Nation & World

Marlins ballplayer testifies about Cuba-U.S. smuggling network at agent’s trial

EL Nuevo Herald

Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria testified Friday in a Cuban baseball smuggling trial that he was pressured by U.S. authorities to cooperate with their investigation into a South Florida sports agent and a trainer or prosecutors would charge him with the same crime.

Hechavarria, who traveled on a go-fast boat from Cuba to Mexico in 2009, took the witness stand in the federal trial of agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada. The two men are charged with smuggling Cuban baseball stars through Mexico and the Caribbean into the United States to profit from their multimillion-dollar contracts with Major League Baseball teams.

Hechavarria, who signed a $10 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays before he was traded to the Marlins, said that federal agents first questioned him about the baseball smuggling operation at his home in Weston in late 2012.

Hechavarria testified that at first he lied to FBI agents, saying he did not know a Hialeah middleman by the name of Eliezer Lazo who was suspected of collaborating with Hernandez, Estrada and others to bring more than 20 top Cuban ballplayers into the United States. He said that because he did not speak English and the investigators did not speak Spanish, he enlisted his sports agent, Hernandez, to interpret for him when they questioned him about Lazo. He was known to the ballplayer as “Chicharo.”

“I was a little nervous,” Hechavarria, 27, testified before the 12-person jury in Miami federal court Friday. “I did not want to tell the truth, and I did not want to be a snitch.”

The ballplayer said he told Hernandez after being confronted by the federal agents that he lied for that reason. After prosecutor Ron Davidson finished questioning him, Hernandez’s defense attorney, Daniel Rashbaum, accused the prosecutor of wrongly implying that his client condoned the player’s lying to federal agents. After the jurors were excused for the day, Rashbaum asserted that Hernandez had told Hechavarria to tell the truth to the investigators.

“The government is leading these witnesses to only tell part of the story,” argued Rashbaum, who complained about the prosecutor’s questioning of Hechavarria as well as others who took the stand.

Rashbaum will have an opportunity to cross-examine the ballplayer, who received immunity from criminal prosecution for his testimony, when the trial resumes on Tuesday after the Presidents’ Day holiday.

Both Hernandez, 53, and Estrada, 34, are accused of conspiring with other convicted associates — including the middleman, Lazo — to pay off boat smugglers, obtain false residency papers and deceive U.S. authorities into believing that the Cuban players were legally eligible to play Major League Baseball. Among their stable of stars: Hechavarria, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin.

Prosecutors said Hernandez and Estrada made millions in tainted fees off the Cuban ballplayers who were brought by smugglers into a third country while their agent negotiated major-league contracts. Because the Cuban ballplayers came through a third country, they were not subject to the draft and as free agents could negotiate lucrative salaries with big-league teams — with their agent charging fees in the millions of dollars.

At trial, Hechavarria testified that he was smuggled by boat with his girlfriend, other ballplayers and regular passengers from Cuba to Mexico in 2009. In Mexico, he met Lazo, who later introduced him to Hernandez and Estrada.

Hechavarria said he signed a contract with a Mexican baseball academy called Estrellas del Beisbol, which obligated him to pay 30 percent of his future contract with a Major League Baseball team. The business was controlled by Lazo.

The ballplayer said Estrada arranged for him to obtain a Mexican passport, which included false employment as an “area supervisor” of a company called “Fuerza.” He said his Mexican residency allowed Hernandez to obtain a waiver from the Treasury Department so the agent could start negotiating with MLB teams. He also said Estrada arranged for him to get a visa from the State Department to enter the United States.

Hechavarria said he trained with Estrada in Mexico and the Dominican Republic until his agent landed him a four-year, $10 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010.

The ballplayer said he paid a 5 percent fee, or $500,000, to Hernandez. He also said his agent advised him to pay a first installment of $2 million to fulfill his contract with Estrellas del Beisbol, based in Cancún, Mexico. For his part, Estrada also received more than $200,000 from him, court records show.

Hechavarria said that once he was playing ball, he made arrangements through the same smuggling network to bring his mother by plane through Mexico to the United States. He said it cost him between $10,000 and $12,000.

“I was very happy,” he said on the witness stand. “It had been a while since I had seen her.”