MIAMI -- Miami businessman Gilberto Suarez pleaded not guilty Thursday to a federal charge accusing him of smuggling Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig and a handful of other Cuban ballplayers from Cuba through Mexico to the United States.
Suarez, 40, was granted a $120,000 bond as he awaits trial on the charge of conspiring to smuggle aliens into the United States. The Homeland Security case has drawn widespread attention because Puig and the other players were allegedly held in Mexico while their agents negotiated lucrative Major League Baseball contracts.
Although Suarez was not charged with extorting Puig and the other players, he may have collaborated with their agents and others to obtain fees from their multimillion-dollar MLB contracts, according to an indictment filed by prosecutor Ron Davidson.
The charge against Suarez includes a forfeiture claim that would allow the U.S. government to seize about $3 million that Suarez and the others may have received from those contracts.
Cuban baseball players typically flee to a third country so that, under MLB rules, they can avoid the amateur draft. In doing so, they become free agents — able to sell their talents to the highest bidder — and can land better-paying contracts.
Puig is among a wave of young Cuban players who have joined MLB in recent years after establishing residences in third countries, including Miami’s Adeiny Hechavarria and Oakland’s Yoenis Céspedes. The full details of their sagas usually remain secret.
Puig’s tangled trail from Cuba to Los Angeles entailed a stealth speedboat ride from the island, weeks holed up in a Mexican motel and shady smugglers haggling over a lucrative payout for the future baseball star.
The story, outlined in a separate federal lawsuit, features a series of fantastic plot twists. Puig spirited away from under the noses of the smugglers in the Yucatán. A henchman later threatening one of Puig’s pals. A smuggler, in turn, shot dead in Cancún.
And to boot, the lawsuit alleges that Puig, before his June 2012 defection, plotted with Cuban security authorities to falsely imprison a businessman — who says he was later tortured and starved in an island prison.
Puig’s journey is indeed a high-profile, high-stakes example of what many Cubans, not just baseball players, have undergone in enlisting the services of human smugglers in recent years to ferry them from the communist island to Mexico and then to the United States.
The 23-year-old Puig, the runner-up for National League Rookie of the Year in 2013, is a sensation with the Dodgers and the subject of Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN The Magazine investigative stories that first detailed his route to Major League Baseball and a $42 million contract.
The story of his escape from Cuba with the help of smugglers is not the first to emerge in recent years.
Sports agent Gus Dominguez was sentenced to five years in federal prison after he was convicted in 2007 of smuggling five Cuban baseball players through Mexico into the United States.
Former Tampa Bay infielder Leslie Anderson, a Cuban baseball player, also defected through the Yucatán before the 2010 season.
In December, the U.S. attorney’s office indicted three people for conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort Rangers outfielder Leonys Martín Tápanes, and smuggling more than 20 other baseball prospects from Cuba to Mexico and then the United States.
A Mexican company partially owned by two of the defendants sued Martín, alleging that the player had stiffed him in a deal to pay 30 percent of his Rangers salary. In a counter lawsuit, Martín accused the group of smuggling him and his family out of Cuba into Mexico in 2010 and holding them “hostage” until the athletes obtained a major league contract and could pay them a “ransom.”
The trio is awaiting trial.