MLB accused of ignoring Cuban baseball player smuggling

Cuban smuggling ring held baseball players captive
Cuban smuggling ring held baseball players captive

Major League Baseball knows -- and ignores -- how Cuban players are preyed upon by a violent criminal underworld that smuggles them to professional teams, according to several lawyers who have investigated this black market.

"There are too many times, too many instances where they've looked the other way," former prosecutor Ben Daniel told CNNMoney. "They just had to know. They had to know."

Daniel investigated one of these smuggling rings a decade ago, putting its top smuggler behind bars. He calls MLB's conduct "blind, willful ignorance."

Major League Baseball has repeatedly declined to respond to CNNMoney's requests for comments about the allegations.

However, one MLB scout said the league is well aware of the black market that supplies baseball players, though it's not their job to police it.

Johnny DiPuglia is an international scout for the Washington Nationals. "There's a criminal element to it," DiPuglia told CNNMoney, referring to the path Cuban players take before getting to the United States. "My only concern is getting these guys to the majors."

cuban baseball smuggling ben daniel
Former federal prosecutor Ben Daniel says MLB "just had to know" about the vicious tactics used to smuggle Cuban ballplayers.

Federal prosecutors have been cracking down on the trafficking of Cuban baseball players for years. Last month, the U.S. government revealed how harshly some players were treated by their captors, who even threatened to shoot the Cuban stars if they tried to get away.

The list of smuggled players includes Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Dalier Hinojosa, free agent pitcher Yunesky Maya, Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Henry Urrutia, and many more. Most of these players had already achieved international fame by the time they were smuggled.

cuban baseball smuggling dalier hinojosa
Smuggled Cuban pitcher Dalier Hinojosa won a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Professional American baseball scouts would travel to Mexico and watch Cuban players workout at a local baseball field -- even as those players were being held captive on a ranch under armed guard, according to Cuban baseball player Leonys Martín Tápanes' lawsuit against his captors.

It's not clear whether MLB scouts are aware that the Cuban prospects were being kept at gunpoint or that they are later extorted by their smugglers. But DiPuglia recalled the time when criminals came after one of his players, Yunesky Maya.

Related: The Cuban baseball smuggling machine behind MLB

"I told him to pay the guy off so nothing happens to you," DiPuglia told CNNMoney.

Some think MLB and its employees simply choose to ignore the violent underworld that supplies these players to the league.

"These players are a commodity. They're blood diamonds," said Paul Minoff, a lawyer representing Martín. "Everybody knows where they come from, yet there's a market for it. And everybody pretends it doesn't exist."

cuban baseball smuggling paul minoff
Paul Minoff represents smuggled Seattle Mariner Leonys Martín Tápanes. He compared Cuban ballplayers to "blood diamonds."

At least three convicted smugglers -- in separate rings -- have run illegal operations that did business with MLB, according to court documents.

In the past, MLB has issued statements noting that the league and its personnel are not the "focus" of any criminal investigations, and that it always cooperates with government investigators "to protect our Cuban players from the dangers posed by human smugglers."

But one smuggler claims the league is actually fueling the human trafficking business.

It starts with MLB, smuggler says

Gilberto Suarez was convicted of smuggling Dodgers star Yasiel Puig into the United States and spent a month in federal prison. He told CNNMoney that MLB tolerates and often -- knowingly or unknowingly -- sets the criminal enterprise in motion.

Long before Cuban baseball stars defect and land multi-million dollar baseball contracts in the United States, MLB scouts have stalked them at international tournaments in Holland, Japan and elsewhere, Suarez said.

"They're always traveling wherever the Cuban teams go. They film them. They write reports. They travel to those countries to value them," he said.

Then Suarez and other smugglers get the phone calls: Scouts let them know which players they are interested in.

"These scouts are always asking us: What's up with so and so? Is he leaving?" Suarez said.

These popular players disappear from their Cuban teams and pop up months later in Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. The MLB scouts quickly follow.

cuban baseball smuggling henry urrutia
Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Henry Urrutia was smuggled to Mexico before he was brought to the U.S.

"From the moment the boy arrives in the Dominican Republic without documents at all, they start visiting the kid with the intention to bring him here," Suarez told CNNMoney. "To a certain extent, they're responsible. They know they're there illegally."

Two MLB scouts told CNNMoney they do regularly attend international games, pick their favorite players and approach agents with ties to the Cuban community to express their interest in them.

"We ask when they'll be available," said Baltimore Orioles' executive director for international recruitment, Fred Ferreira. He stressed that he merely wants to know when they'll be available to legally sign with a team.

What he wants from the players is "not defection," he said. Scouts just want to know when someone is "permissible to sign."

Ferreira said scouts rely on MLB's own company investigators to make sure the players obtained legal immigration paperwork.

Blatantly fake immigration documents

"There was a lot of people playing ostrich," Minoff said. "It really had to be a head-in-the sand, 'don't ask don't tell' situation."

Minoff is the lawyer who represents Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martín Tápanes, who survived a harrowing trip from Cuba to Mexico to the United States. Minoff said that it's common knowledge that Cuba doesn't just let its star baseball players leave the Communist island, and yet "they just magically ended up in Mexico, and the scouts would go down there and watch them play."

Smugglers sneak Cuban ballplayers into Mexico with forged immigration documents, according to several cases outlined by federal prosecutors. As "Mexican residents," they qualify as international players, and can negotiate free agency contracts with MLB teams.

cuban baseball split leonys martin 2
Smugglers separated Leonys Martín Tápanes from his family and held him until he agreed to make a smuggler his agent.

Last year, ESPN exposed an internal MLB memo showing that the league was warned that an "organized mafia" was behind the import of Cuban talent to the United States. Ronaldo Peralta, who led MLB's Department of Investigations office in the Dominican Republic at the time, detailed a "fraud scheme that could hurt our Clubs."

MLB did not publicly challenge the authenticity of that memo.

So far, federal investigators in Miami have targeted several smuggling operations, but they have not filed charges against Major League Baseball.

However, there will be intense scrutiny on MLB contracts in January when a baseball talent agent will go on trial in Miami for allegedly teaming up with smugglers to coerce deals with 17 players -- including Chicago White Sox first baseman José Abreu and Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria.

In a pretrial motion, federal prosecutors explained that MLB even had a league investigator talk to that agent, Bartolo Hernandez. During that conversation, Hernandez said he was "researching" how to bring Cubans into the United States even though they didn't yet have visas. Prosecutors say his statements "show his plan to violate United States law." Hernandez denies the charges.

cuban baseball split yunesky maya
Yunesky Maya, shown here in his Cuban and MLB uniforms. A scout told him to pay a smuggler "so nothing happens to you."

MLB investigators were tasked with making sure that immigration paperwork was legitimate. That's an important step, because those immigration documents were key to the smuggling operations.

According to federal prosecutors, smugglers used fraudulent Mexican immigration documents to claim Cuban players could stay in Mexico. Smugglers then used those immigration papers to seek employment licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department and strike deals with MLB teams.

But at the upcoming trial, federal prosecutors will also show the blatant nature of the document fraud.

There are glaring inconsistencies. According to a federal indictment against the agent, Hernandez, these immigration forms listed well-known Cuban baseball stars as menial laborers at small Mexican businesses.

Reinier Roibal Martinez, a star pitcher in Cuba, was supposedly a "welder."

Another top pitcher, Sergio Félix Espinosa García, was apparently "an assistant manager of Papa Pepe's."

Hechavarria, the future Marlins player, was listed as an "area supervisor."

cuban baseball smuggling adeiny hechavarria
The accused smuggler who extorted money from Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria goes on trial in January.

Federal prosecutors claim that fraudulent Mexican immigration forms were submitted to U.S. agencies and MLB. This is yet another dark corner in the Cuban baseball player importing business known to some in MLB.

As DiPuglia told CNNMoney: "In order for them to sign, they have to have residency in another country. The way they get that residency is none of my business."

These are all the reasons that Rick Hermida, a lawyer who represented a smuggler convicted in 2015, is certain smugglers couldn't operate without MLB's knowledge.

"Major League Baseball is complicit in all this," Hermida told CNNMoney. "How could they not have been complicit?"

Read the rest of this CNNMoney investigative series.

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