On October 21, 1995, shortly before dinner US President Bill Clinton sat down at his desk at the White House. He wore a worn face, his brow creased by the pressures of three years as the most world's most powerful man.

His Democrat party was on the rocks. For the first time in forty years the Republicans were in control of both Congress and the Senate.

Clinton knew he was up against it. Elections were just a year away.

But on this cold late autumn afternoon with the patter of rain tickling the windows behind him, the US President's mind was temporarily elsewhere. In front of him lay an important piece of legislation that declared a national state of emergency. It awaited the ink of his signature.

Executive Order 12978 was an odd piece of legal directive. Its bold claim was to counter “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”

But this sinister sounding danger came from afar, from a group of middle-aged greying men unbeknown to most Americans. Listed in the original document's annex were four names, the order's targeted villains. All of them were Colombian.

Around this time, several thousand miles away on the northwestern tip of South America, a football team, América of Cali, were preparing for the continent's most prestigious club competition, the Copa Libertadores.

It was a tournament they desperately wanted to win having lost in the final for three successive years in the mid-80s and this time too the Colombians were highly fancied.

Twenty years prior however the club had won nothing. Legend held that when the team turned professional in 1948 for the start of the first national Colombian football league, founder member Benjamin Urrea, a staunch opponent of the club's conversion from  amateurism, was so angered at the decision to turn professional that he cursed the team never to win a league title.

For the next 30 years with this noose around their neck, the club flirted between financial disaster and wandering the mid-reaches of the Colombian first division.

But it was in 1979 that all that changed. Urrea, tired of bearing the blame of América's winless curse joined with board members for a special pitch-side mass in which a signed document lifted the spell. América's psychological burden was broken, the club's mind cleansed and that same year they won their first ever league championship.

This tale of redemption and the dark arts grabbed headlines and made a very good story. But it masked a quieter change that had taken place the very same year.

Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela may not be the household name like that of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but his influence on its nation's football was just as great.

In 1979, Mr Rodríguez bought América of Cali football club. He was co-founder of the Cali drug cartel alongside his brother Gilberto. The two siblings were avid América supporters and used the club to wash their drug money. It was this dirty cash that had such a pivotal role in influencing América's success and subsequent downfall.

The 1970s had seen a boom in cocaine use across the United States. Unscrupulous actors in the cocaine fields of Colombia began scrambling for control to satisfy the pocketed noses of their rich northern American cousins. It released a surge of violence that, in turn, led to an unparalleled level of human rights abuses.

A football club doesn't exist in a bubble, its fabric is a product of the environment it is nurtured in. For América, the wider tumultuous developments that started to shake Colombian society in the 1970s stamped an indelible print on the club. As Colombia's World Cup '94 coach Francisco Maturana later reflected: “Football is like an octopus, it touches all.”

Despite celebrating América's first league title in their debut year in charge, the Rodríguez brothers weren't satisfied - they wished to build a legacy.

They set about attracting some of South America's top stars such as Argentina's Ricardo Gareca and Julio César Falcioni and the Paraguayan Roberto Cabañas. With such greats they became all-conquering. But buying top players with narco-funds wasn't enough.

In an interview four years ago, Fernando Rodríguez Mondragón admitted to a Mexican newspaper that his father Gilberto, acting alongside his uncle, had also “influenced” referees.

“América was an almost invincible team that had waltzed through every stadium of Colombia, not only with the great players that they'd bought with the proceeds of drug trafficking, but also through influencing certain results,” said Rodríguez.

He continues to tell of the methods the brothers used, the wining and dining of referees and the hotel bills the brothers footed.

These contacts stretched all the way to the top of football, indeed to the top of Colombian society itself.

América won five consecutive Colombian titles in the 1980s and started to cement their name as one of South America's giants.

Internationally it was trickier to influence results, but not impossible.

“I know that the Copa Libertadores was very difficult, but my father and uncle knew someone who was very friendly to them in the Confederación Sudamericana [Conmebol] – Teo Figosalinas.”

With Figosalinas as a go-to, América were three-times runners-up of the Copa Libertadores in successive years.

América were not alone in employing such dirty tactics. With 'The Mexican', Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, in charge at Bogotá side Millonarios and Pablo Escobar looking after the well-being of Nacional and Medellín there was an often brutal three-way tussle for control – of football, money and power. A city's football team was a matter of pride and all three drug cartels understood their role perfectly.

When América and Medellín clashed in 1989 in a crucial end of the season tie, Pablo Escobar took things to the next level. If you couldn't bribe the ref or win him over with fine dining, then you'd have to kill him.

Medellín needed to win but despite being favourites, the game ended goalless. Escobar ordered the death of referee Alvaro Ortega and the season was cancelled.

The murder of a man over a game of football was indicative of how the narco-chiefs' bloody recriminations had entangled itself around the neck of football.

But four years later, the death of the world's most wanted man Pablo Escobar at the hands of the Colombian state, brought the Cali Cartel, the Rodríguez brothers and their plaything, América, to a world-wide audience. With the fall of the Medellín cartel, their illicit drug kingdom fell into Cali cartel control. And one person in particular was paying interest - US President Bill Clinton.

Late on that October afternoon in 1995 as Clinton readied himself to eat, he planted his signature just above the four ring leaders listed in annex one. All were Cali Cartel members and the first two names were Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela.

The Colombian brothers, had, in fact, been already arrested, captured at their luxury Cali apartments four months previous.

But Executive Order 12978, later to become known as the Clinton List, was never just a simple manhunt for four drug dealers.

It was the most ambitious attempt so far in the United States's controversial war on drugs, a black-list that intended to strangle the life out of all individuals and companies that had interests in the narcotics industry. By the mid-90s the Cali Cartel controlled an estimated 90% of world cocaine trade. The Rodríguez brothers may have been captured but their empire still stood tall, powerful and untouched.

By association with the brothers, the football team was soon placed on the list. Their assets were frozen and no company wanting to do business in the United States would go near them. For the next 17 years they wouldn't even be able to open a bank account.

But the Rodríguez brothers were several steps ahead.

Through intricate channels of funding and hidden from Yankee lawmakers' eyes, money continued to filter through to América.

The Cali giants would go on to again lose in the final of the 1996 Copa Libertadores against River Plate but trophies continued into the start of the next century when they won three back-to-back Colombian championships.

It seemed Clinton's mission had failed.

But there was a glimmer of success for Clinton's early endeavours and that was to dent the swashbuckling pride of the Cali Red Devils.

In June 1997 América forward de Avila scored the only goal of the game to settle a crucial World Cup qualifier for Colombia against Ecuador. In front of stunned journalists in the press conference that followed, de Avila hit back at what he saw was the meddling of an arrogant gringo power in the internal affairs of Colombia.

“I want to dedicate this goal to all the people that for one or another reason are now denied their freedom. I dedicate it to Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez,” de Avila announced.

The scandal drew mass condemnation from the Colombian establishment with its main mouthpiece, daily newspaper El Tiempo, calling for him to be axed from the team. De Avila narrowly survived but to this day he defends those comments and continues to support his “friends” the Rodríguez brothers.

América took a hit and pressure to reform from outside mounted. But with successes on the pitch continuing, the football club's directors steadfastly resisted and fans turned a blind eye.

Increasingly though they were suffering and by the end of 2009, America were in serious trouble.

Debt had mounted and, following more than a decade on the Clinton List, they had few friends and business contacts left. It was a slow suffocating death and, unable even to attract sponsors, their only regular clean income came from stadium receipts and merchandise. 

In the Clausura championship of 2009 America recorded one win in 18 as the team slumped to the bottom of the table. They were saved from relegation because of a twist in the rules common in all South American league structures.

Like in Argentina, Colombian teams are only relegated on a three-season points average, allowing big clubs the luxury of a temporary blip in form. But, as in Argentina where River Plate bypassed this protection to fall through the relegation trapdoor in June 2011, six months later América also followed.

Fans suddenly took note at América's disastrous run and applied enough pressure on the management of the club, the Corporation Deportiva America (CDA), to force an extraordinary meeting in May 2010. The directors, many of who were implicated in the Clinton List, conceded some crumbs of power and a new entity was formed.

Supposedly it was the start of a democratisation process where New América (NA) would wrestle control from the old guard and clean up the club.

It failed miserably and América's final fall from grace could hardly have been more embarrassing. América, once one of the mightiest sides on the continent faced a two-legged play-off against a second division team formed just nine years ago to save their first division skin. Both games ended 1-1 and thus, from the penalty spot, the darkest day in América's 84-year history was written. They were relegated.

As fans wept and eleven corpse-like bodies lay strewn across the pitch, in and outside the stadium, riots erupted. Throughout Cali that night 66 people were arrested while 12 others lay in hospital injured. In the capital Bogotá, two hundred miles north, two neighbourhoods went on the rampage venting a boiling frustration at their club's meteoric demise.

Willington Ortiz was América's star striker in the club's 1980s heyday and is considered one of the best Colombian players of all time. He believes the squabbles between the CDA and New America are to blame for the club's relegation.

“Those responsible for América's relegation are the managers, nobody else. The mess that the directors created by allowing two management structures both fighting against each other sent América to the second division. They were fighting for power and for their own selves and ignoring what was going on on the pitch.”

Ortiz argues that América's excellent youth setup had long helped the club mask the economic problems but eventually the drain become too much – the £5 million debt to creditors and tax authorities left the club with a black spot that nobody would touch.

The former América hero is understandably uncomfortable with questions during our interview about the Rodríguez brothers and, astonishingly, claims not to have known anything about the narco-lords involvement with the infamous Cali Cartel.

“Of course we knew the Rodríguez brothers, they were the bosses of the team. But during this time, we had no idea how they made their money. They led their lives and we never questioned where their money came from,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz never mentions that he himself was also included on Bill Clinton's black-list due to business interests he once shared with a sister of one of the Rodríguez brothers.

The interview ends and, as I leave, Ortiz hands me a flyer advertising the football coaching school he runs. He had been employed at Millonarios, the team he'd supported since he was a boy, but inclusion on the Clinton List had cost him his job. He now spends Saturday afternoons barking orders to seven-year olds.

Six games into the second division clausura season and América are riding high in fourth place. After winning the apertura championship on penalties they look a good bet for a swift return to the top-flight in December.

Wily ex-Colombia coach has done excellent job in reinvigorating América's fortunes, while fans too have broken no end of second division attendance records to add vocal weight and financial superiority to the Cali giant's cause.

But while results on the pitch have been encouraging, problems off the field persist.

Guillermo Ruiz Bonilla is Colombia's most respected football historian and author of several football books. He agrees that relegation was a wake-up call that has returned legions of fans to support América in their hour of need, but 17 years on the Clinton List continues to strangle the club.

“Now the situation is improving. Relegation has revitalised the club and fans who used to stay away are now flocking to the stadium. This provides gate money which is clean and this, in turn, has started attracting wealthy local businessmen. We must remember this is the best supported club in Colombia.” 

“But many of the leaders of America are on the Clinton List and they can't get off it. The Rodríguez brothers had such a network of business contacts and anybody who had a connection with them were put on the list.” 

“New America was set up to try to democratise the club so that the club could escape the list but they had no money. There was a lot of distrust and lies and it failed,” Mr Ruiz says.

Earlier this year the club registered with league organisers Dimayor as a new entity – a PLC with 213 shareholders promising to inject over 5 million clean dollars into the club. It was considered a vital step in putting América on the road to recovery.

Club president Carlos Andrade boasted the club would be free of its shackles by the year's end and that work was also in progress to confront the yawning debt the club owed to its creditors.

But four months later, Andrade was gone. An extraordinary assembly was called and the whole board of directors resigned. Rumours of division and discontent had been rumbling away for months, but while this latest example of management infighting came as no surprise, in the background the ghost of the Rodriguez brothers haunts.

When a lucrative friendly with Boca Juniors was scheduled at the Miami Dolphins stadium for August this year, the América delegation triumphantly emerged from the US embassy in Bogotá waving visas for their trip. It was seen as recognition of the club's recent efforts to sweep the deadwood out of the organisation and tidy up their books. Exclusion once and for all from the dreaded Clinton black-list seemed near.

But a few weeks ago the game was called off after the US Treasury stepped in and threatened the American football side with potential sanctions should they host the Colombians at their Sun Life Stadium.

The weight of América's controversial past remains to be released. Even if promotion is secured back to the Colombian top-flight a management team that continues to pick from the rotting carcass of their once illustrious club and the burden of Bill Clinton's death warrant will surely hinder any return to the pinnacle of South American football that América de Cali once proudly occupied.

Carl Worswick is a freelance football writer based in Bogotá specialising in Colombian football. He can be found on Twitter @cworswick

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AuthorCarl Worswick