After six grueling weeks of testimony, both sides delivered their closing arguments today in the criminal trial of two men charged with conspiracy and human smuggling for their part in getting Cuban baseball players into the United States. Federal prosecutors in Miami reiterated today their point that the two men charged, sports agent Bartolo Hernandez and baseball trainer Julio Estrada, weren’t trying to be heroes—they wanted to get rich. Defense lawyers had a simple rebuttal: Their clients did nothing wrong.
Jurors will start deliberations tomorrow. But no matter their ruling the case probably will be best remembered for the testimony from Major League Baseball players about their difficult, multi-country journeys from Cuba to the United States. Such as when Chicago White Sox slugger José Abreu testified that he slowly ate a fake Haitian passport he had used on board a plane to the United States.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Ron Davidson told jurors that Hernandez and Estrada cooked up a plan to make some big cash. “This was about a plan to smuggle baseball players out of Cuba,” Davidson said. “The defendants wanted this plan because they wanted their share of $150 million.”
That number, $150 million, was the combined value of the free-agent baseball contracts signed by the players who escaped from Cuba with Hernandez and Estrada’s help, Davidson said. In exchange, Hernandez pocketed $2 million in commission fees, while Estrada collected $15 million in tributes from Cuban-born stars like Jorge Soler, Adeiny Hechavarria and José Abreu, whose 2013 $68 million signing by the Chicago White Sox broke the record for the richest international free-agent contract.
“They’ve spent hour after hour blaming everyone else because they don’t want you to focus on their plan,” Davidson said. “We want you to judge them on the lies they made. The truth doesn’t work with this plan.”
To carry out their get rich scheme, according to the prosecution’s case, Hernandez and Estrada linked up with a gang of shady human traffickers who smuggled the players out of Cuba and took them to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Once the players were in those countries, Hernandez and Estrada arranged for the peloteros to obtain fraudulent residency documents used to apply for U.S. visas and work licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Because of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, MLB has a rule that rewards Cuban players with free agency status if they can prove they resided in a foreign country that is not Cuba before entering the U.S. When players couldn’t obtain legal visas, Hernandez, Estrada, and their criminal associates would help get them across the border between the United States and Mexico illegally.
Defense attorneys for Hernandez and Estrada scoffed at the prosecution’s characterizations, insisting that six weeks of testimony and evidence failed to prove their clients were guilty. Instead, their lawyers argued Hernandez and Estrada didn’t do anything wrong because no one, from baseball team executives to treasury department bureaucrats to immigration officers, ever flagged any of the players for submitting fake papers.
Jeffrey Marcus, an attorney representing Hernandez, ridiculed the government’s case as a flashy trailer for a movie about extortion, corruption and violence.
“Then you sit through the movie and you wonder if you are seeing the same movie for the trailer,” Marcus said. “When you walk through the evidence and what the witnesses said, there is very little to support the charges.”
Estrada defense counsel Sabrina Puglisi said the government only presented a “one camera angle” to their case. “There is only one way for a Cuban player to get to the U.S.,” Puglisi said. “They have to escape. They were desperate to leave so much they risked going to jail. Julio Estrada encouraged the players to always do things the right way, the legal way.”