HAVANA, april 26 During a spectacular debut season in Chicago, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu wowed crowds with 36 home runs, a team record for a rookie.
But what no one saw and few knew was that during those same few months he apparently was paying off a heavy debt to the people who helped him escape from his native Cuba.
Newly unsealed court records describe the shadowy yet lucrative world of illegal smuggling that brings Cuban baseball players into the United States. For Abreu, according to federal prosecutors, that included $5.8 million he allegedly transferred in three separate payments over nine months to people who aided his defection.
The smuggling activity is spelled out in a superseding indictment in the South Florida case against one of Abreu’s former agents, Bart Hernandez, who was indicted in February on charges related to human trafficking. The indictment details how smugglers made payments to boat captains, including $160,000 for Abreu’s driver, and falsified documents to help top Cuban prospects eventually find their way to the U.S. to play professional baseball.
In return, the players were instructed to make large payments to the individuals who arranged their escapes, according to prosecutors.
Joe Kehoskie, a baseball consultant and former agent who has represented Cuban players, said the specificity of documents, emails and bank transfers described by prosecutors was rare and suggested that defections haven’t been as voluntary as many agents long professed.
“I’ve never seen the government go to that level of detail with emails and dates,” Kehoskie said. “It seems to confirm what has been widely speculated for a decade now — that the defection of Cubans has been rife with criminality.”
Last week’s filing also indicted Julio Estrada, a Cuban exile in Miami who worked with Hernandez for about a decade, and Haiti resident Amin Latouff on charges related to human trafficking for allegedly conspiring with Hernandez.
Prosecutors allege all three profited by illegally smuggling baseball players and members of their families into the United States with the help of false passports and residency records. The government asked for forfeiture of at least $15 million related to the charges against the three men.
Prosecutors also accuse Hernandez of being untruthful with investigators Dec. 4, 2013, when he told them he didn’t know firsthand how players were smuggled out of Cuba. In the past decade, Hernandez grew from relative anonymity to boasting a client list of about two-dozen Cuban-born players.
The records describe a trafficking process that sometimes began by paying boat captains to ferry players out of Cuba and into another Latin country. Hernandez and the others would then provide players with false passports, according to the new indictment.
They also submitted applications with false information to the federal government as part of the process of getting permission for a foreign national to play in Major League Baseball.
Ben Daniel, a former prosecutor who oversaw human trafficking cases in Miami, said the case reveals how complex smuggling has become as the financial stakes have gotten higher. “You used to go on a boat, bring some players back here and create some cover,” Daniel said.
He said the new federal documents describe a “much more devious scheme.”
According to the new indictment, after the players signed with major-league teams, they were directed by Estrada or Hernandez to transfer money into accounts for companies that each of the men controlled.
In the indictment, prosecutors describe activities involving 16 players identified by their initials, including “J.A.C.” — Abreu’s initials. (In Spanish naming customs, the paternal family name precedes the maternal name.)
Abreu, now 29, is believed to have left Cuba in August 2013. About that time, according to prosecutors, Latouff paid a boat captain $160,000 to smuggle Abreu to Haiti. Later that month, Hernandez submitted an application for the player to the federal government in order for him to sign a contract with a major-league team. He also emailed Major League Baseball a visa purportedly issued by Haiti.
On Oct. 13, 2013, Latouff allegedly provided the player a fake passport with a false name to use on a flight to Miami from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. According to the indictment, Latouff later provided similar documentation to Abreu’s then-girlfriend, also identified only by initials.
The White Sox soon announced that Abreu had signed a five-year deal worth $68 million. At the time, Abreu was represented by the Praver Shapiro sports agency, which worked with Hernandez and his company, Global Sports Management.
In March 2014, Estrada “caused J.A.C. to wire” about $2.4 million into an account that Estrada controlled, prosecutors wrote in the indictment. In August of that same year, “J.A.C.” also transferred $2 million and then sent another $1.36 million in December, prosecutors wrote.
After each transfer, Estrada allegedly sent funds to an account controlled by Hernandez, with nearly $600,000 going into that account, according to the indictment.
During his first season with the White Sox in 2014, Abreu was an all-star, and after the season he was named rookie of the year. Abreu has steadfastly declined to discuss his journey out of Cuba and on Monday declined comment through a team spokesman.
The Tribune previously reported that Abreu’s transition while in the U.S. has been aided by Julio Estrada, although his precise role with regard to Abreu is unclear. In 2014 Estrada identified himself to the Tribune as Abreu’s agent, but the players union said it had no evidence of that.
When the Tribune tried to interview Abreu’s family in Miami about their defection, it was Estrada who abruptly called it off, even though Abreu’s mother had initially agreed.
If convicted on all counts, Hernandez faces up to 35 years in prison while Estrada faces 45. They also are being asked to give up anything earned with any baseball players. None of the Cuban-born players, including Abreu, has been accused of wrongdoing.
The government sometimes seeks to return assets to people wronged by defendants, but it’s unclear whether that could happen in this situation and whether the players would be entitled to any forfeited money.
Estrada’s attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, said her client was arrested Friday in Miami and entered a plea of not guilty before a bond release. She described Estrada as a trainer who happened to share clients with Hernandez.
“Julio at no time encouraged or assisted any of the players to enter the United States illegally,” she said. “The only thing he’s ever done is to help train these players and get them ready in order to help them achieve their dream to play baseball in the United States.”
When Hernandez was first indicted, prosecutors alleged he conspired first in 2008 to smuggle for profit a Cuban national identified in court papers as “L.M.T.” Those are the same initials as Leonys Martin Tapanes, a Seattle Mariners outfielder who was once represented by Hernandez but later sued him.
Both indictments have tied Hernandez to convicted traffickers. One, Eliezer Lazo, is serving two prison terms, including a 14-year sentence on extortion charges related to masterminding a smuggling operation that brought hundreds of Cubans to the U.S., including Martin.
Allegations in the new indictment make reference to other current major-league players.
For instance, according to the documents, in September 2014, Estrada traveled to Providence, R.I., and met with a player identified as “D.H.H.” At the time, Phillies pitcher Dalier Hinojosa was represented by Hernandez, and played for the Pawtucket Red Sox.
Estrada allegedly directed Hinojosa to “falsely and fraudulently state to federal authorities” that he left Cuba with unknown fishermen when both men knew he left with smugglers.