The wild career of Paolo Guerrero – failed drugs test, Inca mummies and captaining Peru at 40

Paolo Guerrero is on national television pleading for his family’s safety.

It is February 16 this year and he is asking Richard Acuña, president of the Peruvian club Cesar Vallejo, to release him from a contract that he had signed weeks beforehand.

Guerrero says his mother, Petroñila Gonzales, is being harassed by local criminals. He adds that Katia Montenegro Dietschi, the mother of his only daughter, Naela Guerrero, who also lives in Peru, has also been sent threatening messages.

Guerrero is the Peruvian national team’s 40-year-old captain and record goalscorer, and one of that country’s most famous celebrities.

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(Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Against all odds, he led Peru through the notoriously difficult South American qualifying campaign to reach the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

Then, after football’s world governing body FIFA banned him for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, he encouraged a campaign from fellow Group C team captains Hugo Lloris (France), Simon Kjaer (Denmark) and Mile Jedinak (Australia) in a bid to play.

Less than two months before the tournament was due to start, he was cleared to play by a Swiss supreme court judge, and on June 21, having been on the bench for the opener with Denmark, he led his team out against France in their second group match.

As part of his defence, his lawyers had cited the frozen bodies of three Inca children that were discovered on top of a volcano. (More on that later.)

This is the story of South America’s striker of the decade, who took his nation to its first World Cup in 36 years and looks set to lead the line for them again this summer at Copa America at the age of 40…

Guerrero was born in Lima, Peru’s capital, and was picked up at the age of eight by Alianza Lima, one of the country’s most prominent clubs.

At Alianza, he played with Jefferson Farfan, who is a year younger. However, he would never get the chance to play with his running mate for their first team, as Guerrero was snapped up by German side Bayern Munich at 18 before ever making a senior appearance for his boyhood club.

He initially joined Bayern Munich II, the reserve team playing in Germany’s third division, and scored 21 goals in 23 games in 2003-04, his first full campaign in Europe. He continued that strong form the next season, prompting a call-up to the first team, where he joined compatriot Claudio Pizarro.

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Guerrero — third row back, third right — with the Bayern squad in 2005 (Jan Pitman/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Despite the competition for places, he made an impact. He scored six times in 13 league matches and earned six appearances in the Champions League during that 2004-05 season, starting twice and getting another goal. Yet, owing to the amount of talent ahead of him, including Pizarro, Roy Makaay and Roque Santa Cruz, Guerrero left Bayern at 22 in summer 2006 to join another Bundesliga side, Hamburg.

While his time there is mostly remembered for the goals he scored, Guerrero is never too far away from off-field drama. In 2010, he was handed a club-record fine for throwing his drink into the crowd after the final whistle and striking the face of a Hannover fan who was allegedly heckling him. The German football federation suspended Guerrero for five games and fined him an additional €20,000 (£17,100; $21,800).

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(Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

At that time, Peru were struggling to make the most of their emerging talent. Pizarro and Nolberto Solano were established players in top European leagues, but they tried and failed on many occasions to take their nation to a first World Cup since 1982.

Peru finished bottom of the South American qualification standings for the 2010 tournament, a record of three wins from their 18 matches, not helped by losing Guerrero to a six-game ban after he insulted the referee in a June 2008 qualifier against Uruguay. Their attempt at reaching the 2014 finals was equally unsuccessful, finishing 10 points short of the fifth spot that meant a play-off against a side from Asia.

They fared better in Copa America, finishing third in successive tournaments in 2011 and 2015, but by then, the generation of Pizarro and Solano had retired from international football.

Around this time, Guerrero had returned to South America from Europe, joining Corinthians (in 2012), Flamengo (2015) and then Internacional (2018), three of Brazil’s G-12 (Big Twelve) clubs. That’s a hell of a lot of travel for a player who had to seek therapy in his Hamburg days due to a fear of flying.

While playing for Corinthians, he scored the only goal of the 2012 Club World Cup final against Chelsea. Success turned Guerrero into Peru’s undisputed star, charismatic leader and captain.

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Making Corinthians world champions in December 2012 (Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images)

Leading into that 2018 World Cup, the burden was on Guerrero and his old pal Farfan.

After their best qualification campaign in decades, Peru went into the final South American group game needing a home win against Colombia in October 2017 to be sure of a place in Russia. They could only draw 1-1, however, setting up a two-leg play-off against Oceania’s New Zealand the following month.

Then, just over a week before the first game in Wellington, FIFA handed Guerrero a 30-day provisional suspension for failing a doping test. Benzoylecgonine, a derivative of cocaine, was found in his system after the goalless draw away to Argentina in a World Cup qualifier the month before.

Against this dramatic backdrop, Peru overcame New Zealand, drawing 0-0 away and winning 2-0 in Lima four days later to book their first trip to the World Cup since the 1982 tournament in Spain. After Farfan scored the opener, he held up Guerrero’s shirt to the celebrating home fans, who chanted his name following the final whistle.

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(Luka Gonzales/AFP via Getty Images)

A few weeks later, however, FIFA confirmed a 12-month ban, meaning Guerrero would miss the tournament the following summer.

“The player tested positive for cocaine metabolite benzoylecgonine, a substance included in WADA’s (the World Anti-Doping Agency) 2017 prohibited list under the class ‘S6. Stimulants’, following a doping control test conducted after the match,” FIFA said in a statement. “By testing positive for a prohibited substance, the player has violated article six of the FIFA anti-doping regulations and, as such, contravened article 63 of the FIFA disciplinary code.”

Guerrero insisted his positive test was a result of drinking contaminated herbal tea.

In much of South America, consuming the coca leaf is legal, a social norm and, in some cases, encouraged as a remedy for altitude sickness. Coca tea is considered a mild stimulant, with an effect similar to coffee or black tea. Despite this, one cup of coca tea is enough to make you fail a drugs test.

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(Evan Abramson/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Guerrero told FIFA he had been given two herbal teas to drink while on international duty because he was suffering from a cold. He said he was given an anise tea and a black tea with lemon and honey, and that one could have been mixed accidentally with coca. His reasoning fell on deaf ears, and FIFA upheld the ban with an appeal opportunity.

As part of Guerrero’s appeal, his lawyers called in a Brazilian biochemist who said the amount of benzoylecgonine in his system was consistent with someone who had drank coca tea. They also called on Charles Stanish, an American archaeologist, who explained the coca leaf’s cultural popularity in Peru. The most remarkable evidence he used involved frozen corpses of Inca children found at the top of Llullaillaco, a volcano on the border between Argentina and Chile, 18 years earlier.

In 2013, forensic analysis of the mummies’ hair revealed traces of benzoylecgonine, the same substance as in Guerrero’s urine sample. If it was found on these bodies, believed to have been left on the volcano around four centuries before cocaine was first produced, how could one confidently accuse Guerrero of ingesting that drug?

This evidence was part of a case that convinced FIFA to reduce the ban from a year to six months, meaning Guerrero could play at the World Cup starting in the June. However, just as he was about to return from his ban, WADA appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to uphold it. Despite Guerrero’s lawyers filing a counter-appeal, CAS ruled in WADA’s favour that May, and increased the suspension to 14 months.

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(Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to a protest movement in Peru, the captains of France, Denmark, and Australia wrote an open letter calling for FIFA to temporarily lift the ban. While it was now out of FIFA’s hands, Guerrero continued to argue his innocence, now at the Swiss Federal Tribunal — the appeals court for CAS.

Two weeks before the World Cup’s opening night, the Swiss Federal Tribunal agreed to lift the suspension for the duration of the tournament. CAS then released a statement saying it would not oppose the move, finally clearing Guerrero to play.

While they exited at the group stage — losing 1-0 to Denmark and eventual champions France, then beating Australia 2-0 in their final game, with Guerrero scoring the second goal — the 34-year-old had realised a lifelong ambition of playing for his country at the World Cup. The ban was reinstated after the tournament, and Guerrero didn’t return to action until April 2019.

A few months later, he was the top scorer at Copa America, helping Peru reach the final. As a result, like in 2011 and 2015, he was named in the team of the tournament. It is no wonder he was preferred to Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez when the International Federation of Football History & Statistics was picking its South American team of the decade.

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(Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty Images)

Before returning to play in Peru this year, he had further spells in Brazil, Argentina and finally Ecuador, where he was part of the LDU Quito side who won the Ecuadorian title and the Copa Sudamericana, the continent’s equivalent of the Europa League, in 2023.

After opting not to return to Quito for a second year, many expected he would rejoin Alianza Lima, but his boyhood club decided against signing him. On February 2, he joined Club Deportivo Universidad Cesar Vallejo, to use their full name, from the northwestern coastal city of Trujillo.

Cesar Vallejo are yet to be Peruvian champions in their brief 28-year history but they are connected to an expensive private university and are one of the nation’s wealthiest clubs. Richard Acuña, who is president of both the club and the university, is ambitious. This year, they have built a team of big names, signing goalkeeper Jose Carvallo, who captained Lima club Universitario at times last season as they won the domestic title, and midfielder Josepmir Ballon, who was skipper of runners-up Alianza. Adding Guerrero was considered the cherry on the cake, but the excitement would not last long.

Two weeks after signing, Guerrero appeared on the national television news programme Latina Noticias. There, he vented his frustrations with Acuña, whom he accused of ignoring threats against him and his family made by local criminal organisations before he had played a game for the club.

“Mr Richard Acuña says he has been harmed at a sporting level. In what sense have they been harmed?,” Guerrero said in Spanish, translated here to English. “My family receives threats and harassment. They have written to my daughter’s mother with my daughter’s photo. This is not normal.

“It is already causing me discomfort because the man speaks as if this were normal, and I don’t think so. I don’t know how the man can deal with this situation and say that it is normal. In Peru, people do not receive (threatening) messages — my family has received direct messages.”

According to reports in Peru, Guerrero’s mother began receiving threatening messages as soon as his signing was announced.

“Send this message to Paolo saying that here the north is ours and that he should adjust to our rhythm,” says one of the messages, according to reports from Peruvian outlet Exitosa.

“We want him to collaborate with the organization; otherwise, even if he has 10 bodyguards, we are going to run into him, and then he will regret the consequences. Let someone call us to give us a solution, and if you contact the police, we will find out, we will blow up the number, and the next communication will be when we carry out an attack on you.”

Another of the messages claims the threats are being carried out by members of the criminal organization that performs the majority of murders and kidnappings in Trujillo. In response, Guerrero’s lawyer, Julio Garcia, claimed that Peru’s minister of the interior recommended the player hire private security to protect himself and his family.

At this point, Guerrero had never been to Trujillo. He conducted these news interviews from his home in Brazil, where he was living with his wife, Ana Paula Consorte, and three young children.

“Happily, until today, I have not set foot in Trujillo,” said his wife. “Why am I going to a city where there is an emergency alert? I receive direct threats to my family. Do I have to go to a place where my family is going to be harassed and not feel safe? I am going with three children. I have a 10-month-old son and another newborn. Would I have to expose my family to all that?”.

Citing safety reasons, Guerrero said he wanted to be released from his contract so he could sign with a club in another country. This ruled him out of a move to Alianza, who had just lost their main striker, Pablo Sabbag, to injury. Acuña publicly stated he would provide Guerrero with the “facilities” to engineer a transfer, providing they had a positive discussion about it.

But after discussions with Acuña, who promised to ensure his family’s safety, Guerrero flew to Lima.

Two days later, he joined his team-mates in Trujillo and committed his future to the club, while his wife returned to Brazil.

This may not be the end of the story, but Guerrero’s goal three minutes into his debut in a 2-2 home draw against Cusco on March 3 was the start Acuña would have wanted.

With 24-hour private security, private flights for his loved ones and a luxury van to travel around Trujillo, courtesy of Acuña, Guerrero can turn his focus to football.

With Copa America — where he is expected to lead the line as captain — three months away, Peru need their star to find goalscoring form.

How to follow Copa America on The Athletic

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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