Mexico arrested former international soccer goalkeeper Omar Ortiz on suspicion of working for a gang of kidnappers, fanning concerns about lawlessness plaguing the United States' southern neighbor.
The 35-year-old Ortiz admitted helping to pick out rich victims for the kidnappers, according to Jorge Domene, government security spokesman for the northern state of Nuevo Leon.
Domene said Ortiz worked with a gang responsible for at least 20 kidnappings.
The gang sought an average of 1 million pesos ($73,000) per victim, of which Ortiz received a cut of more than 100,000 pesos, Nuevo Leon's government said.
Domene said the gang operated by selecting victims at social gatherings. The gang's victims allegedly included the husband of pop singer Gloria Trevi.
Sporting his trademark goatee beard, Ortiz looked impassive as masked soldiers paraded him and three other suspects in Monterrey, a city that has increasingly come under attack by organized crime.
Nuevo Leon attorney general Adrian de la Garza said the suspected kidnappers were captured on January 5 and noted that the gang's leader, who is still at large, told them they were working for the Gulf Cartel.
"I'm speechless," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, after the news of Ortiz's arrest. "I suppose it's an indication of the possible ubiquity of organized crime."
Ortiz, whose nickname means "The Cat," was suspended after testing positive for steroids in April 2010, when he was playing with the Rayados of Monterrey. That ban is due to expire in April.
Some local media in Monterrey had speculated that Ortiz himself had been abducted after he disappeared from view Wednesday. But prosecutors said he had been arrested at his home in a Monterrey suburb that day after two kidnapping suspects were detained Monday and implicated him in the crimes.
If convicted, Ortiz and the others could face prison sentences of up to 50 years.
The conservative government of President Felipe Calderon has staked its reputation on rooting out Mexico's drug gangs, some of which have branched out extensively into other activities like robbery, extortion and kidnapping.
Between 2007 and 2010 kidnappings in Mexico leapt by nearly 200 percent from 438 to 1284, according to government data.
More than 46,000 people have been killed in the gang violence that has erupted since Calderon began his crackdown on drug cartels soon after taking office five years ago.
Drug gangs have long been suspected of corrupting public officials and politicians. Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) has sought to tar the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as susceptible to the cartels.
But public probes into sports stars and entertainers for suspected ties to organized crime have been rare.
Famous for his many tattoos and earrings, Ortiz was a longtime regular for top division side Monterrey.
Ortiz played a single match for the Mexican national side in 2002.
Long seen as the jewel in the crown of Mexican industry, Monterrey has become mired in violence over the past two years as the Gulf Cartel has fought a bloody turf war with Los Zetas, a drug gang that once worked as enforcers for the cartel.
Murder, extortion and kidnapping have spread fear in the city of 4 million people that lies about 140 miles from the Texas border.
"This goes to show Monterrey is no longer this island of tranquility," said Grayson at William & Mary.