A professional soccer goalie in Mexico has been accused of belonging to a drug cartel-connected kidnapping ring whose victims included the husband of Mexican pop star Gloria Trevi.
Authorities said international soccer player Omar Ortiz, nicknamed "El Gato," admitted helping the gang pick out at least two of its 20 kidnap victims, using his celebrity to get close and collect information from them.
The kidnappers allegedly had ties to the Gulf Cartel and sought about one million pesos ($73,000) from each of their victims, according to authorities in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo Leon.
Ortiz, who was under suspension since 2010 for testing positive for steroids while playing for Monterrey, reportedly received a cut of about $7,300 dollars for each of his contributions, authorities said.
The ring's abduction last October of Armando Gomez, the husband of the Mexican pop diva, was one of the higher profile cases, said Jorge Domene, the Neuvo Leon government spokesman. Gomez was abducted while out with friends in Mexico City.
After Gomez's kidnapping, Trevi confirmed the abduction but provided no details about his release or reveal how much ransom was paid.
"It wasn't a kidnapping attempt, he really was kidnapped for four days and I tried to be as calm as possible," she told AOL Latino last month.
The kindnapping ring's work underscored the lawlessness in a country plagued by drug trafficking and violence. Authorities said kidnapping in Mexico increased by nearly 200 percent from 438 in 2007 to 1284 in 2010.
In fact, kidnappings have become so common that after Ortiz was taken into custody and before his arrest was announced, the Mexican media speculated that he, too, had been kidnapped.
Nearly 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels soon after taking office five years ago. The war on drugs has emerged as a central issue in the run-up to Mexico's presidential election in July.
"I'm speechless," George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, told Reuters after learning of Ortiz's arrest. "I suppose it's an indication of the possible ubiquity of organized crime."
Mexican authorities said the crime organization generated $1.4 million in ransom money in the 20 kidnappings and that Ortiz provided them with information on the financial situation of potential victims. The Mexican daily El Universal quoted Domene as saying that Ortiz was an alleged cocaine user and that the ring also was involved in street sales of the drug.
Investigators were looking at various kidnappings of people "close to Ortiz," El Universal reported. Relatives of a young man who was recently kidnapped told authorities that he was friends with Ortiz.
In Mexico, the drug cartels have long been suspected of corrupting public officials and politicians. But Reuters reported that public probes into sports stars and entertainers for suspected ties to organized crime are rare.
Nuevo Leon Attorney General Adrian de la Garza said investigators don't believe other soccer players were involved in the gang's two-year kidnapping spree.
Nicknamed the "The Cat" for his bright eyes, Ortiz played a single match for Mexico's national team in 2002 although he made the national selection on three occasions. His suspension for steriods was to expire in April. Ortiz, a flashy player known for his many tattoos and earrings, was a longtime regular for top division Rayados de Monterrey. Now he faces up to 50 years in prison.
The northern industrial city of Monterrey, just hours from the Texas border, has become the scene of a bloody turf war in recent years between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, a drug gang once employed by the cartel as enforcers.
"This goes to show Monterrey is no longer this island of tranquility," Grayson told Reuters.