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Major League Baseball's human-trafficking problem

Yasiel Puig's bat-flipping, carefree style hides a horrific story of trafficking.
Yasiel Puig's bat-flipping, carefree style hides a horrific story of trafficking.
(Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Over the past few years, it's come to light that Major League Baseball has a big human-trafficking problem.

Cuba is one of the biggest sources of international baseball talent. But, because of the US embargo, most Cuban players have to use smugglers to get themselves to the United States. What's more, due to a quirk in Major League Baseball rules around contracts, those Cuban players often first have to travel to a third country, like Mexico — a difficult process.

And that's where traffickers come in. In recent years, some Major League Baseball players have revealed that a variety of criminals have been kidnapping and extorting talented Cuban players before they can get a major league contract — in order to get a cut of their future earnings. Some of these traffickers may even have ties to Mexican cartels.

This issue is only just starting to get attention from courts and investigators — the first conviction of a smuggler for trafficking Cuban ballplayers happened in 2011. These trafficking cases involve dozens of Cuban ballplayers, most of whom never even make it to the major leagues.

This year, Cuban-born Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig became the poster boy for ballplayer trafficking. In his journey to the United States, Puig was kidnapped and extorted — and some of the traffickers he was involved with have even resorted to murder as they try to get a share of his salary. Puig's lurid story, and his stature as a star, have brought the trafficking issue to the attention of baseball commentators.

While the league hasn't taken action yet, it's coming under increasing pressure to protect its players from crime and abuse. Here's what you need to know:

1) How do people usually come to the US from Cuba?

Smuggling is fairly common. Because of the US government's long-standing embargo against Cuba — combined with its policies to support Cuban dissidents and defectors —the rules for Cuban immigration to the United States are completely different than those for any other country.

If the Coast Guard apprehends a boat of Cubans trying to come to the US, it turns them over to the Department of Homeland Security as unauthorized immigrants. But if the Cubans manage to get to Florida without being apprehended, they're eligible for legal status and a fast track to a green card. This is what's called the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.

Most Cubans who want to come to the US end up paying smugglers to make sure they make it to Florida safely. The going rate for a typical Cuban emigrant is about $10,000.

Cuban immigrants interdicted

This boatful of Cuban immigrants got intercepted by the US Coast Guard. (US Coast Guard)

2) So why is smuggling of baseball players a particular concern?

For most Cubans who attempt to immigrate to the US, $10,000 is a lot of money — so a smuggler isn't likely to get much more out of the immigrant once he arrives in the US.

But talented baseball players are likely to start making a bunch more money once they get Major League Baseball contracts. So they're attractive targets for hardcore traffickers, who aren't just interested in getting players out of Cuba, but in keeping the players under their control while they sign a major league contract — and continuing to get a share of the profits once the player starts getting paid.

There's an additional reason that players are particularly vulnerable to trafficking: thanks to a quirk in MLB rules, Cuban players can often make more money if they don't go straight to the US. If they manage to stay in a third country for several months beforehand, like Mexico or the Dominican Republic, they're eligible for a much bigger MLB contract.

baseball players in Cuba

Baseball is a passion in Cuba — which is why so many players turn pro. (Guillaume Baviere)

3) How do Cuban baseball players come to the US?

Here are the two ways that a Cuban baseball player can become a Major League Baseball player:

Going directly from Cuba to the US. If a player comes straight to the US, he can get permanent residency quickly thanks to the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. The downside, however, is that he has to participate in the main MLB draft, along with thousands of other baseball players from high schools and colleges all across America.

The way the draft works, a team drafts a player first, and then the player and his agent negotiate with that team over a contract. Because the player can only negotiate with the team that drafts him, the team has the power in the negotiations — so just-drafted players don't get the massive contracts that free agents get.

Going from Cuba to a third country. A Cuban player can't negotiate a contract with a major-league team while he's in Cuba, thanks to the embargo — and the Cuban government's tendency to imprison anyone who's a threat to defect. But that doesn't mean he's not allowed to negotiate a contract with a major-league team somewhere else.

The MLB says that a player who's established residency in a third country (most often Mexico or the Dominican Republic) is allowed to negotiate with any major league team. So instead of working out a contract with only one team, like players who go directly to the US do, a player in a third country is able to put all 30 major-league teams in a bidding war against each other.

As a result, players that go the third-country route get much bigger contracts. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported earlier this year that the 20 Cuban players who've done third-country negotiations over the last five years have signed contracts worth an average of $14.5 million dollars. For comparison, the number-one draft pick in the main MLB draft in 2013 — an American third baseman named Kris Bryant — signed a contract with the Cubs for just $6.7 million. And most of the players who come over from Cuba aren't as good as the very best American player.

The downside of this is that it can take a while for a player to establish residency in a third country — and there's a paperwork hassle. He has to submit two residency documents to the US Department of the Treasury, which then gives him a "special license" that says that even though he's from Cuba, he's now an "unblocked national." That's a golden opportunity for traffickers.

Yasiel Puig bat flip

Yasiel Puig's bat-flipping, carefree style hides a horrific story of trafficking. (Norm Hall)

4) What actually happens when a player gets trafficked?

The details vary from case to case, but we do have a lot of information about two recent high-profile trafficking cases: outfielder Leonys Martin of the Texas Rangers and outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Martin was smuggled out of Cuba in 2010 — he was originally supposed to go straight to the United States, but after missing his boat, he was sweet-talked by a Cuban smuggler (or lanchero) into going to Cancun instead. When he got to Cancun, he was turned over to a couple of criminals who ran a shady operation called Estrellas de Beisbol (Stars of Baseball); they passed their business off as a training academy, but it was basically a front for player smuggling.

According to Martin, the operators held him hostage in their training complex for several months, and made him work out for any American scouts who came by to see him. He was only released when he signed a $15.5 million contract with the Rangers — 35 percent of which was apparently supposed to go to the smugglers.

In 2012, Martin filed a lawsuit against the smugglers, saying that he'd had to pay them $1.35 million to avoid "reprisals against his family," according to the Times of Havana. In 2013, the two men who operated the Cancun training complex were charged with conspiring to traffic and extort thirteen Cuban players into the US via Mexico, including Martin. (The two men were already serving prison sentences in the US for their role in an earlier insurance-fraud case.) One of them pled guilty in August 2014.

Puig's case is more complicated. A Cuban-born man living in Florida, Raul Pacheco, arranged to pay $250,000 to a set of smugglers to get Puig out of Cuba. (In return, Puig would owe Pacheco 20 percent of whatever he made in the major leagues.) After Puig, other Cubans, and the smugglers arrived on the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres, though, the smugglers upped the price to $400,000 — and when Pacheco couldn't pay, they held Puig and his fellow smuggling victims hostage in a motel. Pacheco ultimately got together with fellow expats, pulled some strings with local cops, and arranged to break Puig and the others out of the motel.

Even then, though, Puig still wasn't free. One Dodgers scout told reporters that when the team wanted to make Puig an offer, they had to "find the real decision-maker" — because it was clear that Puig and his agent weren't the ones pulling the strings. And after he signed with the Dodgers, Puig and one of his companions started getting threats from the smugglers they'd escaped in Mexico. Pacheco promised to "neutralize" the threat — and shortly afterwards, one of the smugglers was found dead by the side of the road.

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is a gorgeous tourist destination — and a known smuggling hub. (Adalberto Gonzaga)

5) Are Mexican drug cartels behind this?

The people who have been indicted so far in US courts weren't directly employed by the cartels. But there's a lot of evidence to suggest that in some of these cases — including Puig's — the traffickers are at least operating under the cartels' protection, and might be more closely connected than that.

Isla Mujeres, in particular — the Mexican island where Puig was kept — is a known smuggling hub for the Zetas, one of the most powerful and fearsome cartels in Mexico. And one of the smugglers on Puig's boat had been kidnapped by the Zetas earlier — but the Zetas only cut off one finger before releasing him.

According to researcher Adam Rodriques, of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, "Even taking the finger into consideration, it would seem fairly out of character for the Zetas to release someone with no strings attached."

Even if the Zetas themselves aren't involved, the traffickers are some pretty unsavory characters. An earlier Cuban defector, Yuniesky Betancourt, had to escape smugglers who threatened to break his legs. And Puig was threatened at Dodgers spring training by a man who found his hotel room and demanded that he start paying up.

6) Is anyone trying to fix this problem?

Major League Baseball hasn't taken action yet. And commentators are beginning to get impatient. Jeff Passan of Yahoo News wrote about the league's inaction earlier this year: "The silence from the league and the (players') union, the two parties charged with protecting the sport's sanctity and the players' health, is deafening."

Weirdly enough, the only institution that's putting pressure on the MLB to fix the issue is the state legislature of Florida. They passed a bill in 2014 that would prevent their two major-league teams — the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays — from getting up to $3 million apiece in tax breaks unless the MLB changes its policy toward Cuban ballplayers. Still, Rodriques says it's unlikely that the two Florida teams alone are going to be able to pressure the league to change its policies across the board.

7) What could the MLB do to crack down on trafficking?

There are a few options:

Allow all Cuban players to negotiate with all 30 teams — even if they came directly to the US. This would eliminate the incentive for players to try to get to a third country like Mexico in order to make more money — which is the phase where traffickers have generally gotten involved. This is the change the Florida state legislature wants the MLB to make. However, this would still mean that Cuban players would be able to make a lot more money when they first got signed than American players or those from other countries can.

Implement an international draft. Right now, how international players get signed to play in the MLB varies depending on what country they live in — and Cubans who live in third countries have very few restrictions on how much money they can take (which is why they're so appealing to traffickers). Implementing an international draft would allow the MLB to treat players from Cuba, whether they're in the US or a third country, the same way they treat players from other countries. That would almost certainly result in less money for Cuban players who arrive in a third country.

But the MLB has already decided that it won't be holding an international draft for at least another couple of years, because owners and the players' union haven't worked out how it would work. And while keeping Cuban players from making as much money as they do now might be a good way to keep criminal organizations from getting involved, it would also penalize the players.

Cuban alleyway baseball game

Cuban baseball players don't come from much to begin with. (Michele Testini)

9) What could the US government do about trafficking?

If the US government lifted its embargo with Cuba entirely, it would solve the problem — major league teams would be allowed to sign players who were living in Cuba, thus allowing them to come to the US with a job (and a visa) in hand. That doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon.

But Rodriques of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime thinks that the US government could actually create a limited exception to the embargo that would apply solely to athletes. It made an exception in the 1980s for artistic and literary materials, so it's not totally unprecedented. If the US did that, it would eliminate the need for the "special license," so it would make the process for Cuban players much more straightforward — and safer.

Further reading:

Jeff Passan's takedown of the MLB's inaction at Yahoo! News

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime report on trafficking of Cuban players

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