus. This was epitomised recently when the club’s fans jeered Prince William at the FA cup final, unchaining a wave of unjustified wrath against them from royalist commentators and press. With this rich and dignified history of standing up for themselves, it’s only right that they extend their solidarity to the people of Colombia who stand to be negatively affected by their club’s irresponsible dealings.
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