South Florida

Agent, trainer smuggled Cuban ballplayers into U.S. Now they’re headed to prison

In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, trainer Julio Estrada, left, leaves federal court in Miami. A Miami judge on Thursday sentence Estrada and agent Bart Hernandez each to prison for their role in smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States.
In this Feb. 1, 2017 file photo, trainer Julio Estrada, left, leaves federal court in Miami. A Miami judge on Thursday sentence Estrada and agent Bart Hernandez each to prison for their role in smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States. AP

A Miami federal judge said Thursday she was struggling with the “paradox” of the good and bad sides presented in court about sports agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who were found guilty of smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States to capitalize on their multimillion-dollar major league contracts.

But in the end, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams condemned their wrongdoing while giving Hernandez a nearly four-year prison sentence and Estrada just over five years.

“This case is not about the love of the game,” Williams said, echoing the defense teams’ theme during the sentencing hearing. “This case is about money.”

Hernandez, 54, and Estrada, 36, must turn themselves in to prison authorities in mid-December, though a federal prosecutor who sought higher sentences for the defendants wanted the judge to make them surrender Thursday.

“The truth is, these defendants received about $20 million on contracts worth $230 million,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson, accusing them of collaborating with gun-carrying smugglers and corrupting young ballplayers in pursuit of greed.

Since their guilty verdicts in March, Hernandez and Estrada have been allowed to live in their homes with bail while wearing electronic ankle bracelets. Hernandez, who ran a sports agency, owns a home in Weston. Estrada, a former catcher on the Cuban national team and ex-coach at Coral Park High, lives in southwest Miami-Dade.

Neither defendant said anything during Thursday’s hearing because their lawyers plan to appeal their convictions.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Marcus invoked the image of Wednesday’s final game of the World Series between Houston and Los Angeles to dramatize that dozens of Cuban ballplayers smuggled into this country — including Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel and Dodgers outfieldier Yasiel Puig — have struck it rich in Major League Baseball.

“The biggest beneficiaries are the players themselves,” said Marcus, whose client, Hernandez, did not represent those two stars. “They’re all here, and they’re living their version of the American Dream.”

Marcus and fellow attorney Daniel Rashbaum tried to portray their client as a loving family man and inspring mentor who cared for his roster of Cuban ballplayers on and off the field. They called former Cuban ballplayers and friends to testify about Hernandez’s character.

Estrada’s lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, also depicted her client in a similar light. “There’s no question that he made a lot of money,” she said. “But this is not a case ... just about greed. Almost every player he trained he’s still in touch with today.”

Hernandez was convicted of conspiring with Estrada and others to deceive the U.S. government into granting visas and other documents to two dozen Cuban ballplayers – including former Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria – so they could sign with Major League Baseball teams. The conspiracy offense carried up to five years in prison.

Hernandez was additionally convicted of bringing Leonys Martin – a Chicago Cubs outfielder who signed with Texas for $15 million in 2011 – into the U.S. after he was smuggled from Cuba to Mexico. That offense carried a mandatory minimum sentence of three years and up to 10 years.

Estrada was found guilty of conspiracy and three additional counts of bringing Jose Abreu, Omar Luis and Dalier Hinojosa into the U.S. illegally. Abreu, a first baseman, signed a $68-million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013.

Prosecutors portrayed Hernandez and Estrada as mastermind and engineer behind “The Plan,” in which Cuban ballplayers moved through an underground pipeline via third-country way stations onward across the U.S. border. Fraud was integral to the plot because the U.S. embargo of Cuba and immigration laws had to be circumvented to convert the Cubans into free agents eligible to negotiate with teams so they could sign lucrative contracts.

In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, sports agent Bart Hernandez leaves federal court in Miami. Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada both got prison time Thursday for illegally smuggling Cuban players into the U.S. Lynne Sladky AP

Hernandez and Estrada represented dozens of ballplayers who were smuggled into Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where they collaborated with others to obtain falsified papers to establish residency and work out in training camps. Once that was set up, the agent and trainer used that information to obtain a license from the Treasury Department to negotiate with top Major League Baseball bidders. When done transparently, the practice was perfectly lawful.

But Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified documents to bring players into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The two men made millions by cornering the defector market for a time. Estrada charged exorbitant fees, up to 30 percent of a player’s contract. Hernandez charged his agency fee of 5 percent.

While Hernandez and Estrada claimed they were simply helping players prepare for tryouts and negotiate contracts through a process that was accepted by the U.S. Treasury Department and Major League Baseball, prosecutors said players were coerced, ripped off and threatened by shady operators such as Joan “Nacho” Garcia. He’s an ex-con and smuggling ring chief who was kidnapped and presumably murdered in 2009.

At trial, one player’s wife testified she was told he would be chopped up and sent to her in a box if he fled Cancun and signed with somebody else. One invoice showed a player billed $715,000 for “coaching and consulting services.”