- Associated Press - Thursday, December 3, 2015

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) - The arrests of the last three presidents of CONMEBOL has plunged South America’s soccer body into the worst crisis in its nearly 100-year history.

Current president Juan Angel Napout was arrested on Thursday in a pre-dawn raid at a luxury hotel in Switzerland as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s widening bribery case into FIFA.

The Swiss Justice Ministry says Napout, also a FIFA vice president, is opposing his extradition to the U.S. He was among 16 men indicted Thursday on corruption charges as part of the investigation by U.S. prosecutors.

Among the other regional officials indicted are Ricardo Teixeira, an ex-Brazilian federation head and former son-in-law of Joao Havelange, who was FIFA’s president from 1974-98; Marco Polo del Nero, president of the Brazilian football federation; recently resigned CONMEBOL Secretary General Jose Luis Meiszner; Manuel Burga, a former Peruvian soccer federation president; and Luis Chiriboga, president of the Ecuadorean federation and a member of CONMEBOL’s executive committee.

Also indicted was Carlos Chavez, CONMEBOL’s former treasurer and the president of the Bolivian Football Federation. Chavez was jailed in July on charges arising from a separate investigation - that he diverted funds from a charity match.

By now, most of CONMEBOL’s top past and present officials are involved in the scandal. While some have been arrested, others have abruptly resigned from the national federations that make up the regional body, and are reportedly collaborating with U.S. authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence.

“It’s a real shame what is happening to our soccer,” Marco Ortega, the acting president of the Bolivian federation told The Associated Press. “Falling to this level is too much, but it also vindicates us because when we fired Carlos Chavez, the shameless CONMEBOL tried to protect him. Today, we know that the leadership at CONMEBOL is neither credible nor respectable.”

The power vacuum has left CONMEBOL third vice president Wilmar Valdez as next in line to become its acting president.

“CONMEBOL is in a very urgent and complex situation,” Valdez, who is also the president of the Uruguayan soccer federation told the AP. “We have to keep calm and let the hours and days pass so we can resolve these issues.”

Valdez said he will travel to CONMEBOL’s headquarters in Asuncion, Paraguay in the next few days and the institution’s few remaining officials will hold an executive committee meeting to decide its future.

“Right now there’s a lot of confusion about the management of the institution,” an official at CONMEBOL said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “We’re worried because there are several financial commitments that CONMEBOL must meet that need the accredited signature of the president.”

In May, former presidents Nicolas Leoz and Eugenio Figueredo were indicted by the U.S. Department of State. They were among 14 soccer officials and businessmen wanted on charges of bribery, racketeering, and money laundering. Their extradition is being sought.

“CONMEBOL and CONCACAF are both in serious difficulty as there are no viable leaders, and most officials that work within the organizations will be somehow associated to those arrested, so there is perhaps no ‘clean’ person to turn to,” said Christopher Gaffney, a scholar at the University of Zurich who studies soccer and mega-events.

“We knew that the CONMEBOL figures in particular, who come from corrupt and opaque national federations such as (Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay), would not have much incentive to clean up their operations,” Gaffney said.

Last month, Sergio Jadue, the president of Chile’s federation, resigned and traveled to the U.S. after he refused to answer questions from the federation over his possible links to the corruption scandal at FIFA. Local media reported he struck a deal with the FBI.

Chilean state TV aired images last week of Jadue walking the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, in sandals, a T-shirt, and shorts. He was not guarded by police or bodyguards, and he was not visibly wearing an ankle bracelet. He declined to speak on camera.

Jadue declared his innocence right after the FIFA scandal broke in May even though he was not formally charged in the first U.S. Justice Department indictments. Without specifying them by name, the indictments said most presidents of the 10 South American federations would receive $1.5 million in bribes from marketing company Datisa in exchange for control of the Copa America.

Jadue’s exit in November came days after the resignation of the head of Colombia’s federation, Luis Bedoya. Both have been vice presidents of CONMEBOL, but they were not among the soccer executives named in the U.S. probe. Colombian prosecutors have said, however, that they are investigating financial transactions by Bedoya, and have requested information from U.S. authorities.

U.S. prosecutors confirmed on Thursday that Jadue and Bedoya had pleaded guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy. As part of their plea, Jadue agreed to forfeit all funds on deposit in his U.S. account, while Bedoya accepted doing the same with his Swiss bank account.

Meanwhile, Chile’s soccer federation was raided on Thursday by the Chilean equivalent of the FBI. Police said Jadue is being investigated for alleged money laundering and that the Chilean federation is being probed for allegedly funneling its money to hire lawyers in the U.S.

“The way in which global soccer is run is simply not transparent,” Gaffney said. “And because FIFA prevents governments from ‘interfering’ in federations, there is virtually no way to have strong governmental reforms implemented from the outside.”

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Associated Press writers Paola Flores in La Paz, Bolivia, Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, Leonardo Haberkorn in Montevideo, Uruguay and Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay, contributed to this report.

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Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

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