BOGOTA, COLOMBIA, SEPT. 14 -- Colombian soccer, which has risen to preeminence in South America, cannot seem to shake the long shadow of narco-terrorism and the influence of cocaine money that have plagued the sport in these regions for nearly a decade.

A new series of national and international allegations that hitmen of the Medellin cocaine cartel have threatened to kill referees or tried to bribe them to throw games have captured national headlines the past two weeks, prompting the South American soccer federation to ban international matches in Colombia and to nullify the result of a recent international match played in Medellin in which the referees reportedly were threatened by a group of armed men.

The Argentine soccer federation, one of the few that continued to send referees to Colombia, also announced it no longer would allow its members to officiate games here.

Colombian referees, while publicly silent, are said to be frightened of working in Medellin. But they have few ways to pressure for better conditions, given the recent history of violence in the sport.

"What is happening to Colombian soccer?" wrote Francisco Santos in his influential weekly political column in El Tiempo, the nation's largest newspaper. "The answer is obvious: Our soccer is plagued by money from drug trafficking and its corrupting influence."

Although the South American federation's rulings were met with outrage and indignation here, figures such as Medellin cocaine cartel leader Pablo Escobar, an avid fan, long have been suspected of having considerable more than a rooting interest in many of Colombia's professional clubs, using them to launder drug money and for heavy betting.

Because of the country's deep-seated regional feelings, loyalties to the clubs run deep and, in recent years, the most intense rivalries between the best teams have reflected the rivalries between the two main cocaine cartels -- Medellin and Cali.

The soccer crisis reached its peak in November 1989, when the government canceled play in the country's professional league following the murder of a referee in Medellin, the nation's second-largest city.

The official, Alvaro Ortega, was killed amidst charges that many of the games were fixed. An anonymous caller told a local radio station Ortega was killed because he nullified a goal in a game, "costing the chief bettors a great deal of money."

League play was allowed to resume this year after the professional clubs agreed to "moralize" the sport.

Among the measures demanded by the government were that the members of the directorate of each club present certificates that they had no criminal records, legal registration of the contract of each player and an accounting of where each team's money comes from.

The most recent scandal broke following an Aug. 26 game in Medellin between Colombia's Atletico Nacional and Brazil's Vasco da Gama, a quarterfinal match in the Copa Libertadores de America competition. The prestigious cup is an annual event contested by the top South American teams.

Atletico Nacional, the defending cup champion and one of the nation's most popular teams, which includes world-class goalie Rene Higuita, won, 2-0.

But two days later Eurico Miranda, vice president of Vasco da Gama, asked that the result be nullified because, he charged, shortly before the game "about six people, armed with pistols and submachine guns, visited {referee Juan Daniel} Cardellino and his co-workers Martinez Bazzan and Roberto Otello, threatening them and demanding a victory by Nacional by whatever means necessary."

While there were few controversial calls in the game, and none that affected the outcome, on Sept. 6 the South American soccer federation, after a private four-hour meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay, imposed an indefinite ban on international matches in Colombia because of "lack of security guarantees." It ruled the game null and void and ordered a replay Sept. 13 in Santiago, Chile.

In a letter to the federation, the mayor of Medellin, Omar Florez, admitted the referee had reported that "persons not related to this office tried to influence the behavior of the group of referees," but said the city had provided the officials with additional security, including bodyguards, so they could call the game without fear of reprisals, and argued the results should stand.

The controversy heated up Sunday when Hector Javier Cespedes, coach of the Bogota team of Santa Fe, charged that referees had been intimidated in a game his team lost that day to another Medellin team in Medellin after a dubious ruling of a penalty kick.

"Now I understand why the city of Medellin is being punished," Cespedes said. "Referees are afraid to call games here. I saw the referee was nervous, scared."

According to Santos and other sources close to the league, teams often pay top players much more than is officially registered in the contracts, and where the money comes from is never investigated. "When one compares what players make with what clubs take in at the gate, there is a huge gap," Santos said. "Who makes up the difference?"

The mix of cocaine money and professional soccer goes back at least to 1983, according to police documents.

In October 1983, then justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla announced that six of the nine professional clubs were either partly owned or controlled by drug traffickers. Among those he named were Hernan Botero, then president of Atletico Nacional, who later was extradited to the United States on narcotics charges. The minister was killed in April 1984 by cartel hitmen.

"The efforts of the last government failed," Santos said. "League play was suspended for nothing. . . . That is why this government will have to get involved in our soccer. Even if this is not the best time, it is necessary, for the benefit of our soccer, our fans and the image of our country."