A Miami man was sentenced Monday to 14 1/2 years in prison for extorting migrants in a smuggling operation that transported more than 1,000 Cubans off the island. Among those fleeing to the United States were up to two dozen Cuban baseball players, who were forced to pay more than the standard fee of $10,000 per passenger.
Eliezer “El Chicharo” Lazo, who is currently serving five years for money laundering in a Medicare fraud scheme, appeared in U.S. District Court in Miami wearing shackles and an inmate’s uniform and asked for leniency from Judge Joan Lenard, citing his cooperation with authorities in the case.
But Lenard ruled that Lazo’s role in both crimes prevented her from handing down the lesser sentence of 99 months that he asked for.
“These are two distinct and separate offenses but both are extraordinarily serious and have a tremendous impact on our community,” she said.
Lazo’s attorney, William Clay, said Lenard sent a deterring message to smugglers who actually have many “happy customers who got what they bargained for — they got into the U.S.”
“The whole notion of smuggling Cuban aliens is fraught with mixed messages,” Clay said. “She wanted to make a strong statement to the South Florida community about the smuggling of Cubans — to the smugglers themselves, to the paying families who are good-hearted conspirators and even to the people who get on the boat and are conspirators, too.”
Lazo, 41, pleaded guilty in August to his role starting in 2008 in a smuggling ring run by Joan “Nacho” Garcia, who was killed in 2009, Clay said. Lazo supplied and did repairs on two boats that took Cubans to Cancun, Mexico, from where they made their way to the U.S. border. He collected payments from migrants and their relatives in Miami. He was paid a salary of $22,000 a month.
Among those smuggled out of Cuba was baseball player Leonys Martin, now an outfielder for the Texas Rangers. While most passengers were charged $10,000 for the journey to Mexico, Martin alleges in a civil case that he and his family were held against their will until he paid $1.35million of his $20million Rangers contract to a Mexican company run by Lazo and others.
Prosecutor Ron Davidson said the most “horrifying” aspect of the operation was not what happened to the baseball players or the migrants who arranged to be picked up but to about 100 so-called “party-crashers” who simply got on the boats without making any down payments or agreements with the smugglers.
Garcia was caught in a “squeeze play” with the party-crashers, Clay said, because the Mexican drug cartel that controlled Cancun’s port, the Zetas, demanded payment of $3,000 per head and $10,000 per boat.
“Nacho still has to pay the Zetas, who are killers, but the party-crashers have not prearranged to pay,” Clay said.
The party-crashers were mistreated at a stash house in Mexico, Davidson said.
“They were threatened, beaten, restrained,” he said. “There were calls to relatives in the middle of the night — ‘Uncle, please help me, give them the money.’
“Mr. Lazo was not making those threats but he picked up payments and directed others to pick up payments. He could have walked away but he decided to promote the conspiracy out of greed.”
Lazo, who must also forfeit $1,499,000 from the operation that grossed between $800,000 to $1.5 million, apologized to the court, his family and Yilian Hernandez, who faces trial for collecting and delivering payments.
“She was my girlfriend and I asked her a favor,” he said.
Although Lazo did not harm migrants, the abuse they suffered was “reasonably foreseeable” to him, Lenard said as she announced his sentence.
“There’s a new trend in this country when it comes to alien smuggling compared to the days of the Mariel boatlift when we argued that captains did not violate the law by depositing Cubans on the docks in Key West and the captains went free,” Clay said. “The government is prosecuting cases differently now: They’ve looked into the statute book and said they can fit extortion and kidnapping charges into these cases.”