Miami-Dade County

An arrest in Cuban ballplayer pipeline

A Miami businessman accused of financing the migrant smuggling operation that launched the multimillion-dollar Major League Baseball career of Cuban superstar Yasiel Puig faced a federal criminal charge Thursday.

Gilberto Suarez, 40, pleaded not guilty in Miami federal court to conspiring to bring the Cuban outfielder and two other ballplayers from Cuba through Mexico to the United States.

In 2012, Puig signed a $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, now in first place in the National League’s West Division.

The Homeland Security smuggling case has drawn international attention because Puig and the other players were allegedly held in Mexico for ransom while their agents negotiated lucrative Major League Baseball contracts. Although Suarez was not charged with extorting Puig and the other players, he may have collaborated with their agents and others to obtain fees from their MLB contracts, according to an indictment filed by prosecutor Ron Davidson.

The criminal charge against Suarez includes a forfeiture claim that would allow the U.S. government to seize about $3 million that Suarez and others may have received from those contracts. Prosecutors also want to seize Suarez’s condo in North Bay Village and a home in Southwest Miami-Dade, along with his 2014 Mercedes Benz and 2013 white Porsche.

The indictment provides few details of Suarez’s alleged wrongdoing.

An affidavit filed in a related federal civil lawsuit says Suarez and other financial backers of Puig’s 2012 trip from Cuba to Mexico paid $250,000 to the smugglers. But then the smugglers demanded that the Miami investors pay them $400,000 once they realized Puig’s higher value, the affidavit said.

The affidavit was given by a former Cuban boxer, Yunior Despaigne, who came over on the speedboat with Puig and other passengers in the smuggling operation.

“Since the smugglers refused to release us until the financial backers paid the increased amount that they were demanding, we were kept there for an entire month before the financial backers in Miami hired several men to clandestinely take us away from the smugglers in Isla Mujeres and take us to Cancun and then to Mexico City,” the boxer, now living in Miami, said in the affidavit.

Despaigne said that Suarez and the other financial backers of the smuggling operation ultimately were paid a “percentage” of Puig’s big league contract. He said that Puig initially agreed to pay them 20 percent of all future MLB earnings in exchange for smuggling him out of Cuba.

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.

Puig is among 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.

Puig’s story, outlined in the separate 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 suit 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, the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, has declined to comment about that lawsuit. He 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 the big leagues.

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 Miami-Dade defendants for conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort Rangers outfielder Leonys Martín Tápanes and smuggling more than a dozen other baseball prospects from Cuba to Mexico and then the United States.

Miami Herald sports writer Linda Robertson contributed to this report.