Baseball agent and trainer found guilty of smuggling Cuban ballplayers

Baseball agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada were found guilty Wednesday of smuggling Cuban baseball players into the U.S. in a fraudulent scheme designed to capitalize on the defectors’ major league contracts.

The two South Florida men will be sentenced July 11 on conspiracy and smuggling charges. U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams allowed them out on bond but ordered them to wear electronic ankle monitors in the meantime.

The jury at Miami’s federal courthouse deliberated for only a few hours after the seven-week trial concluded.

Hernandez and Estrada’s lawyers had argued that the prosecution’s case was like an overblown movie trailer foreshadowing dark and dramatic subterfuge in a plot to bring Cuban ballplayers off the island and onto Major League Baseball rosters.

“They promised excitement, extortion, violence, threats and then you sit through it and wonder if you’re watching the same movie that was previewed,” said Jeffrey Marcus, Hernandez’s lawyer. “He was not in Cuba, he was not on the boats, he was not an eyewitness. The fact is not a single player said anything bad about him. There are no lies by Hernandez in this case.”

But prosecutors portrayed Hernandez and Estrada as mastermind and mover of athlete commodities through a pipeline that enabled Cuban defectors to follow a route to third-country way stations and pro contracts in the U.S.

“The plan was to make millions of dollars,” assistant U.S. attorney Ron Davidson said. “The truth doesn’t work in this plan. They have to lie. How did all the players magically end up on the right side of the border? How did they magically find the right person at the right time to get passports for themselves and their girlfriends to get into the U.S.?”

Hernandez and Estrada were accused of conspiring to pay off boat captains, falsify documents and deceive U.S. immigration authorities so that Cuban players could become free agents and they could cash in on a percentage of the players’ deals.

Hernandez, who for a time monopolized the Cuban defector market, and Estrada, a former Cuban national team catcher and former Coral Park High baseball coach, brought 25 players into the U.S. illegally via Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, according to the indictment. Hernandez was charged with bringing in Leonys Martin, who signed with Texas for $15 million in 2011. Estrada was charged with bringing in three players, including Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, who signed for $68 million in 2013. A third defendant, Amin Latouff, who acted as a fixer in Haiti, is at large.

Hernandez and Estrada asserted they had nothing to do with the smuggling rings – one run by ex-con Joan “Nacho” Garcia, who was kidnapped in 2009 and presumed to be murdered. They simply did their jobs as agent and trainer after the players escaped Cuba, helping them prepare for tryouts and negotiate contracts.

“Everyone knows these players were smuggled out of Cuba; they didn’t swim,” defense lawyer Dan Rashbaum said. “Agents know, scouts know, Major League Baseball knows, the State Department and the Treasury Department know.”

In fact, Major League Baseball and American fans want Cuban players on their teams. U.S. border patrol agents even asked Cuban players crossing into Texas for autographs and caps. U.S. agencies approved every application Cuban players submitted as residents of third countries to receive clearance to do business with teams.

“I’m not sure why we spent the last seven weeks here,” said Estrada’s lawyer, Sabrina Vora-Puglisi, who said Abreu and Estrada became such close friends that Abreu was Estrada’s best man. “The Department of the Treasury and Homeland Security determined there was nothing wrong. Not one player said Julio helped them cross the border.”

But prosecutors argued that corruption and coercion were integral to what they termed “The Plan.” Mexican officials were bribed with $6,000 payoffs for phony residency documents, on which players – including Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria — lied about having jobs in Mexico as auto body mechanics or welders. Players were coerced into signing contracts with Estrada in which they’d give him 35 percent of their earnings (with Hernandez getting 5 percent of that). One player’s wife said she was told he’d be chopped up and sent to her in a box if he fled Cancun and signed with somebody else. One invoice showed a player billed $715,000 for coaching and consulting services.

“Legitimate businessmen don’t make cash payments in paper bags,” prosecutor Pat Sullivan said of Hernandez’s exchanges of $25,000 payments. “Once again he’s trying to hide his fingerprints.”