The criminal conviction of two sports agents for smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States in an attempt to sign them to lucrative contracts serves as a reminder for agents, potential agents, and everyone else in the sports industry that compliance with the law is essential, even in the competitive business of sports management.
As reported by the Associated Press, on March 15, 2017, agents Bartolo Hernandez and Julio Estrada were convicted on conspiracy and alien smuggling charges after Miami jurors heard about six weeks of testimony, including from high-profile Major League Baseball players.
Evidence showed a general Cuban smuggling operation that brought people from the island to Mexico that, in 2009, became a platform for the much more lucrative trade in baseball players. Hernandez and Estrada oversaw the new scheme. Players were shuttled from Cuba to Mexico or Haiti in a speedboat, and then they signed papers claiming residency in the new country. The players were eventually cleared to sign with baseball teams.
At the trial, Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu testified that he ate a piece of his phony Haitian passport while flying to the U.S. in 2013, because he feared repercussions if he landed in Miami with a fake document. Shortly arriving in the U.S., Abreu signed a $68-million deal with Chicago. Another player, Reinier Roibal, testified about witnessing an armed confrontation at a Mexican boatyard between one of the smuggling ring’s original leaders, Joan “Nacho” Garcia, and a group of men. Roibal said he heard gunshots and Garcia, who prosecutors called “the chief thug of Cancun,” was never heard from again.
In each case, the players were required to sign contracts agreeing to pay Estrada and his organization about a third of whatever they made with U.S. teams, with Hernandez getting five percent to represent them in negotiations with teams. Abreu, for example, said he paid Estrada more than $7 million after signing his White Sox contract.
The defendants’ attorneys told jurors that the defendants ran legitimate businesses and were not overseeing an illegal smuggling ring. They asserted that the defendants provided the Cuban players with training, food, and lodging and helped them navigate the complexities of becoming cleared to play in the U.S. despite the economic embargo against Cuba. Unpersuaded, the jury convicted the two agents.
Even as the U.S.-Cuba relationship improves, strict immigration and other laws must be followed for bringing anyone into the United States from anywhere else.