The clandestine journey from decaying ballparks to major league stadiums can be treacherous, degrading and expensive for Cuban baseball players who risk their lives on sea crossings only to be auctioned off by smugglers demanding an exorbitant cut of their contracts.
No matter which route defecting athletes take — via Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, even Andorra — all roads converge in Miami, the nexus of the Cuban pipeline, where underground networks of smugglers and a handful of sports agents control the flow of Cuba’s most star-studded export.
The cast of characters ferrying players to free agency includes a Medicare embezzler who kept a player’s family hostage until he signed over 30 percent of his Texas Rangers’ salary; an air conditioning repairman turned thief; a pseudo sports agent with a penchant for guns, art and luxury cars who used to be a state security agent in Cuba; Los Zetas drug cartel enforcers; a former Tropicana nightclub dancer, and an assortment of henchmen nicknamed Nacho, Taliban, Tomasito, the Dwarf and Attila the Hungarian.
Not even the 54-year-old U.S. embargo or the Coast Guard patrols of multiple nations can stop players fleeing the island, where baseballs have become as scarce as beef. The 27 Cuban-born players who were on major league rosters this past season — five selected to the All-Star team — are earning $450 million in total salaries. New Arizona Diamondback Yasmany Tomás signed for $68.5 million, following in the slipstream of Rusney Castillo, whose deal with the Boston Red Sox is worth $72.5 million. Speedy, switch-hitting infielder Yoan Moncada, who auditioned in Guatemala, is up next.
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The smugglers’ black market for defectors, denounced as traitors by the Cuban government, could turn into an open one if President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro are able to normalize relations.
“The market for Cuban baseball players has evolved from the old era when they were dumped in the Keys at dawn like every other Cuban immigrant,” said Joe Kehoskie, a sports agent who represented Cuban players. “Now it’s a hard-core racket dominated by smugglers. It’s a cesspool of threats and ripoffs.”
Arranging the escape of a Cuban baseball player used to be celebrated as a humanitarian rescue mission. But smugglers have turned it into a business transaction. If a premier player wishes to leave behind his communist homeland, $40 monthly salary and the eroding Cuban league, smugglers will get him out — at a cost of 20 percent to 35 percent of his future earnings, compared to the 5 percent reputable agents charge.
Miamian Gilberto “El Rubio” Suarez, who pleaded guilty to smuggling two players to the United States, including Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, must forfeit to the government the $2.5 million Puig paid him, and a house, a condo, a 2014 Mercedes-Benz and three guns he bought with the profits.
In June 2012, when Puig was spirited 400 miles by speedboat from the Bay of Pigs to Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, Kehoskie received a call from a person involved in the transport operation.
“He said it would cost $250,000 to be Puig’s agent,” Kehoskie said. “Two days later, I got another call. The price was up to $500,000.”
Puig, who was detained at a cheap motel in Mexico while his Zetas captors and Miami fixers argued over payment, later signed with the Dodgers for $42 million. He was supposed to pay $1.3 million to four South Florida residents who bankrolled his move to the United States, and 20 percent of his salary to Suarez and South Florida agent Jaime Torres, according to a $12 million civil lawsuit by a man who said Puig falsely accused him of human trafficking, landing him in a roach-infested Cuban prison for three years.
Broken promises and double-crossing make the ballplayers’ journeys even messier. Puig never paid all he owed, resulting in death threats to Puig and to Yunior Despaigne, a former Cuban national team heavyweight boxer who accompanied his longtime friend, Puig’s then-girlfriend and a Santeria priest on the boat. Despaigne wound up sharing an apartment and hauling broken air conditioning units with the Miami repairman and recycling company owner he says arranged Puig’s departure — until the man was arrested for an unrelated crime.
Despaigne said he was accosted in Miami by an associate of the smugglers who “pressed a pistol to my liver” and told him to tell Puig to pay up. He also says Puig framed his little brother, now in a Cuban prison, for trying to help a different player defect.
“The Dodgers and Puig try to portray Puig as victim and hero, but he is the worst actor in this movie,” Despaigne said. “He’s an untrustworthy snitch who didn’t come through for anybody, especially not for me.”
Puig’s agent Adam Katz, through a representative at Wasserman Media Group agency, said neither he nor Puig wanted to comment.
Kehoskie, who also got calls when Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria was smuggled out to Mexico, recalled another offer to represent Cuban players. He flew to Miami to meet his potential clients, but found himself walking into an unnerving scene at a house near the airport.
“It was obvious I was dealing with smugglers and their lawyer,” Kehoskie said. “They had six young prospects who looked traumatized and were effectively being held hostage when they weren’t training at Tamiami Park. No pleasantries, just the lawyer saying, ‘You can have them for $125,000,’ like I was carrying the cash in my briefcase. I said, ‘This isn’t a referral fee; this is ransom.’ He said, ‘Let’s not get hung up on semantics.’ ”
“I don’t know how I got mixed up with those sleazebags, but I got out of there.”
Kehoskie estimated he has received 25 inquiries about Cuban players, “and every one who contacted me was a Cuban exile in the smuggling business.”
Cuban players have never been a hotter commodity. Slugger José Abreu, who took a boat through perilously stormy seas to the Dominican Republic in 2013, signed for $68 million with the Chicago White Sox and was named 2014 American League Rookie of the Year. Cincinnati Reds lefty closer Aroldis Chapman, who has a MPH-106 vanity plate on his Lamborghini to signify the fastest pitch he ever threw, a major league record, is among the game’s top relievers. All-Star outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, just traded to the Tigers, compiled 100 RBI last season.
The Department of Homeland Security considers the transshipment of Cuban players to be part of the $32 billion human trafficking industry. While the standard fee to smuggle a Cuban off the island is $10,000, a top baseball player is worth millions, and smugglers have created a business model where they require a substantial cut.
“These players are an investment, not just regular cargo,” said John Tobon, assistant special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations. “Those investors expect a return. It’s similar to any other form of trafficking run by an organized crime syndicate, where the victim is not released until he pays off a debt. We’re seeing intimidation and coercion.”
A promising player is targeted by smugglers, sometimes with the guidance of a sports agent. The smugglers contact the player through an acquaintance or runner in Cuba. Smugglers may collaborate with investors, who pool their money to pay for transport, housing, feeding and training of the player until he signs a deal.
Often a player will receive cash payments in Cuba from his smuggler’s contact person as a sort of inducement or loan. Despaigne said he delivered almost $25,000 to Puig from Miamian Raul Pacheco, one of the alleged financiers and beneficiaries of Puig’s escape.
Tobon said smugglers’ expenses include paying Mexican cartel plaza, or territory, bosses their pisos, or tributes, that protect the smugglers’ boats from Mexican law enforcement or rival gangs. The Zetas also charge $3,000 per migrant and $10,000 per boat as an “exit tax,” according to a federal court filing in a smuggling case. Another cost is bribing security officers in Cuba so boats can slip away from the coast.
The U.S. trade embargo prevents Americans from conducting business with Cubans, and the Cuban government controls the employment of Cuban players. The Cold War standoff between the two countries is why Cubans are treated as a special category of player by MLB. Cubans purposely capitalize on MLB rules and travel to third-country way stations, like Mexico, the Dominican Republic and increasingly Haiti, where they can establish residency — typically expedited through bribes — and become free agents, thus spurring a bidding war among teams.
If a Cuban player defected directly to the United States, he would be subject to the baseball draft. Draftees sign for significantly less money.
“Government policies and political complexities have meant that nothing to do with Cuba is normal,” said Peter Bjarkman, an author of books on Cuban baseball who travels to the island and runs the website BaseballdeCuba.com.
Two South Florida agents, Torres and Bart Hernandez, have become synonymous with Cuban players by leading them through the convoluted process and signing many to rich contracts.
In 1961, as the embargo tightened, Fidel Castro banned professional sports, and that winter he tossed out the first pitch of the Cuban Serie Nacional season, proclaiming that athletes were “standard-bearers of the revolution playing for the love of the people, not money.”
Thirty years later, the Cuban league was hit by its first defection, when René Arocha walked out of Miami International Airport while the national team awaited a flight to Havana and was driven to his aunt’s apartment by a childhood friend. By the following summer, he was pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Since then, more than 200 players have left Cuba and made it to the major or minor leagues. Eddie Oropesa handed his cleats to a teammate, said goodbye and climbed the fence behind home plate at the 1993 World University Games in Buffalo. A few days later, Rey Ordóñez walked out of the team hotel and was picked up by a family friend from Miami. Both wound up in the major leagues.
Three players left the team hotel in Chiapas, Mexico, in 1996, and rendezvoused with Miami agent Joe Cubas at a nearby cemetery. Pitcher Liván Hernández defected in Monterrey, Mexico, and became a 1997 World Series hero for the Marlins. His half-brother, Orlando “El Duque” Hernández, left by boat via the Bahamas and won four World Series titles with the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.
But in recent years, as the best Cuban players’ contracts have risen in value, smugglers have asserted their muscle and slapped reins on players who want to flee the island.
“It’s become very mafia-ish, and no one is talking because there’s an element of violence that didn’t exist before,” said Ben Daniel, a Miami attorney and former prosecutor who won a 2007 conviction of agent Gus Dominguez for smuggling five Cuban players to the United States. “Gus’ players weren’t any good but he genuinely wanted to help them. The agents are no longer crowing about getting these players out from under the heel of communism and into the land of freedom. This is the new wave of big money, and it’s about economics, not politics.”
The case of Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martín illustrates the sinister side of the importation of Cuban talent.
“You are worth a lot. I’m not going to let you go,” smuggler Eliezer “El Chicharo” Lazo said to Martín in 2010 when Martín arrived in Cancún on Lazo’s 45-foot yacht from Cuba with three relatives and a friend.
The others in his group made their way to the Laredo, Texas, border crossing and utilized the “dry foot” Cuban Adjustment Act policy to secure political asylum, but Martín remained behind, where he was kept in a “stash house” at a place known as “The Ranch” in Monterrey with other players who trained on a shoddy field while awaiting their residency papers.
Lazo, now serving dual prison sentences for money laundering in a $476,000 Medicare fraud scheme and for his role in smuggling 1,000 Cubans to Mexico, helped ferry nearly two dozen Cuban baseball players to Mexico, where they became members of his front business, the Estrellas del Béisbol academy. The players said they were held captive and forced to sign deals with Lazo and agent Hernandez, promising to pay them a percentage of their future MLB contracts, federal court records state.
“Players were instructed, in the presence of armed men, to sign contracts with Estrellas and BH, whom the players were told would be their agent,” a court filing said.
Lazo said in his pre-sentencing report that “when players sign with the pros, he received a commission of $20,000 to $30,000 per month.” His brother-in-law, Joel Martinez Hernandez, who faces trial on smuggling and extortion charges, was a trainer allegedly earning commissions of $500,000 to $600,000 per year.
Back in South Florida, Martin’s relatives were living in a West Flagler house owned by Lazo, and they were forced to stay there until Martin signed his $15.5 million contract (plus a $5 million bonus) with the Rangers five months later.
At “The Ranch,” players practiced under the gaze of a former Cuban player whose girlfriend, a former Tropicana dancer, helped set up bribes with Mexican authorities, according to her lawyer. Or she would collect money from relatives in Miami.
Another woman, Lazo’s girlfriend, Yilian “La Negra” Hernandez, was an alleged bag-woman who collected payments from relatives, usually at a Flagami meeting point. She also faces trial.
After Martín signed with Texas, he wired $1.35 million to the Estrellas account. Martín was later sued by Estrellas for breach of contract, for not fully paying the 30 percent he owed to Estrellas and the 5 percent he owed to Bart Hernandez.
Martín countersued Lazo, Hernandez and Praver Shapiro Sports Management of Miami, which worked with Hernandez, saying he was forced to sign the agreement while “in the involuntary custody of his kidnappers,” that Estrellas was an illegal front, and that he made his initial payment out of fear. Martin said he has continued to receive “veiled threats from Lazo from prison (and via Lazo’s goons living in South Florida).”
At Lazo’s sentencing, where he got 14.5 years for conspiring to extort migrants, defense attorney Bill Clay argued that players and migrants alike are simply paying for a service and are just as much a part of any conspiracy as the smugglers. “Many aliens were happy customers who got what they bargained for — they got into the U.S. and got asylum status,” he said.
Players decline to discuss their journeys. So do their agents. Players don’t want to jeopardize relatives in Cuba who could face punishment from the government, and they want to keep secret the details of defection so current players can utilize the same people and methods. Federal prosecutors convicted Suarez for smuggling in the Puig case and are investigating others.
Major League Baseball is under pressure to crack down on agents involved with Cuban players. Cuban authorities imprisoned four men visiting the island for allegedly talking to players about defecting, and have imprisoned Cuban residents as well. Juan Ignacio Hernandez Nodar, Joe Cubas’ cousin and a former scout from the United States, spent 13 years in a Cuban prison for recruiting players to leave.
When Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Miguel “Gonzo” Gonzalez was asked to clarify whether he defected to Costa Rica or El Salvador and why his initials appeared in the Suarez indictment during a conversation at his locker in the Marlins’ visitor’s clubhouse, he turned away abruptly and strode behind a wall to the shower area, saying, “I don’t want to talk about this subject because if I do it will explode like a bomb.”
Puig won’t talk about his odyssey, but Despaigne — who accompanied Puig every step of the way — will.
Despaigne, considered a flight risk by coaches in Cuba, was suspended from the boxing team in 2011 and moved from Havana back to Cienfuegos, where he knew Puig from their years together in a state-run sports school. In the spring, Despaigne got a phone call from Pacheco, the repairman and T&P Metals owner with convictions for burglary and credit card fraud. Pacheco had left Cuba on a raft years before and knew Despaigne and his family.
According to Despaigne’s affidavit, Pacheco asked Despaigne to extend an offer to Puig: He would help launch Puig’s MLB career in exchange for 20 percent of Puig’s contract. Despaigne said he was told he would get a house in Hialeah and $200,000.
Despaigne talked to his friend, but in a country where neighbors spy on neighbors and baseball players are notorious for being government informants, Despaigne also issued a warning. He said he knew Puig’s reputation as a chivato (rat) whose accusations had put people in jail.
“I said, ‘Brother, if you snitch on me, I’ll snitch on you and say it was your idea,’” Despaigne recalled.
Pacheco, who has not been charged, sent money to Puig and Puig kept asking for more, Despaigne said. In the course of a year, they failed in four attempts to sneak out of Cuba. Once, the U.S. Coast Guard sent them back. Twice, Puig disappeared from rendezvous houses in Granma and Holguín, and Despaigne suspects he aborted on purpose.
On the fifth try, exhausted and dehydrated after wandering overnight through a mangrove swamp, Despaigne, Puig, Puig’s then-girlfriend, Jenny Reyes, and a friend who was a Santero named Lester Quesada finally found the Cigarette boat that had come to fetch them.
“We were ready to give up,” Despaigne said. “We had dropped the Elegua [a statue of the Santeria spirit of the crossroads] we were carrying for luck, and when we went back and found it on the sand, that’s when we saw the boat.”
The quartet embarked on a two-day voyage marred by engine trouble and helmed by Eladio “El Chino” Guerra and Tomás “Tomasito” Valez Valdivia, a Cuban-born convicted felon from South Florida who had fled to Cancún years earlier after posting bond. They were taking orders from smuggler Yandrys “Leo” Leon, who was shot to death in Cancún months after Puig’s arrival in the United States. This was after Suarez had told Despaigne not to worry about threats from Leon because he would be “neutralized,” court documents said.
The group was taken to an Isla Mujeres motel, where they waited while Pacheco allegedly haggled over payment to the smugglers, which had risen from $250,000 to $400,000.
The friends swam in the pool, watched telenovelas and ate takeout food as the days turned into three weeks. Contrary to previous media reports, there were no weapons and no threats from Los Zetas to cut off Puig’s fingers, Despaigne said.
“We were never kidnapped — that was all sensationalized,” Despaigne said. “Tomasito would pick up Puig in his yacht filled with a bunch of women. They’d go out and party and Puig would be dancing in his underwear or naked. They’d bring us food and drinks. Puig would ask for video games and they’d bring those, too.”
Pacheco, in collaboration with Suarez, agent Torres and three other South Florida backers — Alberto Farinas, Pacheco’s recycling business partner; Marcos Gonzalez, a West Palm Beach attorney; and a man named Livan Triana — was able to send men to extract Puig and his friends and get them to Mexico City, Despaigne said.
Once in the capital, Despaigne said he and Puig had dinners and met with Suarez, Gonzalez and Torres, who was negotiating Puig’s contract with the Dodgers, signed June 28, 2012. Suarez, who said he had been a state security agent in Cuba before moving to Miami, arranged for all four to cross the border into Texas, according to his plea agreement.
Pacheco eventually got $300,000 from Puig; Farinas got $400,000 to 500,000; and Gonzalez, who put up $500,000, got $600,000. Torres, whom Puig fired earlier this year, and Suarez were to get 20 percent of Puig’s Dodgers deal, Despaigne said.
Puig went on to become a sensation with the Dodgers for his flashy style of play. But Despaigne entered into an immigrant’s limbo in Miami. He got only $70,000 of the $200,000 he was offered to help spirit Puig out of Cuba. And he did not get the house in Hialeah that he was promised. He lived with Pacheco for a while.
“I was so bored without a job that I would go out on repair calls with him and carry the heavy AC units,” Despaigne said.
Asked to describe the mystery man Pacheco who coordinated Puig’s defection, Despaigne said: “He had liposuction on his stomach so he could have a six-pack. He liked to go to parties and nightclubs, drive an Escalade and drink a lot of beer, screwdrivers and Red Bull.”
Pacheco asserts Despaigne called him from Cuba, desperate to get out after he was kicked off the boxing team, and offering to bring “a commodity” — a star baseball player, his friend Puig — said Pacheco’s lawyer, David Donet.
“While Raul was involved in the plan, he was not the mastermind and didn’t have the deep pockets of those higher up the food chain like Suarez or the lawyer,” Donet said. “Raul used to be a street kid and small-time crook, and although he’s being investigated, he’s not really a target. A lot of people made a lot of money, but he got a fraction.”
After Puig bought a house in Miami, Pacheco worked as his personal assistant, taking care of Puig’s parents, his yard, his cars, “like his Man Friday,” Donet said.
Despaigne also lived with Pacheco’s ex-business partner Farinas for a while, along with Reyes and Quesada. Farinas lives in a duplex off Coral Way. When approached as he sat on his porch, Farinas, a short man wearing a sleeveless undershirt and flip-flops and sucking on an e-cigarette, said he didn’t want to talk about the Puig case.
“Alberto likes casinos and smoking those fake cigarettes,” Despaigne said.
Despaigne has since found work in construction and as a boxing coach at a Sweetwater gym and is no longer friendly with his traveling companions or hosts. He is angry at Puig for what happened to his younger half-brother.
Despaigne’s half-brother, Eduardo Soriano Díaz, and two other Cuban men were sentenced in August to five years for a human trafficking attempt initiated by Puig and Pacheco, according to a ruling by the Cienfuegos People’s Provincial Court. Pitcher Noelvis Entenza testified that Puig, his former Elefantes teammate, and Pacheco tried to persuade him in phone calls to defect, offering him money, boat transport and the lure of an MLB contract. The convicted Cuban men allegedly visited Entenza as messengers for Puig.
Cienfuegos player Erisbel Arruebarruena, now a $25 million infielder for the Dodgers, defected a couple months after Entenza was contacted in October 2013. Five other Cienfuegos players, including White Sox star Abreu, defected in the months before Entenza was contacted. No coincidence they were all Puig’s teammates, the court said.
“Puig is as guilty of human trafficking as anybody,” Despaigne said.
Puig is being sued for $12 million in Miami federal court under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act by Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot, who served more than three years in a Cuban prison for human trafficking. Corbacho Daudinot said that he met Puig in passing during a visit to Cuba but that Puig turned him in to authorities for offering to take Puig to the Dominican Republic.
Puig, who had been suspended from Cuban baseball for misbehavior, and his mother testified against Corbacho Daudinot and colluded with the Cuban sports institute INDER and state security apparatus DCSE to “frame plaintiff … to allow Puig to appear as if he were a loyal and trustworthy Cuban citizen in order to re-enter the Cuban national team,” the lawsuit alleges.
Chapman, the fireball-throwing Reds pitcher who lives in Davie, was sued for $18 million by two men who were imprisoned under similar circumstances. Chapman was also in the team doghouse. After he and his father denounced the men, he was reinstated, only to defect months later, according to the suit, since closed.
“Membership on the Cuban national baseball team has unfortunately become a who’s who of DCSE snitches or government favorites,” states the suit filed by Miami attorney Avelino Gonzalez.
Each tale of defection carries its own twist, and often devolves into a fight over money. Yoenis Céspedes left in the summer of 2011 on a 23-hour voyage to the Dominican Republic, accompanied by six relatives and arranged by Dominican agent Edgar Mercedes. Céspedes trained in Santiago, while Mercedes created an outlandish 20-minute video called “The Showcase” featuring Star Wars music and footage of Céspedes sprinting, smashing home runs, bench-pressing 350 pounds, thanking his mother (a former softball ace for Cuba) and roasting a pig.
Céspedes signed a $36 million deal with the Oakland A’s in February 2012 and headed to spring training. Later, he got into a financial dispute with Mercedes. His relatives, fearing that Mercedes would have them deported, fled by boat to the Turks and Caicos and then to Miami. Earlier this year, Céspedes was ordered by a Dominican court to pay Mercedes 22 percent of his contract.
Coveted young infielder Yoan Moncada decided to take a legal route out of Cuba. He married a woman with dual Argentine/U.S. citizenship, quit his Cienfuegos team, got a visa and traveled with his new wife to Argentina in August, then took up residency in Guatemala, where he held a November showcase for 70 scouts. He is now in Florida with his St. Petersburg-based agent, David Hastings, awaiting clearance by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to become “unblocked” — a process each Cuban player goes through.
How did Moncada meet this woman, who by all accounts was older than the 19-year-old Moncada? Players on the national team say he met her through Torres, the agent, during a tournament trip in Rotterdam.
“She was following him around, spending a lot of time at the team hotel and in his room,” said Bjarkman, the author and authority on Cuban baseball, who stayed at the same hotel. “There was a lot of speculation about the relationship.”
Agents can play a murky role in the players’ treks. The growth of the Internet and the relaxation of travel restrictions to and from Cuba make it easier to scout players and organize contacts with them on the island.
When Torres was asked about the Puig case and the way he conducts business, he said, “I’ve been representing Cuban players for 20 years, and I have nothing else to say.” He gained prominence in 2003 when he signed José Contreras to a $32 million deal with the Yankees. Bart Hernandez was similarly unknown until he started signing Cuban players.
“The two agents nobody had heard of now have a monopoly on Cuban players,” Kehoskie said. “I never saw Jaime at the several international events I attended per year with other scouts and agents. Bart was driving around cold-calling athletes at parks.”
Kehoskie said agents are clearly advising and associating with smugglers.
“The targeting of players has become much more sophisticated since the 1990s because fewer players are leaving but the contracts are way up,” he said.
Torres and Hernandez have both denied any involvement with smugglers. They say players call them.
Bjarkman said Cuban players communicate constantly via Facebook with their former teammates in MLB and they view Torres warily.
Homeland Security Investigations agent Tobon said investigators are examining Cuban trafficking from both ends.
“We are actively looking at everyone involved and how much they know, how much due diligence they conducted,” he said. “At any traditional company you are responsible for your suppliers’ actions — you have to ensure that everything in your supply chain abides by the law.”
What does the future hold for the Cuban pipeline? The talk at Havana’s Parque Central “Hot Corner” these days is more about Abreu and Puig than Industriales and Avispas. The talent drain has diluted the caliber of Cuba’s national pastime. While players must sneak out of Cuba — asterisks in the baseball record books identify those who “abandoned the country” — the announcement that Obama and Castro want to restore relations and end the embargo could turn the trickle into a flood, cutting smugglers out of the equation.
“The Cuban government in its current form can’t survive, and Cuban baseball is in the same predicament,” Bjarkman said. “They’ve had a strong alternative universe to MLB but if the doors open that will no longer exist.”
Coming Monday: What’s next for Cuban baseball.