ECUADOR’S leading goalscorer has been arrested and thrown in jail on suspicion of belonging to a criminal gang accused of murder and drug-trafficking.
Gabriel Cortez, the country’s top marksman so far this season with seven goals in nine games, was held at his home in the early hours on Friday and flown by helicopter to the coastal city of Esmeraldas for a court hearing.
The 26-year-old, who plays for Barcelona Sporting Club in Ecuador’s top-flight Serie A league, was languishing behind bars today after being remanded in prison along with 17 other suspects arrested in the police operation.
Cortez’s lawyer insisted the arrest of his client, who played on Thursday in a 1-0 home defeat against Gualaceo, was “unjust”.
But Ecuador’s Interior Minister Patricio Carrillo, confirming three serving police officers were also among those held in the operation against a gang called Los Tiguerones, said of the footballer: “We don’t think he just belongs to Los Tiguerones.
“We also believe he was the person that ordered and received the information about the people hitmen had deprived of life.”
Barcelona Sporting Club, the most successful football team in Ecuador with a record 16 league wins, said in a statement after Cortez was pictured after his arrest alongside heavily-armed police officers: “In light of what has occurred with one of our players, we will respect the procedures and investigations carried out by the organs of justice.
“We would also stress that activities players, staff and executives carry out in their private lives are separate to the institution and therefore the club has no responsibility in this matter.
“We will continue to closely follow this process and await the decisions taken by the judiciary with a view to taking the corresponding measures at an opportune time.”
Weapons, ammunition, three vehicles and drugs were seized during 29 searches carried out in Esmeraldas and other locations.
Police chief Carlos Cabreras described Los Tiguerones as a criminal gang whose illegal activities include drug and weapons trafficking, murder and extortion.
He also said they had links to a shadowy group responsible for killing journalists.
Cortez, better known by his nickname Loco Cortez – which literally means Madman Cortez, was filmed being escorted in handcuffs by police officers as he was led away from the chopper that flew him to his court hearing.
THe four-capped international said nothing as he kept his head down under a baseball cap. His mugshot photo of him was later made available to local press.
Cortez’s lawyer said after his arrest: “State prosecutors asked for an arrest warrant for investigative reasons, indicating that my client was the suspected manager of a criminal organization so they could proceed with his detention.
“However when it came to the court hearing following his arrest, they changed their story completely and said he wasn’t the leader but had simply received two telephone calls and listened to what was said.
“They are not phone calls in which he gives an order and it can be established that he has committed a crime.”
Midfielder Cortez has also played for Brazilian top-flight side Botafogo as well as Independiente del Valle and Emelec in his homeland.
He was suspended from Ecuador’s Serie A league, also known as the Liga Pro, in 2017 for calling a referee a “son of ab *** h” during a barrage of insults.
He also got himself into trouble at Rio de Janeiro-based Botafogo for insulting the team during an Instagram Live and praising the club’s eternal rivals Flamengo.