From Cuba to the majors: Yasiel Puig’s harrowing story

Many Cuban-born ballplayers have a remarkable tale of how they got to the major leagues. Few are as amazing as Yasiel Puig’s.

04/19/2014 4:53 PM

04/20/2014 8:25 AM

Yasiel Puig’s tangled trail from Cuba to Los Angeles entailed a stealth speedboat ride from the island, weeks holed up in a Mexican motel and shady smugglers haggling over a lucrative payout for the future baseball star.

The story, outlined in a federal lawsuit, features a series of fantastic plot twists. Puig spirited away from under the noses of the smugglers in the Yucatán. A henchman later threatening one of Puig’s pals. A smuggler, in turn, shot dead in Cancún.

And to boot, the lawsuit alleges that Puig, before his June 2012 defection, plotted with Cuban security authorities to falsely imprison a businessman — who says he was later tortured and starved in an island prison.

Puig’s journey is indeed a high-profile, high-stakes example of what many Cubans, not just baseball players, have undergone in enlisting the services of human smugglers in recent years to ferry them from the communist island to Mexico and then to the United States.

The 23-year-old Puig, the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, is a sensation with the Dodgers and the subject of Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN The Magazine investigative stories that first detailed his route to Major League Baseball and a $42 million contract.

“Any Cuban player who had been smuggled in during the past seven to eight years went through a similar process as Puig,” said Joe Kehoskie, a former baseball agent who represented Cuban players and is a consultant. “None of these guys have spoken on the record about their experiences. They come out only through court filings.”

Miami attorney Ben Daniel, a former federal prosecutor who handled dozens of alien-smuggling cases, said extorting Cubans, particularly baseball players expecting lucrative contracts, is a relatively new phenomenon in a long history of human trafficking from the island.

“I think it's a whole new cast of characters,” Daniel said Friday. “It's a rougher-edged crowd.”

Cuban baseball players typically flee to a third country so that, under MLB rules, they can avoid the amateur draft. In doing so, they become free agents — able to sell their talents to the highest bidder — and can land better-paying contracts. Daniel faulted Major League Baseball, saying smugglers are emboldened because baseball and the teams “are looking the other way.”

Puig joins a wave of young Cuban players who have joined MLB in recent years after establishing residences in third countries, including Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria and Oakland’s Yoenis Céspedes. The full details of their sagas usually remain secret.

Hechavarria, on Friday, said that while he took a boat loaded with immigrants to Mexico, he never ran afoul of smugglers. “Thank God my story is different than Puig. I did not have those kinds of adversities,” he said.

Puig, through his agent, released a statement this past week acknowledging the articles: “I understand that people are curious and have questions, but I will have no comment on this subject.”

The story of his escape from Cuba with the help of smugglers is not the first to emerge in recent years.

Sports agent Gus Dominguez was sentenced to five years in federal prison after he was convicted in 2007 of smuggling five Cuban baseball players through Mexico into the United States.

Former Tampa Bay infielder Leslie Anderson, a Cuban baseball player, also defected through the Yucatán before the 2010 season.

In December, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted three people for conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort Rangers outfielder Leonys Martín Tápanes, and smuggling 13 other baseball prospects from Cuba to Mexico and then the United States.

A Mexican company partially owned by two of the defendants sued Martín, alleging that the player had stiffed him in a deal to pay 30 percent of his Rangers salary. In a counter lawsuit, Martín accused the group of smuggling him and his family out of Cuba into Mexico in 2010 and holding them “hostage” until the athletes obtained a major league contract and could pay them a “ransom.”

The trio is awaiting trial.

Puig’s case came to light when, last year, a Cuban businessman named Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot filed a Miami federal lawsuit claiming the baseball player had concocted a tale that he was involved in human trafficking, resulting in his arrest, torture and a seven-year prison sentence.

Corbacho says that Puig, in the doghouse with Cuban authorities for his earlier attempts to defect, began falsely informing on people to curry favor and earn his way back onto the national team — all while secretly plotting his flight from the island.

Puig and his mother, Maritza Valdes Gonzalez, are being sued for $12 million in federal court under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991. Puig’s lawyers are asking a federal judge to dismiss the suit.

The lawsuit alleges that Puig followed the same strategy of another Cuban defector, pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who also allegedly became a government informant before defecting and joining the Cincinnati Reds, where he is known as the hardest-throwing ballplayer in baseball. A Cuban man allegedly imprisoned falsely because of Chapman also is suing the player in a similar Miami federal lawsuit.

The key witness in the Puig lawsuit: former Cuban national team boxer Yunior Despaigne, who backs Corbacho’s claim and also says he is Puig’s longtime friend who defected with him to Mexico.

Despaigne said he was the original link between Puig and the man who arranged the baseball player’s escape from Cuba: Raul Pacheco, a Miami air-conditioning repairman and owner of a recycling business with a criminal history.

Pacheco offered to arrange and pay $250,000 for Puig’s escape from Cuba in exchange for a 20 percent cut of the star’s future baseball contracts, according to the suit.

Along with Despaigne and others, the burly outfielder defected from the island on his fifth try in June 2012. They were whisked away by boat to Isla Mujeres, near Cancún. They spent one month in a cheap motel as the smugglers argued with Pacheco over the payment price, which had now risen to $400,000.

Puig was never mistreated while he was at the motel, said Corbacho’s lawyer, Kenia Bravo.

“These people are not kidnapping victims,” said Bravo, who filed the suit last year with Miami attorney Avelino Gonzalez. “They are willing participants.”

Pacheco finally was able to send another group to “clandestinely” extract Puig and the others and get them to Mexico City, Despaigne said. After signing his seven-year deal with the Dodgers, Puig paid $300,000 to Pacheco, some $400,000 to Pacheco associate Alberto Fariñas and $600,000 to a lawyer named Marcos Gonzalez, Despaigne said.

At an address identified in public records as Pacheco’s, an elderly man said the air-conditioning repairman no longer lived there, that the dwelling had recently been sold. Pacheco could not be reached for comment elsewhere. Reached at his home Friday, Fariñas denied being involved in the plot. Gonzalez could not be reached.

According to the lawsuit, the smugglers — led by ringleader Yandrys Leon — were still hounding the star to collect the money they felt they were owed.

After his own arrival in Miami, Despaigne said in an affidavit, Leon dispatched a gunman who “pressed a pistol to my liver” and told him to tell Puig to pay up or the star would be killed.

“I am concerned that something may happen to me,” Despaigne wrote in his affidavit.

Then, another of Puig’s financial backers told Despaigne that Leon would be “neutralized,” according to his affidavit. Leon was later found shot to death in Cancún, although it remains unknown who is behind his death, or if it is even related to the smuggling episode.

Leon already had come under scrutiny by U.S. federal authorities — in 2011, he was indicted for his alleged participation in an unrelated ferrying of Cubans from the island to Mexico.

The indictment against Leon was dismissed in January after Mexico confirmed to the U.S. attorney’s office that he was shot and killed in Mexico.

The scheme spelled out in Leon’s federal criminal case was similar to how the baseball players are spirited off to the Yucatán, but without the high-money involvement of sports agents.

In Leon’s case, a group of Cuban women and men left the island in May 2009 aboard a smuggler’s boat. To their surprise, one of the smugglers told them that unless they received enough money, they “would be thrown in the ocean,” according to federal court documents.

In Cancún, the group — including Leon —was placed in a house near a hotel and told they could not leave. One migrant, Adelaida Iglesias, testified at a co-defendant’s trial that she was told her mother had to pay $40,000 to get them.

The group was eventually allowed to enter the United States after cooperating with law enforcement. Co-defendant Oswaldo Martinez was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion, while three others were acquitted. Last year, a judge sentenced him to three years in prison.

Miami Herald staff writers Joey Flechas and Clark Spencer contributed to this report.

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