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Agent and Trainer Found Guilty of Smuggling Cuban Baseball Players to U.S.

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on March 17, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Miami jury convicted agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada on conspiracy and alien smuggling charges relating to trafficking Cuban baseball players into the U.S. The trial featured vivid testimony from players who spoke about kidnapping attempts and murder on their way through several Central American countries.

Hernandez and Estrada are facing a combined 50 years in prison -- their sentencing is scheduled for July 11.

Borderline Illegal

The smuggling operation was far from three men in Jerry Seinfeld's living room. The players involved testified about armed operators shuttling them from Cuba to Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin recounted an episode in Mexico, when men broke into his apartment with a crowbar and tried to kidnap him. Former minor leaguer Reinier Roibal may have witnessed the murder of one of the smuggling ring's original leaders, Joan "Nacho" Garcia.

Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu also testified that he ate a phony Haitian passport while on a plane headed to the U.S. in 2013. "Little by little, I swallowed that first page of the passport," Abreu testified. "I could not arrive in the United States with a false passport." Soon after, Abreu signed a $68 million contract with Chicago. Martin signed a $15.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers after walking across the U.S. border at Laredo, Texas.

The Right Way, the Wrong Way

Hernandez and Estrada maintain they didn't do anything wrong, and only aided desperate Cuban defectors to get to America "the right way, the legal way." But those involved testified the two men oversaw smuggling operation in order to make money. While the U.S. has recently relaxed its stance toward Cuba, at the time of the allegations the Cuban embargo was in effect. Thus, MLB had a rule that granted Cuban players free agency status provided they lived in some other country before entering the U.S.

Players smuggled out of Cuba were required to sign contracts giving Estrada a third of whatever they made from contracts with American teams. Hernandez received five percent as part of an agreement to represent the players in contract negotiations with teams. The two allegedly made $150 million from the free-agent baseball contracts signed by players they helped escaped from Cuba. Following their guilty verdicts, however, the pair may forfeit $15.5 million, along with real estate, bank accounts, and four Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

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