The federal trial is underway in Miami for agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who are accused of participating in smuggling operations that brought Cuban baseball players to America.
Hernandez represents over a dozen Cuban baseball players, including Leonys Martin, who filed a civil suit in 2012 against the men who smuggled him out of Cuba in 2010 and held him captive in Mexico for six months. He was named as Martin’s agent in that case, but no charges were levied against him until last year when he was indicted for human trafficking.
The charges against Hernandez don’t involve the same kidnapping that Eliezer Lazo and others from the 2012 suit were found guilty of; instead, he is on trial for several related counts of inducing unauthorized entry into the United States. In other words, Hernandez wasn’t directly responsible for smuggling players out of Cuba but once they were in a neutral country—usually Mexico, but Haiti and the Dominican Republic are becoming more popular—he would allegedly be introduced to the player as their new agent, without the player’s consent, and would arrange showcases and negotiate deals with potential teams, ultimately taking an outsized percentage of the player’s signing contract. Prosecutors claim that Hernandez and Estrada were members of the criminal smuggling network and according to new testimony, Hernandez also helped to falsify residency documents that allowed players to sign as free agents.
According to an AP report, the players’ documents contained suspicious similarities and outlandish employment records:
For example, almost all of them put down the same O-positive blood type. They often listed the same home address in their adopted country. In order to establish residency, they claimed to have what appeared to be phantom jobs, such as auto mechanic, welder, even an “area supervisor” at a Cancun, Mexico, water sports business.
After looking through the players’ documents prior to the trial, Treasury Department investigator Timothy Smith said there appeared to be too many similarities to be legitimate.
“As an investigator, when I see patterns, it does raise questions about the origin of a document,” Smith said. “I would have looked a lot more closely.”
Jorge Padron—who signed with the Red Sox in 2010 for $350,000, over a third of which was paid to the smuggling operation—confirmed in his testimony that he never worked as a “independent tinsmith,” like his papers claimed. “It was like a joke among us,” Padron said.
Current Dodgers minor leaguer Reinier Roibal—who paid $170,000 of the $450,000 contract he signed in 2010 with the Giants to the smugglers, including five percent to Hernandez—said through an interpreter that many of the documents he was shown were in English only. “They told me to sign, and I would sign,” he said.
Players with false documents should have been suspended from baseball for a year, and U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams seems unconvinced that MLB and the U.S. government were fooled by the allegedly fraudulent papers.
“Everybody seems to know about all of this. It doesn’t seem to have deterred these folks from being able to play,” she said. “To me, the subtext was, ‘whether or not it was bogus was not my concern.’”
We spoke to Leonys Martin’s attorney, Paul Minoff, before the start of the trial and he said that MLB had been conducting their own internal investigation, of which “thousands and thousands of pages of documents have been subpoenaed,” but that it’s unclear if the league will take steps to address the smuggling.
Cuban-born players Jose Abreu, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Yoenis Cespedes are possible witnesses as the trial continues.