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Colombian soccer club free to play in U.S. after cutting drug ties

Fans of the America team chant from the stands as their team walks onto the pitch at Pascual Guerrero stadium in Cali March 1, 2009. Colombi
Fans of the America team chant from the stands as their team walks onto the pitch at Pascual Guerrero stadium in Cali March 1, 2009. Colombi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday lifted financial sanctions against the popular Colombian soccer team America de Cali, enabling it to play in the United States and receive U.S. corporate sponsorship.

The "Red Devils," as the club is known, became mired in financial trouble after their Cali drug cartel patrons were jailed in 1995, ending a windfall of cocaine-tied wealth that helped it assemble one of South America's priciest line-ups.

The mayor of Cali, once a major hub for the nation's cocaine trade, launched a campaign several years ago to have the club removed from the U.S. blacklist. The team regularly draws crowds of up to 18,000 in Colombia.

America de Cali severed ties with the drug trade and restructured its corporate ownership under the supervision of Colombia's government, prompting the Treasury Department's action on Wednesday. It had been blacklisted since 1999.

"Today's lifting of the designation of America de Cali is a testament to the enormous efforts made in recent years by both the team and the Colombian government to completely break with the criminal influences that have overshadowed the team in the past," David Cohen, Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.

The leaders of the cartel, Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, owned shares in America de Cali and held positions on its board of directors. The United States blocked them from dealing with U.S. companies and froze their assets in 1995.

Soccer and the drug trade used to be intertwined in Colombia - referees and players were bribed and occasionally murdered - but the ties frayed after Bogota launched a U.S.-backed crackdown on the cartels, armed gangs and leftist rebels who controlled coca production.

The government in Colombia, which remains the world's top cocaine producer, has touted the anti-drug efforts as key to luring foreign investors and tourist back to the country.

(Reporting by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Paul Simao)

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