Cuban baseball players paid a South Florida-based smuggling ring more than $15 million to leave the communist island in secretive ventures that included phony documents, false identities and surreptitious boat voyages to Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, federal prosecutors say.
A recently unsealed grand jury indictment against three men provides fresh details about the smuggling of 17 Cuban players, among them Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox and Leonys Martin of the Seattle Mariners. The smugglers usually took a percentage of any Major League Baseball contract a player signed.
The indictment names Bartolo Hernandez, a Weston, Florida-based sports agent whose clients included Abreu; Hernandez associate Julio Estrada, who runs Total Baseball Representation and Training in Miami; and Haitian citizen Amin Latouff of Port-au-Prince, who is not in U.S. custody and remains in Haiti. They are charged with conspiracy and illegally bringing immigrants to the U.S.
Estrada, who was arrested last week, has pleaded not guilty and is free on $225,000 bail. Hernandez pleaded not guilty when originally charged in February and is also free on bond.
Estrada's lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, said in an email Tuesday that he has never been involved in illegal human smuggling.
"He has always taken care of his players, training them so that they could achieve their dream of playing MLB in the United States," she said.
The case is an outgrowth of the previous prosecution in Miami of four people for the smuggling of Martin out of Cuba, one of whom is serving a 14-year prison sentence. Martin is among the players named in the new indictment as well. None of the players have been charged.
Prosecutors have said the investigation is focused on the smuggling organizations and not on the players. As Cubans, under U.S. policy they are generally allowed to remain in this country once reaching U.S. soil.
As part of the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, MLB is in talks with both nations' governments on a potential deal that could make it easier for Cuban ballplayers to play in the U.S. without having to sneak away at international tournaments or risk high-seas defections with smugglers.
But beginning in April 2009, prosecutors say, the South Florida-based smugglers ran a flourishing and lucrative illegal pipeline for Cuban players who must establish third-country residency in order to sign as MLB free agents.
The indictment says that Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff "recruited and paid" boat captains to smuggle players from Cuba to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The plot included use of fake jobs for the players, such as welder, mechanic, body shop worker — even one who was called an "area supervisor for Wet Set Ski."
The conspirators also used fake foreign and U.S. documents, including falsified passports and visa applications, to get the players to the U.S., according to the indictment.
The case of Abreu, who set a White Sox rookie record with 36 home runs in 2014 and was named American League rookie of the year, is fairly typical although the money involved is higher than most.
According to the indictment, Latouff paid $160,000 in August 2013 to a boat captain to smuggle Abreu from Cuba to Haiti. There a fraudulent visa and false name were provided so that Abreu could fly from Port-au-Prince to Miami.
A short time later, Chicago announced Abreu had signed a five-year, $68 million MLB contract. But the court documents show he still owed the smugglers millions and sent them several wire transfers in 2014 totaling at least $5.8 million.
Prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of more than $15.5 million in total payments from ballplayers to the smugglers, as well as forfeiture of four pieces of property in South Florida, four Mercedes-Benz vehicles and a Honda motorcycle.