No One Walks Off The Island
Two years ago, Yasiel Puig fled Cuba in the hands of black-market smugglers. This is the story of how the cost of the defection journey - in money and human lives - shadows him still.
Just before dawn one day in late April 2012, four young Cubans stood on an otherwise deserted beach, peering hard into the Caribbean darkness. They were trying to escape their native country, and they were waiting for the boat that would take them away. Thirty minutes passed, then 60. Still no boat. Three men and one woman, the group had arrived at the designated spot close to the appointed hour: 3.a.m. By design, the rendezvous point was located on one of the most isolated coastal stretches in a country famous for nothing if not isolation -- so remote it could be reached only by foot.
They had spent the previous 30 hours hiking there, without sleep, and had reached varying levels of emotional distress; the stakes were high. Covert interests in Miami and Cancun had made the arrangements from afar. Their goal was to extract from Cuba a baseball player of extraordinary talent and propitious youth. Just 21 years old at the time, Yasiel Puig already was well-known to both Cuba's millions of fervid baseball fans as well as officials high in the hierarchy of the Cuban state-security apparatus.
With Puig was Yunior Despaigne, then 24. A former national-level Cuban boxer and a friend of Puig's from their teens, Despaigne had spent the previous year recruiting Puig to defect, under the direction of a Cuban-born resident of Miami named Raul Pacheco. If caught and found out as an aider and abettor, Despaigne would inevitably face serious prison time. He and Puig had together made four failed attempts to escape the island over the previous year. The authorities were almost certainly wise to their machinations. They needed this trip to work.
According to Despaigne, in the escape party were Puig's girlfriend and a man who, Despaigne says, served as a padrino, or spirit guide, a kind of lower cleric in the Afro-Catholic religion of Santeria. Sometime before this latest escape attempt, Puig and his girlfriend had sought out the padrino; a vatic ritual had revealed that their voyage would end in good fortune, Despaigne says. The couple decided to take the padrino along so as to improve their chances for safe passage.
Jilted And Afraid
It was September 2013, 18 months after his escape, and Yunior Despaigne was recounting this story in the office of a Miami lawyer named Avelino Gonzalez. One of only four people in the world with complete, firsthand knowledge of Yasiel Puig's flight from Cuba, Despaigne was telling him a tale that had never been told, one that afforded a window into a dangerous and secretive Cuban smuggling underworld, and one that took many hours to relate in full: The Bay of Pigs adventure. The rivalrous bands of cutthroat smugglers. The cloak-and-dagger midnight getaway. Millions of dollars at play. Betrayal and murder. Smugglers threatening Puig. Lancheros shot to death on the side of the road. And if Despaigne was to be believed, it was a story of great legal value for Gonzalez.
Avelino Gonzalez, himself a former Cuban defector, is the plaintiffs' attorney in two ongoing civil lawsuits: the first, filed in July 2013, against Yasiel Puig, and a similar, earlier one against the fireball Reds' relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Both contain explosive claims. The suit against Puig alleges that the slugger, while still in Cuba, had accused a man of offering to help smuggle him off the island. The man claimed to be innocent. But he went to prison and, according to the lawsuit, was mistreated there to the point of torture. He is seeking damages in U.S. courts to the tune of $12 million. The suit against Chapman claims the pitcher conspired with the Cuban government to shanghai an innocent man. That one, as originally filed, seeks damages of $18 million. The suits contend that Chapman and Puig hoped to establish the appearance of loyalty to the government, freeing them to plan their own defections.
Despaigne had come to Gonzalez, in part, out of desperation. He had lived since he arrived in the U.S. in the Miami suburbs of Sweetwater and Hialeah, where almost every Cuban migrant to the U.S. first winds up. Late last year, Despaigne lost his job with a construction contractor, and for the moment his only consistent income comes from the boxing lessons he gives to kids at a local gym -- $60 per month, per student. Six-foot-four and 240 pounds, he looks the part of the heavyweight he once was, despite the nascent appearance over his belt of a retired athlete's paunch.
Sometime after 1 in the morning, the knock came. Two men dressed in burglar black stood silently at the door.
By 2011, Despaigne had decided he wanted to leave Cuba for the United States, in part because the government's boxing authorities booted him out of the national athletic system, an injustice, he says, motivated by the fact that his uncle -- the notable middleweight Yordanis Despaigne -- had defected to the U.S in 2009. But it wasn't until he received a phone call from Pacheco in the spring of 2011 that he truly began to plot an escape. Pacheco, born June 24, 1984, who had known Despaigne since childhood and had fled Cuba on an improvised raft, was calling from Miami. He promised the boxer $150,000 and a Hialeah house bought and paid for if Despaigne could persuade Puig to make another defection attempt. Despaigne recalls the sales pitch: "Puig's going to sign for millions of dollars. There's going to be money for everybody." (According to a source close to Pacheco, Pacheco maintains that he promised nothing and that it was Despaigne who initiated the whole thing -- that the boxer called Pacheco in Miami for help in financing both Puig and Despaigne's escape.) Regardless, over the course of a year, Pacheco wired more than $25,000 in total, which Despaigne passed along to Puig and his family in thousand-dollar chunks.
Eventually, the boxer prevailed in persuading Puig to leave. But within a year of arriving in Miami, Despaigne had received only $70,000 -- less than half the money Pacheco had promised him, and no house. It was around that time that a frustrated Despaigne became aware, through local news coverage, of the lawsuit against Puig. He sensed an opportunity. Of his decision to approach Gonzalez, he says, "At first I was going to leave this alone, but promises were made to me." He'd also begun to receive death threats, including one at gunpoint in Hialeah: "I have a little girl, and I can't be getting threats like that." A Cuban lawyer might be able to offer protection in a way that seemed safer, to a recent Cuban migrant, than dialing up a police station out of the blue. Jilted and afraid -- seeking vengeance as well as security -- he paid his first visit to Avelino Gonzalez in early September and began unspooling his florid tale.
THE DETAILS OF the narrative Despaigne relayed to Gonzalez would ultimately become the contents of a signed affidavit dated Dec. 6, 2013 -- part of an amended complaint filed this January by Gonzalez in the ongoing case of Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot vs. Yasiel Puig Valdes.
A story has emerged from Despaigne's affidavit, the lawsuit, and its proceedings. It spawned a five-month investigation by The Magazine that included analysis of an array of legal documents and interviews with more than 80 people: Cuban baseball players in the U.S. both retired and active, talent scouts, sports agents, former MLB and players' union executives, federal law enforcement personnel, former Cuban government officials, former Cuban and American spies, Miami lawyers who have represented and are representing alleged smugglers who were and are the targets of criminal investigations, and -- to use a quantitative phrase of deliberate vagueness -- a number of smugglers themselves, who agreed to be interviewed under conditions of anonymity motivated by obvious fears. (Puig, through his agent and the Dodgers, declined to comment for this story on numerous occasions. On April 16, however, a statement was released via his agent saying that Puig will have "no comment on the subject" and that he is "only focused on being a productive teammate.") It also involved a series of in-person conversations with Yunior Despaigne held at the office of Avelino Gonzalez and at Despaigne's home with the assistance of a translator. (In many hours of interviews with Yunior Despaigne over the course of many weeks, his story never changed. However, discrepancies were later discovered between what he said in those interviews and a handful of details that appear in his affidavit. Avelino Gonzalez attributes these errors to oversimplifications made in an attempt to condense a highly complicated series of events. He says an amended affidavit is forthcoming.)
The Magazine's investigation ultimately unearthed information regarding the inner workings of the complex smuggling operations that specialize in the extraction of baseball players from Cuba. For the narrative of Yasiel Puig's defection, however, Despaigne remains a rare and singular witness.
La Bolsa Negra De Beisbol
Some 36 hours after leaving Cuba, they reached their destination: a white-sand-and-resort-rimmed island off Cancun, about 400 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Bay of Pigs, known as Isla Mujeres. It was another grueling, near-sleepless journey wrought with anxiety. To stay awake, Despaigne says, the lancheros snorted lines of cocaine. Despaigne is not ashamed to admit that he did too. (Puig, according to Despaigne, did not partake.) There were delays. Halfway into the passage, in the middle of the Caribbean, they ran out of gas. The lead lanchero, a burly thug known as Tomasito, had to radio a colleague on Isla Mujeres who brought a 50-foot yacht to come refuel them, but not before the group spent a fretful night adrift at sea on the dead-in-the-water cigarette boat, pitching, rolling and, at one point in the wee hours, coming hair-raisingly close to getting plowed under by a passing containership. Then, within some miles of Isla Mujeres, they had to fake-fish for several hours, waiting for nightfall before entering port, the better to evade the Mexican naval patrols that had, in the past, nabbed Tomasito's boats.
The lancheros escorted the group to a small, tumbledown boardinghouse blocks from the beach. It had at least 10 rooms, Despaigne recalls, each one full of recently arrived Cuban migrants -- no vacancies. The place was apparently under the control of Tomasito, aka Tomas Valez Valdivia, born in Cuba in either 1971 or 1974 (the record is unclear). With his thick neck and near unibrow, Tomasito had a face made for a mug shot. In 2005, he was arrested in Florida on charges of grand larceny (theft of a conveyance) as well as aggravated assault of a police officer with a weapon. For some reason, he was allowed to post bail. He fled immediately south of the border, where he set up shop in Cancun.
The boss of a thriving alien-smuggling operation, Tomasito and his crew ferried defectors from the coasts of Cuba to either Isla Mujeres or Cancun, under prior arrangement with the migrants' relatives in the United States, chiefly South Florida. Once those families had paid -- for years, the going rate for a garden-variety smuggle of a regular Cuban civilian has been $10,000 a head -- Tomasito's crew would transport the migrants to the Mexico-Texas border, usually at Matamoros or Nuevo Laredo. There, the Cubans would take advantage of the 1995 revision to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially makes it possible for Cubans to seek asylum in the U.S., no questions asked, as long as they can prove they're Cubans and as long as they enter the U.S. on dry ground, as opposed to crossing into U.S. territory at sea -- the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. If for some reason payment wasn't forthcoming, the lancheros would either hold the migrants until their families made good or kick them out onto the streets, where Mexican authorities would likely catch them and deport them back to Cuba. All over Isla Mujeres, in shoddy hotels and nondescript private homes on backstreets never visited by the island's endless streams of hard-partying American and European tourists, Tomasito and several other rival lanchero groups secreted away their smuggled Cubans for weeks and sometimes months at a time. At the Isla Mujeres apartment, Despaigne recalls talking to a young mother with several children. She was crying. She'd been trapped there for perhaps a month; her husband, so far, hadn't been able to come up with the money.
The lanchero rings could handle the sunk costs of an occasional nonpaying customer. Their boats regularly carried 25 people each trip -- a quarter of a million dollars per haul, two or three times a month. Yasiel Puig, of course, was not your garden-variety smuggle. That Tomasito and four of his chief associates were on the cigarette boat at all -- normally, they had pilots in their employ to handle that kind of dangerous work -- suggested how valuable they felt this commodity was. One of those associates, Yandrys Leon, aka Leo, had just a few months earlier been indicted in the U.S. for allegedly extorting the Cuban migrants he'd smuggled to Cancun. Within South Florida's tight-knit Cuban-émigré community there are probably tens of thousands of people who have been brought out of Cuba by Cancun-based lancheros. Through that grapevine, Raul Pacheco managed to contact Tomasito and hire him to conduct Puig's extraction. The price: $250,000.
At the Isla Mujeres apartment, Despaigne and Puig surreptitiously communicated, via Skype, with Pacheco in Miami. He told them something worrisome: He didn't yet have the funds to pay Tomasito. Rest assured, though, he was working on it. In the meantime, guards kept watch over the four. No one was allowed to leave the boardinghouse's premises unchaperoned. Escape, everyone agreed, was out of the question. They had no Mexican pesos. Nor, of course, did they have visitors' visas, or even their passports -- only their Cuban ID cards. If caught by Mexican authorities, they'd be put on a plane for Cuba and likely prison. Days passed. Still no money from Pacheco. They swam in the hotel's small courtyard pool; they watched Mexican soap operas; they ate takeout. The atmosphere became increasingly tense. "Don't play with me," Despaigne recalls Tomasito saying at one point. "I'm the one who took you out of Cuba. You guys have to follow through just like I followed through."
THAT YASIEL PUIG -- who can now be seen in paparazzi photographs, his arms around the shoulders of the likes of Jay Z -- departed Cuba in a clandestine operation that involved a 50-kilometer swampland trek and a cigarette boat piloted by Zeta-affiliated gangsters speaks to a certain root absurdity in the ways of man. Puig would have had no reason to embark on his strange odyssey were it not for the adversarial relationship between Cuba and the United States, still nurtured by both nations 25 years after the collapse of communism nearly everywhere else on the planet. The United States' trade embargo against Cuba, established by the Eisenhower administration in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, makes it illegal for American entities to do business with Cuban nationals, or hire them, unless those Cubans have first defected and, in effect, renounced their citizenship to that dangerous enemy state 90 miles from Key West. The Cuban government, meanwhile, last year eased restrictions by allowing its baseball players to sign with overseas professional leagues in countries like Mexico and Japan. But because of the embargo, its players are still banned from playing the game for those depraved American capitalist-imperialists just to the north -- unless, of course, they defect. To this day, the senescent Castro regime considers even the expression of the desire to do so an act of ideological treason.
To take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity created by the opposing policies of the two nations, a robust underworld industry has developed over the last decade. It is, essentially, a baseball-player black market -- bolsa negra in Cuban slang, which translates literally as "black bag." Puig's experience, in that regard, is hardly unique. To traffic in this rarefied kind of human, the best smugglers have so perfected the art of circumventing the laws of the two adversarial nations that they've made themselves into millionaires.
Since 2009, the market value for the most talented Cuban players has exploded. That's when Aroldis Chapman, a shutdown relief pitcher with a supra-100 mph fastball, departed the Cuban national team at a tournament in the Netherlands, quickly became a resident of the obscure European microstate of Andorra, and months later signed with the Cincinnati Reds for $30 million. In October 2013, the slugger Jose Abreu, lately of Cuba, but then suddenly a resident of Haiti (or the Dominican Republic, depending on what news source you read), set the current record: $68 million, courtesy of the Chicago White Sox. Both took advantage of rules collectively bargained between Major League Baseball and the players' union that allow baseball-playing residents of any country other than the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico to become free agents, rather than enter the draft. As such, Puig and Abreu were able to instruct their representatives to conduct an auction, multiple bidders ballooning their price effectively without limit.
While not every Cuban player in the U.S. is the product of a smuggling ring, the bull market for their talent has inspired the leading tycoons in la bolsa negra de beisbol, themselves native Cubans, to handle the entire process of defection. Over the years, according to those we spoke to within and around such smuggling rings, they and their attendant personnel have developed a highly specialized expertise, encompassing marine navigation, boat handling, bribery, forgery, money laundering, the immigration policies of multiple nations, and the ins and outs of MLB's collective bargaining agreement. Through a network of contacts in Cuba, they approach and recruit baseball players, enticing them to defect with cash payments and, of course, promises of Major League fame and fortune. The smugglers hire the lancheros. They act as fixers; they're in charge of the speedy obtainment of residency papers in a third country, often through bribery or forgery -- time is money. They bankroll the care and feeding of the players as they work out for scouts in those third countries. Sometimes they even keep experienced trainers on their staffs. Because all of these costs come up front, the smugglers must occasionally finance their operations by raising money from "investors," in effect hawking equity in the players' future earnings, or by "selling" players to a third party. And they maintain relationships with the U.S sports agents who can negotiate big-money deals with MLB franchises. For this suite of hard-to-come-by services, the smugglers want between 20 percent and 30 percent of the top-line value of a player's first professional contract.
That kind of revenue stream has interested a whole lot of colorful people in the underworlds of several countries: Mexico, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Miami, USA. In Cancun, long the seat of smuggling rings that specialize in bringing regular civilians out of Cuba as well as ballplayers, turf wars have been waged over the business. Players have been stolen at gunpoint from one group by the next, hits taken out, rivals driven by and strafed, bullet-ridden corpses left lying in the streets.
AMONG THE MANY colorful people drawn to the smuggling of Cuban baseball players was a group of Miami-based partners, all Cuban-born men, who had built an alien-trafficking ring with deep connections in Cancun. The ringleader of the group was a blond man in his early 40s, born in the town of Güines, due south of Havana near the coast. Because of the many sensitivities regarding a story that involves both cartel-associated smuggling rings and ongoing federal investigations, we will call him El Rubio. Through their many Cancun connections, El Rubio and his partners came to learn of a young, healthy, five-tool prospect -- hits for average, hits for power, runs fast, has a live arm, plays the field, 1.9 meters tall, more than 100 kilos of muscle -- who'd just arrived on Isla Mujeres in the hands of an occasional colleague of theirs, nicknamed Tomasito. Yasiel Puig, it was obvious, represented the score of a lifetime. El Rubio and his partners -- at that point unaware that Pacheco in a sense had "dibs" on Puig and was still trying to find the money to pay the lancheros -- phoned Tomasito in Cancun, according to a person familiar with the Rubio group. Breaking with their typical methods (they preferred to source their own players in Cuba), they struck a deal to buy Puig for $250,000.
Enter Jaime Torres, a former Chicago tax attorney who has become known as something like the Scott Boras of Cuban defector baseball agents. One of the first Cuban players Torres represented was Jose Contreras, he of the $32 million contract with the Yankees in 2002. Torres has since represented so many Cuban defectors that Fidel Castro himself once denounced him as a kind of baseball-agent agent provocateur. For Yasiel Balaguert in 2011, Torres negotiated a $400,000 minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs. For left-handed pitcher Gerardo Concepcion, in March 2012, he brokered a $6 million deal -- also, as it happens, with the Chicago Cubs. Torres has also represented Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (Philadelphia Phillies, $12 million), Dariel Alvarez (Baltimore Orioles, $800,000) and Aledmys Diaz (St. Louis Cardinals, $8 million), to name a few.
According to Torres himself in interviews with the media on the subject of his Cuban clients, he has a simple ground rule: He will never sully his name by stooping to work with smugglers. Indeed, there is no proof that Torres does anything other than what any good agent does: strive to obtain as large an MLB contract as possible for his clients. It remains an open question, however, how Torres learns of these opportunities.
The Stealing Of Puig
In late April, according to multiple sources, Jaime Torres arrived on Isla Mujeres. He had come to an agreement with Yasiel Puig to represent him as an agent. Around the same time, just like that, the Rubio group in Miami received a call from Tomasito: He was reneging. He was raising the price. Now he wanted $400,000. Maybe he realized that he'd lowballed himself. Maybe he realized that if Jaime Torres were involved -- the guy who represented the likes of Jose Contreras and the Cuban Missile Alexei Ramirez -- Puig too must be the real deal. In Miami, the partners understood that Tomasito had all the leverage. If they didn't want to lose out on their epic score, they had no choice but to agree to whatever price he demanded. Time was also running short. Through the grapevine, they'd heard that Tomasito was shopping Puig elsewhere. One rumor suggested that a mysterious group of Dominicans had flown to Cancun to meet with Puig on Isla Mujeres. The problem, however, was that even though the Rubio group would receive 20 percent of Puig's eventual contract, no one in the group outside El Rubio himself had hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash lying around. And El Rubio was not willing to go all-in with his own cash. They would have to scare it up from somewhere within Miami's Cuban community. El Rubio and company nonetheless agreed to Tomasito's increased price. The lanchero wanted about 25 percent up front, the rest on delivery.
It was then that El Rubio hatched an audacious plan -- a caper. In the plan's first stage, El Rubio made use of an unlikely emissary in Pacheco, whose own options for keeping Puig to himself were rapidly expiring, and who could now stay in the game by teaming up with this group of buyers. Acting under instructions from El Rubio, Pacheco told Tomasito that the 25 percent up-front fee he required would soon be ready; they were merely waiting for a check to clear. (According to a person close to Pacheco, Pacheco confirms the details of El Rubio's scheme but denies his involvement, saying he met El Rubio for the first time only after it was executed.) This bought them time. El Rubio used the delay to contact a Cuban expatriate in Mexico, a man with connections in the Cancun police department. He had a shaved head, thick arms and a burly stomach. El Rubio called him El Comando de Cancun. One day over Skype -- which they made sure to use when Tomasito wasn't around -- Pacheco told Puig and Despaigne to expect a knock on their door in the middle of the night at their Isla Mujeres room. If the four didn't want to die at the hands of Tomasito, they ought to be prepared to leave.
Sometime after 1 in the morning, the knock came. Two men dressed in burglar black stood silently at the door. Somehow, there were no guards that night. Despaigne is at a loss to say why. Regardless, Tomasito had chosen an inopportune moment to relax his grip on his captives. Following the two men in black, Despaigne, Puig, his girlfriend and the padrino crept out of the hotel and down a few dark streets and into a marina and onto a waiting boat that ferried them across the water to Cancun. No violence, no Tomasito, no Leo, no guards. The heist had worked. But the Rubio group had also just ripped off a criminal gang whose highly lucrative underworld ventures required the sanction of Los Zetas. They had now motivated some darkly uncompromising individuals. In plotting the heist, they hadn't really even discussed the dangers; they were just that obvious. But so too were the rewards, and they'd come to an unstated consensus: For a chance to get Yasiel Puig, they were willing to risk their lives.
FROM THE WINDOWS of their rooms in the high-rise hotel, Puig and his fellow defectors could see the jumbo jets come lumbering down out of the sky on approach to the Mexico City International Airport. Despite the fact that none of the four had passports or visas, they had flown to Mexico City on a commercial flight. El Comando had somehow facilitated the trip, likely through bribery. It was part of a package of services, including the wee-hours snatching of Puig, that El Comando provided, price tag: $180,000. In addition to El Comando's fee, the Rubio group's costs included the two rooms at the airport hotel, future travel costs and, of course, security, one person close to the Rubio group says. Two and sometimes three large armed men, Despaigne recalls, accompanied the four at all times -- not to prevent Puig and the rest from leaving but to protect them against some kind of reprisal from the inevitably now-livid Tomasito.
Capital was also needed for another important expenditure. Before any American company can hire a Cuban national, an obscure sub-bureau of the U.S. Treasury Department called the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, must give its blessing. The process was fairly straightforward: become a permanent resident of another country and present the resulting paperwork -- two separate documents -- to your prospective employer. If the employer approves the paperwork, voilà, you're unblocked: OFAC would rubber-stamp the employer's decision. (Interestingly, as of late 2012, all Cuban defectors must now submit their paperwork directly to OFAC.) To become a permanent resident of Mexico, according to Mexican law, applicants must be able to prove that they have been temporary residents for four years (or two years if legally married to a Mexican spouse), have family connections, or apply on humanitarian grounds. Regardless, it's a lengthy process. According to a source close to the Rubio group, Puig arrived in Mexico around Memorial Day. He became a resident, all his documents real and in order and ready for perusal by Major League Baseball, less than 15 days later. The bribe cost about $20,000.
in October 2012, the body of one of Puig's smugglers was found facedown on the side of a road in Cancun.
At a restaurant in the airport hotel sometime later, Despaigne ate dinner with Yasiel Puig and El Rubio. They ordered plates of lobster, a rare treat for the newly defected Cubans. In Cuba, it is against the law to fish for the crustacean; all specimens alive in Cuban waters are reserved by the government for the kinds of restaurants far out of reach for the average Cuban citizen. Gorging on claw meat, Despaigne listened to the conversation between Puig and El Rubio. Negotiations had already grown hot and heavy with a handful of major league teams. The day El Rubio had arrived in Mexico City (around the same time as Jaime Torres), he'd had a suit and tie ready for Puig to wear in face-to-face meetings with team representatives. For four days in mid June, Los Angeles Dodgers scouts Mike Brito, Logan White and Paul Fryer had watched Puig take batting practice at a Mexico City ballpark. Also there, according to Brito's recollection, were his counterparts from at least four other teams: the Cubs, White Sox, Braves and Yankees. Torres wouldn't let Puig run or throw during these showcase sessions -- he didn't want to risk injuring the prospect, who'd fallen out of peak physical condition since he'd been kicked off the national team -- so the scouts watched in silence as Puig snapped his hips and launched balls with diverse arcs -- line drives, majestic soarers -- into the empty outfield bleachers, like Roy Hobbs in that scene from "The Natural." "Every day he made a show over there in [that] stadium," Brito recalls.
Now, during dinner at the hotel, El Rubio received a call on his cellphone. He spoke English into the phone. After he hung up, he said that the person on the line had been a representative of a major league franchise. Despaigne recalls El Rubio mentioning the names of several teams he'd been personally communicating with, but only the Phillies and the Dodgers have stuck in his memory. (Mike Brito says he neither met with nor spoke over the phone to anyone in Mexico City other than Jaime Torres and Yasiel Puig.) Various abstractly gigantic sums were bandied about by El Rubio during the dinner: maybe $32 million, maybe $38 million. "Listen, don't worry, I'm taking care of this," El Rubio told Puig over the lobster, according to Despaigne. "They're going to get crazy over you."
On June 28, word hit the U.S. media: Puig and the Dodgers had struck a deal. "We signed for $42 million!" one of the Rubio partners said when breaking the news to another. "We're out of poverty," said the other. They had their major league score: $8.4 million divided among the partners, payable upon Puig's receiving his signing bonus.
It would take some time before Puig would leave Mexico City for good. When he did, El Rubio arranged for him to enter the United States in the same way as any regular Cuban migrant on the Isla Mujeres route. Puig had no passport; it was in the possession of the Cuban government. So instead of trying to secure a U.S. entrance visa as a Mexican resident who had become so through bribery, instead of spending who knows how long attempting to extract a Cuban passport for Puig from a Cuban government likely unenthusiastic about granting such a document, instead of forging a passport and risking a felony arrest for Puig at an American airport, the Rubio group had him do something much simpler: He would walk across the international bridge spanning the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande between Reynosa, Mexico, and Hidalgo, Texas, enter the Immigration and Customs patrol station on the U.S. side and, with only his Cuban national ID card to prove his citizenship, declare for asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, paroled into the country -- no American laws apparently broken, no act of smuggling, it would seem, at all.
Everybody Knows. Nobody Cares.
Though the specifics and logistics are not common knowledge, the notion that ballplayers are brought out of Cuba by clandestine means is as open a secret as there is in sports. In the words of Mike Brito, the legendary Dodgers scout, born in Cuba in 1934, he of the perpetual Panama hat and pencil-thin Mambo-King mustache, who played a key role in landing Puig for L.A.: "How he got from Cuba I don't care. I don't wanna find out either. I never ask any Cuban player that. And even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. Only thing we care about is when a guy is in a territory where we can sign him. Sign players and keep my mouth shut. The less you talk, the less you get in trouble."
Unsurprisingly, most Cuban players now in the U.S. prefer not to discuss the subject publicly. Their reluctance is easy to understand. They don't want to get family and friends -- who may very well be attempting to escape the island at any moment -- in trouble with the Cuban government. (The Cuban government, every Cuban émigré says, scours the American media for information on Cubans in America.) They don't want to destroy the chances of other ballplayers -- or friends and relatives -- making it out by saying too much about the smuggling networks and how they operate. They fear reprisals from the smugglers. The result of all this is a kind of omertà. When Cuban players in the U.S. do break their silence, it's mostly with vagueness or outright subterfuge.
For years, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, now a kind of elder statesman of the Cuban ballplayer-defector fraternity, allowed any number of fictions to propagate about his escape in 1997, though they all had the same basic plotline: that he'd fled the island on his own by shoving off on some form of improvised raft. In fact, as is fairly well-known by now, he worked with Miami-based lancheros to get off the island. Even today, despite the fact that the real story has mostly come out, El Duque would not elaborate to me on how he escaped; he's saving the tale, he says, for his memoirs.
If Cuban ballplayers are reluctant to discuss all this, U.S. law enforcement seems more committed to its end of the business. Two separate federal criminal investigations into two separate (and sometimes competitive) alleged smuggling rings are now underway, one led by the FBI, the other by the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. The FBI probe has already resulted in the indictments of several people who, the government contends, brought both regular civilians out of Cuba, charging $10,000 a head, as well as baseball players out of Cuba, charging quite a bit more: 30 percent of their eventual MLB contracts. The second investigation, the one led by ICE, has yet to result in charges. According to people familiar with that probe, it has been ongoing since at least last summer, and its targets include El Rubio and his partners. Raul Pacheco has lawyered up. Puig himself has been interviewed. In fact, only one baseball-player-smuggling case has ever been successfully prosecuted in U.S. courts. In 2007, Ben Daniel, a former federal prosecutor and a specialist in alien trafficking, won a five-year conviction against a Cuban-American agent who had paid smugglers to extract a handful of players. "Everybody in the world knows this is going on, but apparently, nobody cares," Daniel says.
It seems, after all, a victimless crime. If the rates charged by the smugglers appear extortionate, consider the risks they're running in driving boats right up to the coast of Cuba in order to snatch highly prized talent from an authoritarian regime. To some in Miami, the smugglers and the agents who work with them are heroes of the Cuban counterrevolution. What are the smugglers doing, after all, but liberating human potential from an unjust communist state so that it might find its true value on the free and open market? In certain quarters in Miami, the smugglers are viewed almost as political activists -- anti-Castro, pro-freedom -- and each player they help defect as another score against a despised regime. "The embargo has created this whole absurd situation," Daniel says. "There are all these silly rules in place that make it too tempting not to circumvent. Basically, the value of Yasiel Puig outweighs the Cuban embargo. He trumps the embargo. He's bigger than life, and he trumps it all."
During last year's spring training, at least one thug associated with the smugglers found the rookie's hotel room, knocked on his door, and told Yasiel Puig the boss wanted his money.
ALMOST AS SOON as they'd all arrived in the U.S., the threats started to come. A phone call to Yunior Despaigne's mother in Cuba. A call to Yunior Despaigne's new American cellphone with the Miami area code. Calls to Pacheco and to El Rubio and his partners -- so many calls that El Rubio was forced to change his number. Calls, even, according to Despaigne, to Yasiel Puig. The messages left had a common theme: "What you did is not a joke. Give us our money or we're going to kill you." Tomasito wanted to be made square. And so too, by extension, did Tomasito's underworld tax man, Los Zetas.
Yasiel Puig sat in the passenger seat, Despaigne in the back, El Rubio driving. The car was a Maserati. It was late in the summer of 2012. They'd arranged this in-car meeting to discuss the escalating threats from Tomasito and his crew. Despaigne recalls El Rubio, hands on the wheel as the car blazed across western Miami, saying something close to "Don't worry about these people. We're not going to pay them."
One night in early October 2012, the body of Yandrys Leon, aka Leo, one of Tomasito's key lanchero associates, principal helmsman of the cigarette boat that brought Puig and the others out of Cuba, was found facedown on the side of a road in a fashionable Cancun neighborhood. He'd been shot to death. El Rubio directed Puig and Despaigne and his smuggling partners to the local Cancun news coverage of the murder.
Within a few months, though, the threats began anew. During Dodgers spring training camp in 2013, according to a source close to Raul Pacheco, at least one man representing Tomasito's ring showed up in Arizona, found the rookie's hotel room, knocked on his door, and told Yasiel Puig the boss wanted his money.
By this point too, Despaigne was harried. Starting in June, following Puig's fast-track promotion to the Dodgers, as his Ruthian exploits were making him more famous by the day, Miami's robust Spanish-language, Cuban-émigré-focused media somehow discovered the identity of one Yunior Despaigne, who had accompanied Puig on his defection, and began hounding him. Meanwhile, Pacheco, then living in Puig's Miami house and serving as a kind of all-around gofer and confidant for the Dodger, refused to make good on what Despaigne says he was promised as compensation. It was around this time that a car wildly honking its horn pulled right up to Despaigne's rear bumper one day as he was driving home from work. Both cars pulled over. Both drivers opened their doors. Both strode toward the other with dark intent. This was not an uncommon scene in Hialeah: Machismo on the road.
"What's your problem?" Despaigne yelled, steeling himself for a fight.
"The problem here is me," the other man said, and he pulled an automatic handgun from his waistband, jammed the piece into Despaigne's left side and backed Despaigne against his car. "Don't be a guapo. Tell Puig to pay. Because if he doesn't, all of you are going to die." The man had a Cuban accent.
Despaigne managed to get a few words in: "I'm not the millionaire. The millionaire is Yasiel Puig." And: "I'm not Puig's padre. I can't force him to pay. I can't grab him by the neck."
"For the well-being of you and for everyone, speak to Puig," the gunman said before heading back to his car. "Then everything will turn out con paz y tranquilidad" -- with peace and tranquility. Despaigne swears that's what the man said.
"This Abogadito In Miami"
By the time Despaigne finished his story, Avelino Gonzalez knew that it could help his cause. In addition to providing important details regarding Puig's previous attempts to defect, the cinematic tale of the ballplayer's escape -- moving among Raul Pacheco, Tomasito, and the Rubio group -- allowed Gonzalez to make a case for who Puig's real smugglers were. Real smugglers, the story suggested, are a sophisticated lot -- not just guys like his clients, who had the misfortune to stumble into one of the country's Kafkaesque holes.
If Danilo Curbelo Garcia, the client he was representing in the Aroldis Chapman case, was unfortunate, then he was unfortunate to an absurd degree. A U.S. permanent resident who ran an animal farm near Okeechobee, Fla., Curbelo had gone missing while on a trip to Cuba to visit family in July 2008. Like almost all Cuban men, Curbelo was a baseball fan, and while in Cuba, a friend had offered to introduce him to an acquaintance: Aroldis Chapman. According to the complaint, the two men then chanced on the pitcher in the Cuban municipality of Frank Pais, near Chapman's hometown. Chapman was riding his bike down a road. The men pulled over. Curbelo asked Chapman, half-jokingly, when he planned to leave the island. This was a dangerous idea to articulate to strangers in Cuba, most of all, perhaps, to a star baseball player. His friend told Curbelo to pipe down but not before Chapman replied, according to the complaint, that he'd learned his lesson after his foiled escape earlier in the year; he wouldn't be making any such attempts again. The exchange lasted for only a few minutes. Within a day, Curbelo was under arrest on charges of human trafficking. (Chapman, according to Cuban court documents, relayed a different version of events, saying that Curbelo came to him with a specific plan to defect.)
Six months later, in custody the whole time, he was standing trial. According to the complaint filed by Gonzalez, the prosecution's direct evidence consisted entirely of Chapman's testimony and that of his father. The trial lasted half a day. He was sentenced to a decade in prison. Curbelo spent the first four in a maximum-security prison called Las Mangas, notorious for its cholera outbreaks and hunger strikes, and another year at a kind of "Bridge on the River Kwai" work camp two hours from the closest city and reachable only by dirt roads, where the inmates were forced to erect their own prison.
When Curbelo's wife, Maylen, came to Gonzalez's law office in May 2011 to seek representation, the lawyer was far from intimidated by the prospect of battling with the Cuban communist machine. From the moment he graduated from the University of Miami law school in 1995 -- after defecting from Cuba in 1991 when he was 25 years old -- Gonzalez has made himself into a tiny yet irritating barb in the side of the Cuban government. When members of an anti-Castro organization based in Miami were shot down in 1996 by the Cuban military while looking for refugee boats, Gonzalez was brought in as an expert when the families of the dead sued the Cuban government in U.S. court. When an Olympic-level kayaker defected from Cuba to the U.S. and wanted to participate with the American team in the Sydney Games in 2000, Gonzalez played a key role in persuading the International Olympic Committee to disregard the opposition of the Cubans. Soon after that case unfolded, Gonzalez heard from a Cuban friend who held a position in the government about a recent meeting of elite regime officials. "So who's this abogadito in Miami anyway?" one person at the meeting is said to have asked. Abogadito translates as "little lawyer." That person was Fidel Castro.
All the attorneys Maylen approached had turned her away. It was unclear how, in a United States court, a Cuban could sue another Cuban over an incident that occurred in Cuba. But in Gonzalez she found the abogadito for the job, one familiar with an obscure law: the Alien Tort Statute, or ATS. It entered the books in 1789, and it appeared to give U.S. civil courts jurisdiction over cases where a non-U.S. citizen might want to seek redress for a tort issue, even if the abuse occurred in another country. Gonzalez knew, as well, that the ATS had a more recent offspring, the Torture Victim Protection Act, signed into law in 1992, and designed to provide an avenue of justice for the families of people tortured or killed by authoritarian governments overseas.
At its core, the complaint that Gonzalez ultimately filed contends that Chapman made a deal with Cuban officials in 2008 after a failed escape attempt, for which he was suspended from the national team: By becoming a productive government informant, Chapman could prove his loyalty, earn his way back into the good graces of the regime, and eventually return to the squad's A-list travel roster. With the government thus off his back, he could then plan his next actual defection attempt. The complaint's bottom line: Chapman, in order to grease the skids of his eventual escape, conspired with the Cuban government to frame an innocent man.
WHEN THE COMPLAINT hit the public domain in May 2012, it received instant coverage by the Miami Spanish-language media. In fairly short order, Gonzalez began receiving phone calls from people with stories similar in substance to that of Danilo Curbelo. One of those calls came from the family of Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot, a Cuban citizen who split his time between the island and the Dominican Republic. While in Cuba with his wife and child, he had the bad luck, according to the story he later told Gonzalez, of agreeing to drive the son-in-law of an old friend to Cienfuegos for an important errand. The son-in-law's errand, it turned out, was to meet Yasiel Puig. Corbacho was sentenced in Cuba to seven years in prison in 2010 on charges of attempted human trafficking. So was the son-in-law, who, according to the complaint, actually was trying to recruit Puig to defect -- much like Yunior Despaigne would, a year later, begin to do. His family presented to Gonzalez a report from the Unidad de Delitos Contra la Seguridad Del Estado, a unit of the country's largest domestic spy agency. It is, essentially, Cuba's secret police. Obtained by Corbacho's Cuban lawyers and provided by his family to Gonzalez, the report included a photograph of a young man pointing at a mug shot among other mug shots on a page -- apparently picking Corbacho out of a photo lineup. The identity of the young accuser in the photograph is difficult to discern, but the police report contains a helpful caption: "Obsérvese al testigo Yasiel Puig Valdes..."
Despaigne's story -- later compressed into an affidavit affixed to an amended complaint in the suit against Puig -- was also valuable because it included details that, if true, seemed to suggest that Yasiel Puig had become something of a serial informant for Cuban state security. According to Despaigne's affidavit, as far back as 2009, Puig, then just 18 years old, had denounced two other people for approaching him with smuggling-defection plans. Those two people were with Puig when, together, they made a failed lanchero escape attempt earlier in the same year. All were caught by Cuban police. Despaigne's affidavit also claims he had conversations with Puig during which they discussed several meetings Puig had with a certain high Cuban official named Higinio Velez. Velez was then and remains today the national director of Cuban baseball. In Despaigne's telling, Puig described to him an offer that Velez had made during these meetings. Though Puig had been kicked off the national team as punishment for that 2009 defection attempt, he could nonetheless "prove his loyalty and clean his name if he worked with the state to expose persons who were stealing Cuban athletes through trafficking," according to Despaigne's affidavit. About two years later, in 2011, Puig traveled with the national team to the World Port Tournament in Holland, where he reportedly made another defection attempt, resulting in another team suspension. Further meetings with Velez, Despaigne says, led to further denunciations.
To win either case, Gonzalez faces many challenges. He needs to sway judge and jury that his clients were indeed innocent of the charges they were accused of and that they weren't actually seeking to earn a bit of coin (like Despaigne himself had) by striving to recruit Puig and Chapman to defect on behalf of some smuggling group. Moreover, he needs to show that the players basically aided and abetted the Cuban government in committing "violations of international law -- that is, torture." Gonzalez will get his chance to pass these hurdles in the Chapman case; it goes to trial on Nov. 17. In the Puig case, the judge is still deliberating on a motion to dismiss.
CUBAN OFFICIALS HAVE a term for any baseball player they suspect of wanting to flee Cuba and play ball for the capitalists who operate the U.S. major leagues: cabeza sucia, "dirty head." It is, of course, an ideological term, used to describe how a player's fealty to the Revolution has troublingly deteriorated, has grown impure. But there are remedies. Official Cuba has another phrase: limpiarse, "to clean oneself."
Domestic espionage in Cuba is as institutionalized as any country in the world, webbed inextricably into the everyday life of the island. It is both centralized and grassroots. Posted in every village, town, neighborhood and sometimes city block is, for example, a branch office of something called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDR. Its membership -- a figure reckoned to be in the hundreds of thousands -- is tasked with keeping watch on its neighbors and reporting back suspicious behavior to the Cuban state security apparatus. Every Cuban in Miami seems to have a story of local betrayal. A man fed up by rolling blackouts shouts from his window a profanity-laced invective directed at the Castros, and he winds up the next day in an interrogation room. A black-market purchase of a pound of beef, thought to be transacted discreetly, results in jail time. In aggregate, these sorts of Iron Curtain experiences have grown less frequent in Cuba over the years, but they still occur.
It doesn't take much of a leap to imagine that this highly evolved intelligence apparatus takes a special interest in the country's baseball talent and that some portion of its expertise is directed toward keeping that talent on the island. In the course of reporting this story, I spoke to four former Cuban government officials -- three of whom worked for domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, and the fourth as the director for INDER, the governing body of sports in Cuba. All themselves defected to the U.S. by various means (some of which are still classified) between 1987 and 2007; their views are therefore dated. But their claims depict a culture of chivato -- old Cuban slang for a snitch, a rat -- that appears to have existed within Cuban baseball for decades. "Do Cuban athletes sometimes have to do things for counterintelligence? Yes, they do. Yes, from the very beginning," said Juan Antonio Rodriguez Menier, one of the highest-ranking Cuban spies ever to defect, in 1987. Multiple counterintelligence agents were, at any given time, assigned to spy on the national baseball team and cultivate collaborators within it, says Gregorio Miguel Calleiro, a high-ranking officer at INDER in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. A former major in Cuba's intelligence division named Roberto Hernandez Del Llano, who once trained for two years in Moscow with the KGB, defected from Cuba in 2007. In a signed statement to Avelino Gonzalez, he made an explosive claim: "Most members of the national baseball team that travel abroad are informants for the government." Several Cuban defectors now playing in major league farm systems affirmed to me that state security makes an active effort to turn players. "Some accept, and some don't," said Henry Urrutia of the Baltimore Orioles, who defected in 2010.
THE LIST OF those who declined to be interviewed for this article is both unsurprising and yet illuminating. Through the Dodgers, Yasiel Puig turned down requests to be interviewed for this article. The Dodgers front office also declined to comment. Jaime Torres, when contacted in late February, told me: "I have no interest whatsoever in talking to you." (In early March, Puig fired Torres as his agent and took up with Wasserman Media Group.) El Rubio could not be located. According to one source in January, word on the street in Miami was that he'd been kidnapped, probably by representatives of Tomasito. He told me El Rubio had been held for ransom and released after making some large payment to his captors. Perhaps coincidentally, the house El Rubio bought for $1 million in North Miami in 2013 was put on the market; it sold in January. Officials at Major League Baseball declined to comment, other than to issue a statement that stated that the league and its clubs "have individuals and resources in place to provide appropriate security" and "cannot comment on such measures that have been taken without potentially compromising those efforts." The Cincinnati Reds apparently chose not to bring an interview request to Aroldis Chapman's attention at all. "That won't be necessary," said Rob Butcher, a Reds spokesman, in an email. "He is not available to speak to you." The Cuban government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Stories Within Stories
Around Thanksgiving last year, Yunior Despaigne received a call from his mother in Cuba. She had bad news. Despaigne's brother, Eduardo Soriano, was in jail. He stood accused of human trafficking.
Naturally, it was a complicated story; it couldn't be other than a complicated story. When I asked Despaigne for some kind of proof that his brother had in fact been arrested and charged, he first gave me the phone number of Soriano's lawyer in Cuba. Later, through a Miami Cuban friend who'd traveled to the island and back, Despaigne was able to obtain the Cuban government's indictment, dated Feb. 11, 2014, which laid out the charges against his brother. In its legalistic Spanish, it read, in part, "... the individuals not present, Yasiel Puig Valdes and Raul Pacheco Hernandez, who are living abroad ... conceived of a plot to extract from Cuba ... Cuban ballplayers, taking advantage of the relationships that Puig Valdes, when he was a player in Cuba, had established and maintained with some of his teammates, whom he would convince to leave the country ..." The Cuban government, in other words, has accused Yasiel Puig of human trafficking. (The Magazine has not found evidence supporting the Cuban government's accusations; it is possible that the Cuban government might be lashing out at a high-profile defector.)
The Despaigne affidavit given in the Corbacho suit makes a more pointed accusation against Puig. Having become aware of Despaigne's involvement in the suit, Puig is stated to have deliberately "targeted" Despaigne's family, allegedly sending money to Soriano for delivery to a baseball player in Cienfuegos named Noelvis Entenza. The affidavit makes no mention of what, if anything, Soriano knew about the purposes of the money. Unaware of the "trap" that was being laid, Soriano took the money to Entenza, upon Puig's urging. Several days later, the Cuban police pounded on the door of Soriano's house.
Complexity upon complexity. Stories within stories. Despaigne also states in the affidavit that his brother was being charged with inducing a second player to defect: the starting shortstop on the Cuban national team, Erisbel Arruebarrena. (Curiously, when the February indictment was later released, Soriano was accused of recruiting only Entenza, not Arruebarrena.)
In his motion to dismiss the Corbacho suit, Puig characterizes the allegations in it as "incendiary and false."
As of this writing, Eduardo Soriano remains in prison, awaiting trial. Cuba's prosecutors are seeking eight years. Soriano is 20 years old. Erisbel Arruebarrena, meanwhile -- who was smuggled by lancheros to Haiti, who became a Haitian permanent resident within weeks, who was described in one U.S. media report shortly after he surfaced in Haiti as having a "quick transfer and a plus-plus arm with accuracy," whose agent Bart Hernandez negotiated with at least three competing major league franchises -- signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in late February. His contract is worth $25 million.
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