Feds interviewing Cubans in U.S.

Federal authorities have been systematically interviewing Cubans playing baseball professionally in the United States as part of their ongoing investigations into alleged smuggling rings, several people with knowledge of the matter told ESPN.

As the federal investigations play out, Gilberto Suarez on Friday pleaded not guilty to smuggling charges in a Miami courtroom. Suarez is the man who allegedly played a role in Yasiel Puig's dramatic journey in 2012 from Cuban obscurity to the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was one of the first public indications that federal authorities are in the midst of a widening investigation into the lucrative, clandestine rings that orchestrate the smuggling of baseball talent out of Cuba and onto the rosters of Major League Baseball teams.

"A number of players have been cooperating with these probes," said one Florida-based agent who has worked with Latin American ballplayers and has direct knowledge of those interviews. He said federal officials have reached out to major league clubs seeking to speak with the Cuban players on their rosters.

Puig was interviewed on several occasions and is now cooperating, one person close to the player told ESPN.

Suarez was charged last week on one count of conspiracy to encourage or induce an alien to enter the United States in disregard of the law. Though Puig is not named in the indictment, a person close to the investigation confirmed that the alien in question is Puig.

In August, a separate case resulted in a well-known smuggler of Cuban ballplayers pleading guilty to charges of extortion after being indicted in late November.

Several people with deep connections into the Cuban baseball world say federal agents have been showing photographs of various alleged smugglers to Cuban players in the U.S. If so, it would amount to several layers of cruel irony. In Cuba, where members of the Castro regime are increasingly desperate to stanch the talent drain, nearly every star player is now considered a flight risk. Secret police watch the players' every move and strive to turn them into informants, or chivato in Cuban slang. In other words, both the Cuban government and the U.S. government, purported enemies, are doing the same thing: recruiting baseball players to become informants.

There's yet more harsh irony. Puig is being sued in U.S. court by a Cuban citizen who claims that the ballplayer falsely accused him of being a smuggler to the Cuban government in 2010. The man was sent to prison, where he claims the Cuban government tortured him. Puig, who admits that he testified against the man at a trial in Cuba but not falsely, is fighting the suit; the case is set for trial in November 2015.

A snitching theme permeates Cuban baseball on both sides of the Florida Straits. But just how serious American federal prosecutors are about targeting Cuban ballplayer smuggling groups is an open question. The count of conspiracy to encourage or induce smuggling is a lesser count than full-fledged alien smuggling; the federal government's sentencing guidelines dictate a prison term of no more than 18 months for the charge. Still, the conspiracy charge, by definition, means that Suarez allegedly worked with other people, which in turn implies that the government is targeting those co-conspirators.

The three-page indictment of Suarez, unsealed Thursday afternoon in the U.S. Southern District of Florida, is a bare-bones document that does not describe with any detail how the alleged conspiracy worked or how Suarez knowingly disregarded the law. But, as related in an ESPN The Magazine feature story in April, people close to the federal investigation say Suarez's efforts were instrumental in Puig eventually signing a $42 million contract with the Dodgers in July 2012.

Also known by the street name "El Rubio," Suarez and several compatriots eventually took a fee amounting to about 20 percent of Puig's contract, according to a person familiar with Suarez's business. Suarez, 40, is himself a Cuban migrant, having escaped the country to Florida in the mid-2000s.

At his initial appearance in court, Suarez pleaded not guilty.

"We've asked for a fast trial date, and then we can proffer evidence that he was simply a sports agent and that's all. He had nothing else to do with his," his lawyer Bijan Sebastian Parwaresch told ESPN.

Questions persist as to just how prosecutable cases against alleged smugglers might be. For one thing, public opinion in vehemently anti-Castro Miami largely characterizes the smugglers as heroes of the counterrevolution. Convincing a South Florida jury that those defendants are committing a crime worthy of high-level prosecution faces obvious challenges.

For another, the underground operations that engage in Cuban ballplayer extractions have become much more sophisticated over the years. The stakes have risen as the contracts for Cuban defectors have continued to grow ever larger; outfielder Rusney Castillo set a new financial record for a Cuban after signing a $72 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in August. Hence, the smugglers take care to cover their tracks. And they appear to have familiarized themselves with the ins and outs of U.S. immigration law to such a degree that they have found what amount to loopholes.

Take the Puig affair. According to several people with knowledge of Puig's escape, Suarez and his partners weren't responsible for the physical extraction of Puig from Cuba. A separate group of Cancun, Mexico-based Cubans, connected to the powerful Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, drove the cigarette boat that met Puig and three others on an isolated stretch of Cuban coast. After ferrying the defectors to a Mexican tourist island called Isla Mujeres, just off Cancun, that group of boatmen kept Puig and the others in an apartment there. That group's plan was to sell Puig to the highest bidder.

Instead, according to several people familiar with Suarez's business, Suarez and his partners found out about Puig's presence on the island and stole him away in a midnight heist, transporting him from Isla Mujeres to Mexico City. About a month later, Puig signed with the Dodgers. Not long after that, he traveled north to the border in Texas and crossed at a customs station, taking advantage of the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy that the U.S. government has instituted for Cuban migrants. Any Cuban citizen who makes it to U.S. territory on land is automatically paroled into the country and given legal residency status, as was Puig.

For U.S. prosecutors, a serious question is raised by this seemingly ingenious sequence of events: Where, exactly, is the violation of U.S. law?

Puig's agent at the time was Jaime Torres, who has built a career representing recently defected Cuban ballplayers in their negotiations for their first free-agent MLB contracts. According to several people familiar with Puig's escape from Cuba, Torres met with Puig not long after he arrived in Mexico from Cuba. Puig fired Torres earlier this year and is now represented by Adam Katz at Wasserman Media, who has several Cuban clients, including Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox slugger who escaped Cuba via smugglers in 2011.

To where the investigation may ultimately lead, the most suggestive part of the Suarez indictment was its "forfeiture" section. In it, prosecutors enumerate the assets and cash they hope to seize, stemming from Suarez's allegedly illegal dealings. According to the indictment, investigators have been able to trace nearly $3 million in "gross proceeds" back to the allegedly illicit services Suarez performed for Puig. But prosecutors are also seeking "all interests the defendant has, directly or indirectly, in any contracts with" three individuals whom the indictment identified only by their initials, "Y.P.," "M.A.G." and "A.D."

Y.P., a person close to the investigation said, refers to Yasiel Puig. (Puig, through Wasserman Media, declined to comment for this story.) According to people familiar with Suarez's business, Suarez aided in the defections or provided various postdefection services to Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, a pitcher who left Cuba in early 2013 and signed a $12 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Aledmys Diaz, who defected in 2012 and reportedly received an $8 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals earlier this year, after a long delay. Suarez's attorney denies his client was involved in any alien smuggling.

Federal investigators originally became interested in Puig's defection sometime in 2013, according to people familiar with the probe. In April of that year, when Puig was participating in his first spring training camp with the Dodgers in Arizona, at least one member of the original smuggling group arrived at Puig's hotel room to demand payment for the money it believed it was owed, a person close to Puig has told ESPN.