The ugly, awful, violent, big-dollar world of illegally smuggling Cuban baseball players

Jeff PassanMLB columnist
Jose Abreu could find himself testifying in the United States of America vs. Bart Hernandez case in 2017. (Getty Images)
Jose Abreu could find himself testifying in the United States of America vs. Bart Hernandez case in 2017. (Getty Images)

On Monday morning, the government filed its witness list in the case of the United States of America vs. Bart Hernandez. Among the 77 men and women it hopes will testify in federal court are some of the most high-profile Cubans in baseball today, including Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu. The smuggling of men like Abreu is the impetus behind the government’s prosecution of Hernandez, a longtime player agent now accused of trafficking baseball players from Cuba to the United States. And court documents from the case released in recent months allege that a web of violence, lies, kidnapping, fraud and murder festered as major league teams spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Cuban baseball players.

Few cases illustrate the corruption as well as Abreu’s. In August 2013, an alleged associate of Hernandez’s named Amin Latouff paid $160,000 to have Abreu smuggled from Cuba to Haiti, according to court documents. By mid-October, Latouff secured a fake passport and visa for Abreu and his girlfriend to travel to the United States. At the end of the month, he had signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. And then the payments started.

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A $2.45 million wire to Julio Estrada, another alleged associate of Hernandez’s. A $276,250 payment to Hernandez. Then $2 million more to Estrada. And three more payments after that. The total: $6,401,250, the price of doing business for a star baseball player who wanted to leave Cuba. Investigators from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security found more than a dozen cases similar to Abreu’s, according to court records. In all, they listed 17 Cuban players who paid $8,888,644 into bank accounts run by Hernandez or Estrada. The government believes the total payments exceeded $15 million, and it wants them back.

Now, Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff face trial on seven counts of conspiracy and bringing an alien into the United States. Jury selection is scheduled to start Jan. 3, 2017, and a list of famous witnesses that includes Abreu, star free agent Yoenis Cespedes and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have been asked to testify. They would find themselves part of a trial with plotlines that seem snapped right out of the gangster handbook.

Originally, the government investigation focused on a smuggler named Eliezer Lazo, who headed the ring that transported more than 500 Cubans to the United States at $10,000 per person, according to court records. Baseball players were special cargo, costing more to move and requiring continuing fees drawn from their signing bonuses and earnings, court records said.

The tie between Lazo and Hernandez, a longtime agent, was exposed publicly in a lawsuit filed by Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin, who alleged he was held hostage after leaving Cuba while his contract with the Texas Rangers was being finalized. More than three years after Martin’s suit, the government arrested Hernandez on human-trafficking charges.

The lengths to which Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff allegedly went to circumvent rules and deliver Cuban baseball players to a market frothing for talent was at times hubristic, at times cunning and at times downright hilarious. The government alleges the group “recruited and paid boat captains to smuggle,” told witnesses to lie to law enforcement about how they left Cuba and relied on fake documentation to get them into the U.S.

The first case mentioned in the indictment against the three involves Sergio Espinosa, a short, left-handed relief pitcher who never rose higher than Double-A. In order for Espinosa to come to the United States – players do not defect directly there, because MLB rules force those who do to enter the draft, with far-less-lucrative financial outcomes – he needed to apply to the Office of Foreign Assets Control for a so-called “unblocking” license.

“In that application,” the government alleged in its indictment, “Hernandez submitted and caused the submission of a Mexican document that falsely and fraudulently listed the employment of [Espinosa] as an assistant manager of ‘Papa Pepe’s’.”

Papa Pepe’s does not exist. Neither did jobs as a “welder,” “independent body shop worker,” “area supervisor for ‘Wet Set Ski,’ ” “independent mechanic,” “sales department manager” or any of the fake occupations sent in on OFAC documents. Adeiny Hechavarria, the Miami Marlins’ starting shortstop, was called on his OFAC application an “area supervisor.” Later he would pay $737,703 into the accounts of Hernandez and Estrada, according to court records. Estrada, according to the government, filed for 35 OFAC licenses.

As time went on, the government alleged, the fraud worsened. In January 2012, Hernandez emailed MLB a visa for a player from the Dominican Republic. Four months later, he emailed the league a visa for the same player – from Haiti. By early 2013, Latouff was producing fake passports and visas for players to travel from Haiti to the U.S. – first Dalier Hinojosa, who signed for $4.5 million with the Red Sox and deposited $870,000 of that into Estrada’s bank account, then Abreu, according to court documents.

While the Martin allegations did not shut down Hernandez’s business, the arrests and sentences of Lazo and his partner made the Cuban player trade trickier. The established hierarchy, run by Lazo ever since the kidnapping and murder of the ring’s former leader, according to court records, crumbled. Lazo’s ring didn’t deliver all the high-profile Cubans to the United States, but teams have spent an estimated $800 million-plus on Cuban players since 2010, and he was responsible for upward of a quarter of that.

The government’s ability to prove Hernandez, Estrada and Latouff’s involvement may not be enough to guarantee a conviction. In court filings, defense lawyers have argued, quite cleverly, that if the Cuban Adjustment Act allows natives of Cuba to legally stay once they have reached U.S. shores, then the idea of charging someone for helping them cross a border cannot necessarily be illegal. Without having committed a crime, as the defense is arguing, there cannot be a conspiracy.

Still, the overwhelming amount of evidence that links Hernandez to the players was enough for the government to move forward with a limited set of charges, hoping not to overly complicate an already convoluted case with so many moving pieces.

When federal authorities searched Bart Hernandez’s house in Weston, Fla., they used a warrant to look into his home office – which Hernandez alleges is a spare bedroom, according to court documents, with an unmade bed, an armoire with a TV on top and a desk without any computer equipment. In the closet was a vacuum, scrapbooks, clothing, suitcases, an unused computer towel and pair of flip-flops.

It looked far from the nerve center of a bustling smuggling operation. Just a regular extra bedroom in a regular house with a regular person. Not someone from whom the government is seeking $15.5 million in forfeiture to pay back the players what they’re owed. Not someone intimately involved with holding players hostage. Not any of the alleged crimes or actions.

A jury will decide that next year. In the meantime, though, as MLB discusses the prospect of an international draft, as Cuban players continue to sign deals worth tens of millions of dollars, even as U.S.-Cuba relations normalize to the point that one day, perhaps, this will all be moot, that web of violence, lies, kidnapping, fraud and murder casts a pall over the sport that craved talent and couldn’t avoid the ugliness that came with it.

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