South Florida

Two charges of smuggling Cuban players dropped in trial of baseball agent

Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez leaves federal court, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Miami. Opening statements were held in the case against Hernandez, and trainer Julio Estrada, both of whom have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and alien smuggling charges. They are accused of illegally smuggling Cuban baseball players from the communist island to the U.S.
Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez leaves federal court, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Miami. Opening statements were held in the case against Hernandez, and trainer Julio Estrada, both of whom have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and alien smuggling charges. They are accused of illegally smuggling Cuban baseball players from the communist island to the U.S. AP

The prosecution’s case against baseball agent Bart Hernandez was weakened Monday when U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams dismissed two charges against him the day before the jury will hear closing arguments.

The main conspiracy charge remains, however, against Hernandez, who has signed numerous Cuban defectors to Major League Baseball contracts, and co-defendant Julio Estrada, a trainer who worked with Hernandez.

The two South Florida men are accused of a scheme to smuggle Cubans off the island and evade U.S. immigration laws so the ballplayers could become major league pros, and Hernandez and Estrada could cash in on a percentage of their deals. Because of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, the players established residency in a third country such as Mexico or the Dominican Republic in order to become free agents, but they did it with fraudulently obtained documents, prosecutors said.

Williams dropped two of the four counts against Hernandez. She said there was not enough evidence to show he smuggled Jose Abreu or Dalier Hinojosa into the U.S. First baseman Abreu signed a $68-million contract with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Hinojosa, a pitcher, signed with Boston in 2013 and is now earning $514,000 in salary with Philadelphia.

Hernandez is still charged with smuggling Leonys Martin into the U.S. Martin, now a Seattle outfielder, originally signed a $15 million deal with the Texas Rangers in 2011. Estrada is charged with conspiracy and smuggling in three players, including Abreu and Hinojosa.

Hernandez and Estrada each face up to five years in prison for conspiracy and up to 10 years on the smuggling charges, with three years mandatory minimum.

Closing arguments in the six-week trial are scheduled to begin Tuesday morning at Miami’s federal courthouse.

Jurors heard testimony from baseball players, including Abreu, who said he ate the first page of his falsified passport while he was en route to Chicago, washing the paper down with beer, and Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who said he initially lied to investigators. Another described a long, tortuous journey from Cuba to the Dominican Republic to Haiti to Panama to Mexico to the U.S. border at McAllen, Texas, to a celebratory arrival dinner at La Carreta in Little Havana. In Haiti, he stayed with Amin Latouff, portrayed by prosecutors as a fixer for Hernandez. Latouff is named as a third defendant but is at large.

Some players claimed they had auto body shop or factory jobs in Mexico or at baseball academies overseen by Estrada or convicted smuggler Eliezer Lazo. When they received their residency paperwork, the standard procedure was to get clearance from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control so their agents could negotiate with major league teams.

Prosecutors say Hernandez, who owns the Global Sports Management firm in Weston, was a mastermind behind the Cuban pipeline, recruiting and paying boat captains to transport players off the island, where they earned about $20 per month playing for the Cuban national team and their provincial teams. Estrada allegedly bilked players for exorbitant 25 percent fees once they signed.

Hernandez and Estrada’s lawyers have argued they played no role in smuggling or illegal activities and simply did their jobs as agent and trainer after the players got out of Cuba. They helped them prepare for showcase tryouts and negotiate contracts, the lawyers said, shepherding them along the road to opportunity in Major League Baseball.

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