Federal authorities have begun looking into possible human trafficking violations involving Cuban ballplayers who have been smuggled out of Cuba and effectively into the U.S., bringing with them the possible dangers of drug cartels and gangsters, according to government and baseball sources.
Immigration officials and the FBI are combing through the cases of Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig and others for possible violations of federal laws including human trafficking.
Puig has been interviewed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcements own investigation.
According to sources, the Dodgers second-year slugger is not a target of the federal inquiry but a victim.
The romance surrounding Puig and other defectors from Castos Cuba has taken a dark turn in recent days amid published accounts of how Puig was secreted out of his homeland by Los Zetas Mexican crime syndicate, with one smuggler shot to death execution style and a Miami criminal group now owning a fifth of his millions in future baseball earnings.
But the federal interest in Cuban ballplayer smuggling, sources say, also includes the case of Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin who, after defecting from Cuba in 2011, was held for ransom in Mexico while his family members were kept under surveillance in South Florida.
According to U.S. Justice Department official, three people have been indicted in Miami on federal charges of hostage-taking and extortion conspiracy in the Martin Case.
Those counts that carry potential life prison sentences if they are convicted.
Charged in the case with conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort are Eliezer Lazo, 40, formerly of Miami Lakes; Joel Martinez Hernandez, 37, formerly of Miami-Dade; and Yilian Hernandez, 30, of Hialeah.
The are also charged with smuggling 13 other Cuban baseball prospects from Cuba into Mexico and then into the United States.
Martin, 25, is suing his alleged kidnappers trying to get back more than $1.3 million he had already paid them. The human trafficking group in that case had forced Martin to pay them 30 percent of his future earnings, according to court records.
In 2011, he signed a $15.5 million contract with the Rangers, plus an additional $5 million signing bonus.
In 2012, Puig signed a $42 million deal with the Dodgers, evidently agreeing to pay 20 percent of this and future earnings to an alleged criminal group fronted by Raul Pacheco, described in ESPN and LA magazine reports as a low-level Miami gangster.
Puig, 23, made his major league debut last June, sparking the Dodgers last-to-first turnaround into the playoffs, despite his showboating and occasional base-running lapses that were overshadowed by two arrests for speeding.
But those distractions have proven minor to the frightening accounts of how he arrived at Dodger Stadium.
Security had already been beefed up by the Dodgers last year but reportedly has intensified as media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times have publicly questioned how much of a threat the criminal elements surrounding Puig pose to fans and other players.
Puig and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman are defendants in Florida lawsuits surrounding their defection from Cuba to the U.S. Those two are only the most high-profile of a slew of Cuban ballplayers who have defected in recent years.
Authorities have been investigating the circumstances surrounding their cases and others, checking whether any laws were broken and other possible criminal activity, according to sources.
They reportedly are also looking into how player agents and managers skirt immigration laws as well as baseball signing policies by having these deserters establish residency in countries like Mexico from where their services are auctioned to the highest bidder.
American ballplayers, even the best, arent accorded that kind of freedom. They all must enter the annual baseball draft where their only negotiation is with the team that drafts them.
Few of those U.S. players ever are able to sign first-time contracts of the kind Cuban deserters are able to command and thus attract the attention and assistance of smugglers, drug cartels and gangsters.
For years, Major League Baseball and the players union have talked about the possibility of an international draft most recently last year which has to be collectively bargained.