Miami-Dade County

South Florida trainer charged in Cuban baseball smuggling ring

Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin
Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin

A Miami baseball trainer has been charged with a previously indicted agent in what prosecutors claim was a get-rich scheme to smuggle top Cuban talent from Cuba through Mexico to the United States by lying to the federal government about the players’ residency and immigration status.

Julio Estrada is accused of collaborating with agent Bart Hernandez and other convicted associates in an illegal conspiracy to pay off boat smugglers, obtain false residency papers and deceive U.S. authorities into believing that at least 16 Cuban players were legally eligible to play Major League Baseball — including Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin.

Because the Cuban ballplayers came through a third country, they were not subject to the draft and could negotiate lucrative salaries with major-league teams — with their agent charging fees in the millions of dollars.

Estrada, owner of Total Baseball & Training, Inc. in Miami, and Hernandez, head of Global Sports Management in Weston, are charged in a new indictment with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and multiple counts of bringing aliens unlawfully into this country.

Hernandez, 53, initially arrested in February, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment on Tuesday in Miami federal court.

“The latest indictment is the government’s second swing and miss,” said defense attorneys Daniel Rashbaum and Jeffrey Marcus. “Bart Hernandez is a good sports agent, and the charges against him are pure fantasy. We look forward to showing that at trial.”

Estrada, 34, arrested on Friday, pleaded not guilty and was granted a bond.

“Julio Estrada has never encouraged anyone to enter the United States illegally,” his defense attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, said on Tuesday. “He has always taken care of his players, training them so they could achieve their dream of playing Major League Baseball in the United States.”

A third defendant, Amin Latouff, a Haitian resident, is accused of assisting Hernandez and Estrada in the smuggling operation. He is at large, according to federal prosecutors.

According to the latest indictment, Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff recruited and paid boat captains to smuggle Cuban baseball players and their family members out of Cuba to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti between 2009 and this year.

Hernandez is accused of directing associates to falsify documents to hide payments to the boat smugglers.

After the baseball players were smuggled out of Cuba, Hernandez and Estrada signed agreements with at least a dozen of them, according to federal prosecutors Ron Davidson and Pat Sullivan.

The agents, along with Latouff and others, conspired to obtain “false and fraudulent residency documents” on behalf of the Cuban players through a Mexican company, Estrellas del Beisbol. On paper, the owner of the company was Diana Tilbert, who pleaded guilty in March to a federal conspiracy charge and cooperated with authorities.

Hernandez used the phony paperwork to obtain lawful licenses from the Treasury Department that allowed the Cuban players to sign contracts with major-league teams, according to the indictment. Both Hernandez and Estrada then used those licenses to obtain U.S. visas for most of the players to enter the United States.

In some instances, the three defendants brought the Cuban players and their families into the United States without visas, according to the indictment.

The agents, along with Latouff, “coached individuals to offer false accounts to United States law enforcement about the manner in which Cuban baseball players and their family members were brought out of Cuba and into the United States,” the indictment said.

Hernandez — a naturalized U.S. citizen who is involved in a legal dispute with his former client, Martin — has been under investigation over the past three years. He was implicated in the smuggling scheme by other convicted alien smugglers, including Eliezer Lazo.

In late 2014, Lazo was sentenced 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, according to court records and investigators.

Lazo pleaded guilty to his role in the smuggling ring, which was run by Joan “Nacho” Garcia. He was killed in 2009. 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.

While most passengers were charged $10,000 for the journey to Mexico, Martin, the ballplayer, alleged in a Florida civil case that he and his family were held against their will until he paid $1.35 million of his $20 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2011 to the Mexican company, Estrellas del Beisbol, run by Lazo and others.

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