One of the baseball’s biggest mysteries may have been uncovered this week: How did MLB star Yasiel Puig manage to escape from Cuba and wind up signing a 7-year, $42 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Puig, who tends to be cautious in what he says to reporters, has never publicly discussed the matter. But articles in Los Angeles magazine, which broke the story, and a five-month ESPN The Magazine investigation published online Thursday, claim one of baseball’s hottest rookies arrived in the U.S. under shady circumstances that had connections to a powerful Mexican drug cartel.
Here are the bare bones of the articles:
In Cuba, Puig always had an eye out for the possibility of escape, but he was understandably wary of the shady people who would come up to him with offers of help. After a couple of attempts that went nowhere—one stalled out when the ship failed to show, another time the boat he was on got stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard—in June 2012, Puig got onboard a vessel with a crew of five, all of whom allegedly had connections to the Zetas drug cartel.
Puig wasn’t alone. He was with a woman who was his girlfriend at the time, a Santeria priest, and a boxer named Yunior Despaigne, who knew Puig from youth sports academies they attended.
According to the article, Despaigne had approached Puig with an offer from a Miami-area air conditioning repairman and convicted thief named Raul Pacheco. Pacheco would arrange for the boat and pay $250,000 for Puig’s passage. In exchange, once Puig was free, he would sign a contract turning over 20 percent of all his future MLB earnings to Pacheco.
The escape was successful—the smugglers docked on a small island off the coast of Yucatan, which is when the problems started. Pacheco wouldn’t cough up the money.
For at least three weeks, the Zetas-backed gangsters held Puig, Despaigne and the others at a seedy boarding house while they tried to negotiate with Pacheco and others for payment. If they didn’t get it, they told their captives, they would hack off one of the outfielder’s arms with a machete.
According to ESPN, Pacheco and a group of Florida businessman hired “fixers” who entered the boarding house and rescued Puig and the other captives. They were whisked away to Mexico City where Puig was put on display for baseball scouts.
Most of this information comes for court papers filed for a case in the U.S. District Court of South Florida. The plaintiff is a prisoner in Cuba who is suing Puig and his mother, Maritza, for $12 million on the grounds that information the Puigs gave the Cuban government led to his arrest and torture. As part of the case, the prisoner’s lawyer asked Despaigne to provide an affidavit detailing the circumstances of their departure from Cuba.
According to ESPN, Despaigne was frustrated that Pacheco hadn’t paid him money he felt was owed to him for convincing Puig to defect.
In Despaigne’s affidavit, he says that since signing with the Dodgers, Puig has paid $300,000 to Pacheco, more than $400,000 to an associate of Pacheco’s and $600,000 to a Miami lawyer, Marcos Gonzalez.
As for the people who held Puig captive in Mexico—the body of the leader, a man they called “Leo,” was found in Cancún with 13 bullets in it. And there are still death threats being made against all the men involved in the smuggling operation, including Puig.
On Wednesday, Puig issued a statement through his agent about the articles.
“I’m aware of the recent articles and news accounts,” the statement read. “I understand that people are curious and have questions, but I will have no comment on this subject. I’m represented on this matter, and I’m only focused on being a productive teammate and helping the Dodgers win games.”
There are other, similar stories about the trafficking of Cuban ballplayers. In December 2013, the U.S. Attorney’s office in South Florida issued an indictment involving dozens of people alleging a human smuggling ring that had gotten Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin and his family out of Cuba and held them captive in Mexico.
The experience may be close to universal for Cuban ballplayers escaping the island, although few speak about it. Last summer, for instance, Chicago White Sox first baseman José Dariel Abreu was said to have disappeared from Cuba, but there was no official word about where he was for a few weeks. There were reports he eventually turned up in either Dominican Republic or Haiti.
Nobody is sure what happened in between.