An ex-Real Madrid player, Maradona's doctor and a cocaine scandal that has rocked Spanish football

Edwin Congo - Selección Colombia
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Edwin Congo didn't make an official appearance for Madrid but is now accused of participating in a drugs ring operating in the shadow of the Bernabeu

The story sounds as if it were lifted straight from a Hollywood crime thriller. A drug trafficking ring worth millions of euros spanning both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Cardboard boxes laced with liquid cocaine and packed with tropical fruits to avoid suspicion.

A shadowy cosmetic surgeon pulling the strings from the offices of his clinic. And a former professional footballer once on the books of Real Madrid whose role in the operation is still shrouded in mystery.

Spain is one of Europe's primary entry points for illegal narcotics, and by police accounts business has been booming in recent months. “The narcos thought we would be sleeping or only focused on Covid-19 and could therefore send more drugs than ever,” Antonio Martinez Duarte, chief of the Spanish police's Central Drugs Brigade, explained to reporters in April. “They got over-confident.”

In March and the first weeks of April alone police seized no fewer than six tonnes of cocaine at Spanish ports, including a 600kg haul that was smuggled amongst a shipment of bananas entering Valencia. Authorities put the increase in quantities down to a glut of product in Colombia and Venezuela, as well as increased scrutiny from the law in the South American nations which has forced dealers to step up shipping even in these times of restricted movement and activity.

It was the Central Brigade that was behind a raid that yielded the arrest of 18 people, one of whom was former Madrid, Valladolid and Levante striker and Colombia international Edwin Congo. The police operation also intercepted one tonne of cocaine destined for Bulgaria, which had been injected into packing boxes carrying pineapples and limes.

Congo strenuously denies participation in the ring, telling La Sexta. “I feel calm because I haven't done anything, I don't deal drugs,” and was subsequently released pending further investigations. Also implicated is another man with a link, albeit tenuous to the world of football, a Madrid-based Colombian surgeon who is no stranger to problems with the law.

In 2000, desperate to slim down his ballooning figure, Diego Maradona travelled to the Colombian city of Cali. There he found Mauricio Vergara, who fitted the Argentina legend with a 'tongue patch': a controversial, highly invasive treatment which makes eating literally painful for the recipient. Following the diet Maradona lost more than 50kg in six months and, according to the player's inner circle, had no further dealings with the doctor.

Vergara, however, claims otherwise. Two years later he was detained at Cali Airport with two kg of cocaine in his suitcase; narcotics, the doctor argued, that belonged to Diego. “I was arrested, but we came to an agreement with the state for what's called house arrest,” he later explained to El Punto de Mira.

“My family received death threats, my lawyer was murdered in Colombia. Maradona never came back [to Colombia].” Vergara later relocated to Madrid, where he worked in some of the Spanish capital's most famed cosmetic surgery centres while, police allege, continuing to hold meetings with traffickers. Ironically, the Meraki Clinic, believed to be the centre of the operation, sits at No. 3, Bernabeu Street – less than two blocks from the stadium in which Congo never managed to play.

Edwin Congo incluido en los peores fichajes de la historia del Real Madrid, pasando por una gran cantidad de equipos en donde nunca logró brillar

The striker joined Madrid from Once Caldas in 1999 aged 22, becoming at the time Colombian football's second-most expensive transfer in history. But he was immediately farmed out on loan, first to Valladolid and later France's Toulouse and Vitoria Guimaraes of Portugal.

In 2001-02 Congo spent his only season at Madrid, albeit without making a single first-team appearance. He went on to find more success elsewhere in Spain, starring for Levante and later lining up outside the Primera Division in the colours of Sporting Gijon and Recreativo. Upon retirement he opted to stay in Spain and briefly ran a Caribbean restaurant in Valencia while also qualifying as a dentist; the ex-pro currently works as a pundit for El Chiringuito and has represented Madrid's veterans team in the past.

Police believe that behind the entire operation lay Milton Santamaria, a former Colombian police sergeant who had recently entered the cardboard-making business in his native country. Santamaria's arrest in Madrid in March, just four days after arriving in Spain, pushed local authorities to act against his alleged trafficking ring, culminating in the recent massive haul in Bulgaria and the spate of arrests.

Congo quickly regained his freedom, but his involvement in the case is not over: the ex-Colombia star will have to explain his presence at those alleged meetings held in the Meraki clinic, in the very shadow of the Bernabeu, as well as the links he admitted to maintaining with those arrested. Investigations have only just begun into this intricate transatlantic ring, and the ex-Madrid man is accused at being at the very heart of the illicit activity.