Foul Ball

MLB’s Next Headache: Cartels, Gangsters, and Their Cuban Superstars

The baseball world has been stunned by reports the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig was smuggled from his homeland by a drug cartel, and a Miami gangster allegedly now owns 20% of his astronomical contract.

04.18.14 9:45 AM ET

Flashy, super-talented, and more than just a little mysterious, the latest wave of Cuban League refugees have become just about the hottest story on the big-league baseball scene in recent seasons. These high-profile “defectors” from Castro’s “evil empire” hold a special charm for so many flag-waving Americans if only because they have reportedly endured multiple hazards in their heroic struggle to find personal freedom and garner the untold riches offered by a showcase capitalist enterprise that doubles as America’s cherished national pastime.

A few years back, flame-throwing Aroldis Chapman, a wiry slingshot southpaw pioneered in Cincinnati with a record-busting $30 million contract and an unprecedented 105-mph fastball that sent radar guns into meltdown mode, shocked fans and sportswriters alike, and left most National League hitters immediately impotent. Next came slugging outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, busting down fences with his titanic home-run blasts in Oakland, to be quickly followed last summer by the even more impressive Yasiel Puig, who swept into the headlines with both on-field exploits and off-field antics perfect for media-rich Los Angeles. Puig almost single-handedly rescued the Dodgers’ sagging fortunes and led them to an abbreviated postseason run. This month, the new media darling was massive first baseman José Abreu (Puig’s former teammate in Cuba), whose rags-to-riches saga includes a stunning six-year $85 million deal from Chicago’s White Sox. In the new season’s opening three weeks alone, Abreu has already convinced doubters that he is indeed a legitimate candidate for this summer’s top rookie honors.

But there is an ugly underbelly to this otherwise charming story and it is not exactly a new wrinkle either. By the early ‘90s, Cuban players were beginning to “defect” in mere trickles from a Cuban system that for many decades had produced dominant squads on the international amateur baseball tournament scene, yet didn’t allow its loftiest stars to abandon the homeland for the free-agent riches offered by North American professional leagues. Early escapees from the island nation’s hidden communist baseball scene were promptly and perhaps inaccurately labeled by a North American press as “defectors” because they could only reach U.S. shores and thus big-league ballparks by sneaking off under the most mysterious circumstances, abandoning the system and government that had nurtured and trained them, and tossing away any immediate hopes of revisiting families, friends, and possessions left behind on native soil.

The very term “defector” was probably always misplaced, although from the beginning it seemed irresistible to a North American press corps enamored of the idea of political overtones buried in every Cuba-related story. Here were abused hero-athletes striking a blow at an oppressive Castro dictatorship at one of its proudest and most vulnerable corners. Baseball “defector” was a popular line that played well for most communist-hating Americans, especially those residing in South Florida. Nonetheless a “defector” is properly defined as someone “disowning allegiance to his/her own country,” and former Cuban stars turned big-leaguers repeatedly denied that label by often speaking proudly of their Cuban identity and ironically praising the baseball system back home that had fostered and trained them.

Like any other craftsman or artisan, the Cuban ballplayer making his way north is only trying to turn unique skills to full profit, and perhaps also test himself against the highest competition level his sport has to offer. The reasons for flight from the peso-poor Cuban League to the dollar-rich big leagues have always been indisputably economic—never political in nature. In some senses, those ballplayers might be better compared to Mexican farm laborers or Canadian autoworkers who cross borders into Texas or Michigan in search of elevated salaries and better opportunities to sustain struggling families back home. Only an increasingly absurd six-decade Cold War defining U.S.-Cuba relations renders their cases so much more complex. And of course both risks and potential rewards are stratospherically higher when it comes to multimillion-dollar athletes. In the light of this week’s stunning revelations about Yasiel Puig, we are now suddenly finding out just how much higher.

The first glimpse of a hidden backstory came some 15-plus years ago with the unfolding saga of Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, a star Havana pitcher who had been suddenly suspended from league play and from his national team slot when half-brother Liván “defected” to join the Florida Marlins and emerged as a 1997 postseason MVP sensation. Orlando’s own flight took place in late 1997, and once the big right-hander turned up with the New York Yankees he did little to discredit the glamorous fictions swirling through the media about breathtaking ordeals on a flimsy wooden raft trapped in shark-infested Caribbean waters. But the inspired tale that almost earned El Duque a top-dollar Hollywood film deal alongside his fat Yankees contract turned out to be something other than first reported. Jon Wertheim and Don Yaeger—an intrepid pair of Sports Illustrated investigative journalists—eventually exposed a far-different escape scenario that found Castro-hating Miami-based sports agent Joe Cubas spiriting away his prize prospect (and potential meal ticket) with the aid of Florida-funded lancheros (skilled smugglers equipped with a high-speed powerboat bound for the Bahamas). The smuggling game was already on.

El Duque for his part has always maintained that the story behind his dramatic flight is being reserved for an eventual personal memoir. Cuban ballplayers reaching North American pay dirt have universally remained tightlipped about their own nightmarish escape sagas for rather obvious reasons. There is far too much skulduggery in the details that might endanger their own well-being and that of friends, family, and helping hands along the way. And then there is also the issue of alerting Cuban authorities and blocking similar routes for teammates and countrymen choosing to follow a similar path.

Now two simultaneous and brilliant investigative reports have hit the print and Internet media with a considerable splash and seemingly blown the whole ballplayer-smuggling enterprise wide open. And it is hardly surprising that the feature player in this sordid saga would be Yasiel Puig, a mysterious high-profile wunderkind whose off-field antics have garnered as much press over the course of nine months as have his sensational slugging, blazing base-path exploits, and archery-like throwing talents. Jesse Katz, writing for Los Angeles Magazine, and Scott Eden of ESPN The Magazine, now combine to lay before us not only the dirt-smeared details surrounding the most celebrated recent Cuban defector, but also to lift the veil covering the grime embedded all along the Cuban-USA baseball pipeline. Yasiel Puig’s now unfolding escape story has only shed new light on a well-kept secret long buried within baseball’s inner circles, and the resulting picture isn’t at all pretty.

The story in its bare-bone details: Interviews with many of the figures involved, as well as court records from legal actions in Miami, combine to expose a harrowing tale of human-trafficking gone awry. In June 2012 (Eden claims it was April), Puig and several companions were spirited out of Matanzas harbor by members of the Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel and sped to a seedy motel on a largely abandoned island near Cancun. The trip was bankrolled by low-level Miami gangster Raul Pacheco, himself already on probation for attempted armed burglary. When Pacheco failed to deliver the promised cash, Puig and his fellow travelers were held captive for more than two weeks until Pacheco’s Miami gang daringly re-kidnapped their prize and whisked him off to Mexico City. Only months later did Puig ink his eye-popping $42 million Dodgers contract—a windfall that now promises 20 percent of the entire take plus all the superstar’s future earnings to Pacheco and his Miami crime-syndicate backers.

But the sordid tale now runs far deeper still and has already begun jeopardizing lives in Cuba, Mexico, and Miami. When the original Los Zetas smugglers were jilted without promised payment, they began threatening reprisals against Puig and fellow escapee Yunior Despaigne, a former Cuban boxer who had also run afoul of the sports authorities in Havana. Puig complained about the harassment to his former agent Gilberto Suarez, who seemingly then orchestrated a gangland-style assassination of one of the original smugglers back in Mexico. Left fearful, with few resources, and on his own dime in Miami, Despaigne was soon spilling details of the escape story to Miami lawyer Avelino Gonzalez, a fellow “defector” who has recently filed a pair of civil lawsuits on behalf of a pair of islanders claiming they were falsely accused and imprisoned back in Cuba when both Puig and Cincinnati star Aroldis Chapman ratted them out during their own attempts to ingratiate themselves with Cuban authorities (and also to cover their own future escape plans). One of the accusers is apparently now serving a seven-year prison term back in Cienfuegos after Puig apparently told authorities that the man had offered to smuggle him off the island. The latest Dodger superstar haul has obviously come at a very steep personal price for some caught in the crossfire. And this may only be the beginning of the unraveling tale.

The widely popular view here in the States has always been that a repressive Cuban government exploits its baseball stars merely to win propaganda points with international gold medals and also holds them captive at slave-labor wages when they could be earning millions elsewhere with their athletic prowess. But there is another side to that story from a Cuban perspective, one that argues for the preservation of a domestic league entertaining 11 million enthusiastic baseball-lovers on the third-world island where public entertainment is all too scarce. Cuban officials also contend that they would of course love to see their ballplayers better compensated at home and also freer to play abroad, but they are handicapped in both efforts by a U.S. embargo policy that has left the island in economic shambles. The Cuban Baseball Federation has recently attempted to stave off even more defections among elite players by allowing hand-picked stars to perform in foreign leagues (in Mexico, Taiwan, and Japan) during off-season summer months.

But baseball exchanges with Major League Baseball are still off the radar due to a pair of Cuba’s self-preservation demands—that players “lent” to foreign teams must remain under contract to the Cuban League for winter season play back on the island, and that Cuban MLB stars would be able to freely return much of their substantial earnings to families back on the island. The first condition is ruled out by the reigning MLB economic structure (MLB owns and doesn’t rent its players); the second is blocked by Helms-Burton embargo regulations. Thus the only door for Cubans dreaming of the baseball big-time remains the route through harrowing escapes orchestrated by petty gangsters and profit-greedy human traffickers.

It is easy enough to blame the Cubans for banishing free enterprise and throwing an iron curtain around their top athletic talent. But the issue here is far more complex than the worn storylines engendered by impotent Cold War policies bent solely on demonizing the image of Fidel Castro. It is also the rigid reluctance of Washington to bend on failed economic embargo policies limiting free travel and commerce between the two nations, as well as MLB’s own arcane edicts requiring Cubans to reach third-country ports in order to sign lucrative free-agent contracts that share equal blame with Cuba’s own imposition of travel limits on its most valued citizens.

The distasteful result on both sides of the Straits of Florida has now left Washington disingenuously casting a blind eye on a system of importing baseball stars via a tainted practice that has no other name than criminal human-trafficking. And it also has left Major League Baseball—for all its age-old pontifications about keeping the national sport free of the slightest hint of criminal elements—luring some of its highest-profile stars through deals struck with ruthless thugs who now apparently own substantial claims on at least some star ballplayers’ lives and salaries. Busy of late burying the aftermath of a “steroid era” that seriously threatened legitimacy of the game’s record books, MLB moguls may now be staring at an even more serious challenge to the sport’s ethical integrity.