MIAMI – Two Cuban baseball players told a federal jury Tuesday that they paid tens of thousands of dollars from signing bonuses with Major League Baseball teams to a smuggling network that prosecutors say was overseen by a Florida sports agent and his trainer associate.
The players, Jorge Padron and Reinier Roibal, described how they were spirited off the communist-run island on speedboats bound for Cancun, Mexico, where they trained while awaiting documents necessary to go to the U.S. to sign lucrative free-agent contracts.
They told jurors about payments the smugglers made to a Mexican criminal organization, which prosecutors have identified as the Zetas drug cartel, and the violent disappearance of one of the smuggling ring’s leaders, Joan (YO-ahn) “Nacho” Garcia. The testimony came in the trial of agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who face lengthy prison sentences if convicted of conspiracy and alien- smuggling charges.
Roibal is a pitcher who signed with the San Francisco Giants for $425,000 in 2010 but is now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He said Garcia met him in Cancun in late 2009 and took him to meet with Hernandez. In Cuba, he was making about $20 a month playing baseball.
“He was going to help me obtain that opportunity I was looking for,” Roibal, speaking through an interpreter, said of the man he knew as “Nacho.” Asked what that opportunity was, he added: “Well, play baseball and give my family a better financial situation.”
Roibal said he paid about $170,000 to the smuggling operation, including 5 percent for Hernandez, out of his Giants contract. He said he was surprised the organization, which operated out of the Baseball Stars academy in Mexico, would get such a big cut.
“I didn’t have any idea what was happening,” he testified. “I was also very young and I really didn’t realize it was such a large amount of money.”
Roibal also said he was present, sitting in the front seat of a car, when unknown men approached “Nacho” at a boatyard in Cancun.
“Did you see these men assault Nacho?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael “Pat” Sullivan.
“After hearing the gunshots … I turned around and could see what was happening,” Roibal said, without elaborating.
Padron, who was also brought to Mexico by boat from Cuba, said he signed with the Boston Red Sox for $350,000 in March 2010. Of that, he said about $140,000 went to the smuggling operation, including percentages for Hernandez and Estrada. Padron, an outfielder and first baseman, never made it out of the minor leagues and was later released by the Red Sox.
Much of the players’ testimony focused on third-country residency documents they needed in order to sign with an American baseball team, which prosecutors say contained numerous falsehoods. They had to show they no longer lived in Cuba – where they were restricted by the U.S. economic embargo – and that they were eligible to sign as free agents rather than going into the MLB draft for less money.
On Mexican residency papers, for example, Padron’s occupation was listed as “independent tinsmith,” a job he testified in the trial that he never held. For Roibal, it was “independent welder.”
Padron said the Cuban players frequently laughed about the jobs that appeared on papers bearing their names.
“It was like a joke among us,” Padron said.
“Did you have any job at all while you were in Cancun?” Sullivan asked.
“No,” Padron replied.
Roibal said he was simply handed various papers, many of them in English only, and asked for his signature.
“They told me to sign, and I would sign,” he said.
Lawyers for Hernandez and Estrada earlier told jurors they both ran legitimate baseball businesses and were not engaged in Cuban player smuggling or falsifying of official documents. It’s unclear if either will testify.
Several other Cuban-born players are expected to take the witness stand, possibly including Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Adeiny Hechevarria of the Miami Marlins and Yoenis Cespedes of the New York Mets. The trial is scheduled to last several more weeks.