Thousands paid to travel to US: Cuban baseballers

Two Cuban baseball players on Tuesday told a US federal jury that they paid tens of thousands of US 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 US 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 “Nacho” Garcia.

The testimony came in the trial of agent Bartolo Hernandez (Photo) and trainer Julio Estrada, who face lengthy prison sentences if convicted of conspiracy and immigrant smuggling charges.

Roibal is a pitcher who signed with the San Francisco Giants for US$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 US$20 per 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 US$170,000 to the smuggling operation, including 5 percent for Hernandez, out of his Giants contract.

Padron, who was also transported to Mexico by boat from Cuba, said he signed with the Boston Red Sox for US$350,000 in March 2010.

Of that, Padron said about US$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 US baseball team, which prosecutors said contained numerous falsehoods.

They had to show they no longer lived in Cuba — where they were restricted by the US economic embargo — and that they were eligible to sign as free agents rather than going into the MLB draft for less money.

For example, on Mexican residency papers 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.”

The Cuban players frequently laughed about the jobs that appeared on papers bearing their names, Padron 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 was unclear if either will testify.

The trial is scheduled to last several more weeks. 

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