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Leonys Martin lawsuit details allegations of Cuban baseball player smuggling

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Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin signed with the Rangers in 2011. (Getty Images)

In August 2010, Leonys Martin and his family snuck to the shores of Cuba, hopped in a car, moved to a truck, got out and trudged on foot to a 45-foot yacht, sped across perilous waters to Mexico and took a 15-minute van ride to a house where they believed freedom awaited them. Instead, according to a lawsuit filed by Martin, they were introduced to two gun-toting men named Eliezer Lazo and Joel Martinez Hernandez.

"You are worth a lot," Lazo told Martin, according to the suit. "I am not going to let you go."

An explosive civil lawsuit Martin filed a year ago details that harrowing day and many more to come. According to Martin, as they waited more than half a year for a Major League Baseball team to lavish the 22-year-old center fielder with a big-money contract, Lazo, Martinez Hernandez and a host of others kept him captive in Mexico and confined his family members to a house in Florida.

At least a dozen other people, including multiple baseball players, were entangled in a web similar to Martin's, according to an indictment unsealed Wednesday by the U.S. Attorney's office in South Florida that charged Lazo, Martinez Hernandez and a woman named Yilian Hernandez with conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort Cuban defectors including Martin, now a 25-year-old center fielder for the Texas Rangers. Lazo currently is serving a 63-month sentence at Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi for Medicare fraud and money laundering. Martinez Hernandez is 2½ years into a seven-year sentence for the same crimes. Hernandez was arrested Thursday morning. One source with knowledge of the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations that led to the indictments told Yahoo Sports more people could be charged.

Neither Lazo nor Martinez Hernandez could be reached for comment about Martin's lawsuit. Yilian Hernandez, who is not named in the suit, pleaded not guilty to the federal charges Thursday and was released on $160,000 bond.

Martin's case provides perhaps the clearest view yet of the murky, illegal and wildly moneyed world of Cuban defectors leaving their homeland with an eye on the major leagues. Dozens of players have settled in countries around the Caribbean, South America and Mexico to avoid rules that force Cubans into the MLB draft, in which signing bonuses are limited, if they defect directly into the United States. The elite get paid with the top dollar usually reserved for free agents. Martin signed a five-year, $15.5 million deal. Dodgers star Yasiel Puig received a guaranteed $42 million before playing a single game in North America. And on Oct. 29, the Chicago White Sox handed a six-year, $63 million contract to first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, whose agent, Bart Hernandez, played a significant role in Martin's story, according to the lawsuit.

The indictment could have a wide-ranging impact on MLB, forcing the league and players' association to confront an issue that for years has vexed them. The smuggling of players was no secret. Puig failed to defect a number of times, and despite his rise in the second-biggest city in America, the full story of how he came to the United States remains unclear.

Martin's frightening tale of defection dovetails with other stories bandied about in the Cuban baseball community, which has grown to accept smugglers auctioning players to prospective agents as a standard business procedure.

"It's shocking how simple it is," Joe Kehoskie, a former agent to Cuban players now working as a consultant, told Yahoo Sports. "You would think it's something they'd be embarrassed to say or be clandestine about it. But they say they control or own this guy – they use a bunch of different euphemisms – and they want a ransom. They came up with an asking price. It was almost like going on eBay or Amazon.com. It was a buy-it-now price, and you're buying human beings."


Martin told his story in a countersuit filed against Estrellas del Baseball, a Mexico-based corporation that sued him Aug. 16, 2012. In its complaint, EDB alleged that Martin owed $450,000 after agreeing nearly two years earlier to pay the company 35 percent of his baseball salary. EDB said Martin already had paid $1.2 million, and it was owed more for providing food, clothing and shelter for him and his family.

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Martin hit .260 with 66 runs for the Rangers last season. (USA Today)

According to Martin, EDB was "a non-existent … entity that serves as a front for illegal activity, such as human smuggling and trafficking, kidnapping and extortion" – and Eliezer Lazo and Joel Martinez Hernandez ran it.

The countersuit covers Martin from his emergence as one of Cuba's best young players to his signing with Texas, and the details in between show the conflict of a man paralyzed with fear as his family allegedly sat thousands of miles away and he remained under the thumb of those who brought him to Mexico.

According to the suit, when Martin decided to defect around August 2010, he arranged transportation for himself, his father, his girlfriend, his father's girlfriend and a friend through a contact in Miami. Martin met with a man named Jesus Toledo, and after Toledo was unable to find the boat scheduled to take the group, he said he could get Martin to Mexico. Toledo, the suit claims, is the husband of Lazo's cousin.

Toledo saw the group through two vehicle trips, the long walk and onto the 45-foot yacht headed for Cancun, Mexico, where they met Lazo and Martinez Hernandez. Martin told Lazo his friend from Miami would take him into the United States. Lazo said to do so, his friend would need to pay $2.5 million, the suit claims.

Soon thereafter, Martin and a group of three more baseball players in the custody of Lazo (known as El Chicharo, or The Pea) and Martinez Hernandez (called El Enano, or The Dwarf) were sent to a facility called "The Ranch" in Monterrey, Mexico. It was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom house with an in-law suite behind it, a pool and two dogs. Though they were ostensibly there to train, the suit claims EDB not only provided no equipment, there wasn't even a baseball field. They were watched over by Martinez Hernandez and another man. Both carried guns, the suit alleges.

A two-day reunion with his family in Monterrey ended when the group was sent on a bus to cross the border in Laredo, Texas, while Martin and the other players were ordered to stay in Mexico. After being released by immigration officials, Martin's family took a bus to Miami and went to Lazo's house, where, according to the suit, "they would remain against their will for approximately the next five months."

Every so often, the group of players would train at a nearby stadium. Major league scouts swung by and filed reports back to their teams. Martin was introduced to Bart Hernandez, the agent who today works with Miami-based Praver Shapiro Sports Management, and was told Hernandez would be representing him, according to the suit. Hernandez and Praver did not return phone messages left by Yahoo Sports. Shapiro declined comment when reached in Zulia, Venezuela.

Martin’s lawsuit, filed by Paul Minoff of GrayRobinson law firm, draws a strong connection between the alleged traffickers and Hernandez, who was not cited in the federal indictment. Because smugglers cannot act as agents and take the typical fee, they rely on MLBPA-certified agents to act as business partners, which EDB alluded to in its own suit, when it reduced Martin's fee to 30 percent and gave its other 5 percent to Hernandez.

Kehoskie, the consultant, said he refused to buy players – and that even when smugglers propositioned him, they were awful businessmen. In early 2009, a friend encouraged him to fly to Cancun to meet with two men, one of whom was Lazo. They met at a Starbucks, and it was evident immediately they were smugglers, Kehoskie said.

Kehoskie and the two picked up three Cuban players: pitcher Israel Soto, outfielder Luis Fonseca and catcher Joan Chaviano. Soto was a prospect, a right-hander whose fastball reached the upper 90s. The other two were forgettable. Lazo and his partner, Kehoskie said, offered him the three as a package deal for $90,000. Kehoskie declined the offer and returned home to the United States with another smuggling story, the sort of which is so familiar to officials across the game it's surprising nobody in power has questioned the wisdom in letting alleged criminals run amok with multimillion-dollar assets.

"I've known it for years," Kehoskie said. "It's one of those things where you tell people and they think it's so crazy it's fiction."


Irony exists in the criminal world, too. The group of players left The Ranch for a short period of time, the suit alleges, because they were told someone planned to kidnap Lazo. They moved to a hotel, where one of Lazo and Martinez Hernandez’s associates presented Martin with the document that outlined the money he would owe EDB. The man watching over Martin was armed, according to the suit, and Martin signed the document. With the relationship on paper, Bart Hernandez took Martin to Guatemala to acquire a passport for Martin, the lawsuit said.

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Martin filed a lawsuit against Estrellas del Baseball. (AP)

Upon his return, Martin played at a stadium in a showcase for scouts and executives, and Hernandez negotiated a deal with the Rangers that would be signed when Martin arrived in the United States. Only then, in mid-2011, did Martinez Hernandez allow Martin to leave Mexico, the suit claims. They took a bus to the border, flew from Laredo to Houston to Miami, and were met by Lazo, Lazo's girlfriend, Lazo's daughter and Martin's family. Lazo rented out a townhouse in nearby Weston, Fla., into which Martin and his family moved. The group remained fearful, according to the lawsuit, "because Lazo and his goons knew exactly where they were living."

Bart Hernandez took Martin to meet a Merrill Lynch adviser named George Perez, according to the suit, which alleges Perez later gave Martin a document in English authorizing a $1.35 million transfer to a South American account belonging to EDB. Martin, the suit said, was out of town and told his girlfriend to sign the document and return it to Perez.

In the lawsuit, Martin seeks the return of the $1.35 million, and the government in its indictment said Lazo, Martinez Hernandez and Yilian Hernandez would forfeit a Mexican-based bank account in EDB's name as well as "all interests the defendants have" in the lawsuit against Martin.

While the indictment could strengthen Martin's argument that he signed the document under duress and thus should not be held liable for further payments of his salary – most U.S.-based agents charge 5 percent, and 35 percent would be considered usurious even for a Cuban player – the case remains open. With the charges filed Wednesday, Martin will not be able to focus solely on his baseball career anytime soon.

Though it's not as if he expected that, either. Not only did EDB, Praver Shapiro and Bart Hernandez's company Global Sports Management continue to demand money from Martin, according to the lawsuit, he "has been receiving veiled threats" from an unlikely person in an unlikelier place.

Eliezer Lazo, the suit alleges, "from prison."

 

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