FIFA's Soccer 'Embassy' In Paraguay, Complete With Legal Immunity
Experiencing a five-star hotel can sometimes feel like you've been transported to another country. Take the CONMEBOL Bourbon Hotel in Asuncion, Paraguay.
Acoustic music plays while the sun sparkles on the rooftop pool. The view from the top looks down onto the manicured grounds of CONMEBOL, the headquarters of the South American Soccer Federation, where a helicopter pad has pride of place. You could almost ignore the unpaved roads nearby in this, one of South America's poorest countries.
This story isn't about what can see, but rather what you cannot see. The fact is sitting here you actually aren't in Paraguay anymore — in the legal sense.
"Even the police, the district attorney or maybe the judges they cannot get in the place, they are not allowed to enter," says Hugo Rubin, a Paraguayan congressman.
CONMEBOL governs soccer in South America and is one of FIFA's six continental confederations. When CONMEBOL decided to move to Paraguay in 1997, it was granted something no other private enterprise has anywhere else in the world — immunity. Just like an embassy gets.
"Representatives of CONMEBOL, between them, they used to joke that they could have a stolen car inside the place and the police couldn't have access," Rubin says. He notes that the hotel could actually give asylum to a fugitive from justice and there is nothing Paraguayan law could do about it.
"That's what Paraguay gave them. It's an embarrassment," he says.
This came to light only after the recent indictments. One of the organizations that is embroiled in the FIFA scandal is CONMEBOL.
Two of its former federation presidents — Nicolas Leoz and Eugenio Figueredo — are under indictment for bribery and money-laundering by U.S. prosecutors.
The headquarters of that regional FIFA hub sits near the airport in Asuncion, the capital. A large office building abuts the luxury hotel and convention center. There is also a museum.
Rubin says he's been trying to find out how this group of buildings was given the status of an embassy. It's not really clear if CONMEBOL asked for immunity as a condition of moving to Paraguay or Paraguay offered it. Either way, what it means is that while people in other countries joke that soccer officials act as if they are above the law, in Paraguay they actually are.
Rubin sponsored a bill that seeks to strip CONMEBOL of the immunity. It's passed the House and is now being considered by the Senate.
Paraguay's President Horacio Cartes has said he will sign it into law.
"We were all so excited with having the CONMEBOL here because Paraguay doesn't have direct flights to anywhere, just regional cities. We thought it would be great having an institution like that here," he says.
He says Paraguay dreamed of a tourism and soccer boom — neither of which materialized. What the country got, he said, was a massive corruption scandal on its doorstep.
Jose Casanas Levi, a constitutional lawyer in Paraguay, believes that the original law granting CONMEBOL immunity was unconstitutional. But basically nobody noticed. Laws here are drafted in secret and then made available to the public. But unless you bother to ask to see it, you really don't know what's in the laws, he says.
"Our constitution forbids giving a private individual or company preferential legal treatment" he says.
Basically the way the law has been interpreted by judges and prosecutors has meant that no one has been investigated in the soccer world here for any wrongdoing.
"No prosecutor ever thought to investigate where did all the money come from for that luxurious COMNEBOL complex," he asks. No one looked into it because they thought they couldn't.
Immunity, he says, has became impunity. And he says he doesn't think that will change even if the immunity is lifted.
"The political and economic influence that soccer has here in Paraguay for a very long time is very strong. To confront that you need strong institutions which Paraguay doesn't have," he says.
Despite repeated requests, CONMEBOL officials refused to be interviewed by NPR.
But I did get to go to the slick CONMEBOL museum, which is open by appointment only. Two floors of South American soccer history end in a movie shown in a circular theater shaped like a soccer balls.
It's full of images of FIFA officials who are now under indictment for allegedly stealing millions of dollars. The grand finale extolls CONMEBOL's commitment to soccer in the Americas with a montage of children playing ball.
You don't have to go very far from the movie theater to find kids just like them.
A few hundred feet away in a public park, groups of teenagers are training. They just have a ball and their feet but they laugh and run around.
It's the sound of the sheer joy of the game.
"Some of our players come to fulfill their dream but they can't afford to have breakfast," says Marcelo Flietas, 18. "Look at our goalpost; it's made of broken wood. We have no covered place to play in the rain."
The money the soccer officials stole should have gone to help us, he says.
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