Excerpt: Cuban players, human trafficking, and MLB

Eddie Dominguez, a decorated former Boston Police detective and FBI task force agent, was one of the founding members of Major League Baseball’s Department of Investigations, a unit born out of the recommendations of former Sen. George Mitchell, who compiled the 2007 report on baseball’s doping past. In Dominguez’s new book — “Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime (Hachette Books),” written with Teri Thompson and Christian Red — readers get an inside look at the into the dark side of America’s pastime, examining scandals involving drug use, age and ID fraud, gambling, and human trafficking. In “Player Trafficking” — the inside story of how Cuban players make their way to the United States and into Major League Baseball, Dominguez describes the harrowing journey a player must take to find his way to the U.S. and into “Las Grandes Ligas.”


DURING MY TENURE  with DOI, I was in charge of all investigations that dealt with Cuban players—from age and ID fraud to the basic elements of human trafficking. In 2009, I had the opportunity to investigate the case of Felix Perez, a little-known Cuban player who had escaped Cuba, ended up in the Dominican Republic, and who had eventually been signed by the Yankees.

Along the way, as he was trying to get his visa to travel to the United States, his story unraveled. I was able to interview him and get him to tell me the truth.
It was a harrowing tale, to say the least.

Perez said he had left Cuba at 1:30 in the morning one day in the early spring of 2008, along with two other players, Juan Carlos Moreno and Yenier Corbalan. They waded into the ocean up to their necks and waited for a cell phone call. The call came, and they were told to swim toward a flashlight. They boarded a midsized speedboat that held seventeen other Cuban defectors and a young Mexican boat captain. They set out to sea and traveled until they ran out of gas. Then they waited six to eight hours for another boat.
They cruised for three days before arriving fifty miles off the coast of Puerto Aventuras, Mexico, where they were transferred to a yacht. Perez said they had hidden in a compartment in the base of the boat to avoid Mexican coast guard authorities. Once they reached land, they were transported to a farmhouse where they were kept until their agents, or buscones, claimed them. He said they had been fed and given a place to sleep but not allowed to leave the house for fear they might flee. He said that the “mafia” group that ran the operation consisted of Cubans and Mexicans and that they were also engaged in trafficking drugs and arms.

Perez and the other players waited for a month until a bus- cón/agent named Juan Delemos, a Dominican lawyer who had recently become involved in the buscón business, came to Mexico to take a look at them. Perez was thin and nervous and said he had worn three shirts under his baseball jersey so he would look bigger when he put on a mini-showcase for Delemos. According to Perez, Delemos was in contact with Manuel Ascona in the Dominican Republic. Ascona was like a comic book character, a well-known, Cuban-born, self-admitted player trafficker who had contracted his crew to get Perez and other players out of Cuba. Ascona had convinced Delemos to take a look at the Cuban players in Mexico, and Delemos was confident, after seeing Perez and the two other players, that this would be a good investment. It helped that Ascona had convinced the three players to give Delemos 50 percent of their signing bonuses in exchange for getting them out of Mexico.

Ascona provided the players with Costa Rican passports and Delemos accompanied them on a flight from Cancún through Panama and on to Santo Domingo, DR. Ascona was waiting for them at the Las Américas International Airport and took them to a house in Santiago where they were all kept and continued to train.

Ascona then introduced Perez to Jaime Torres, who, along with Bartolo Hernandez, was a top agent to Cuban players. In a later conversation during the investigation, Delemos told me that after agreeing to the deal with Ascona, he had found out that Ascona had agreed to a similar deal with a businessman named Tomás Collado involving the same three players. Collado, a used-car salesman who owned Cefisa Motors in Santiago, DR, was also new to the buscón business. Delemos described Ascona as a “snake” but teamed up with him nonetheless. Collado and Delemos supplied players with room, board, training, and loans that they agreed to repay once they signed with a major-league club. I found Ascona to be a snake, too, although an interesting one. I interviewed him during the Perez investigation, and he told me some crazy stories. He claimed that he had traveled to Cuba himself to get players and had been arrested. During one of his interrogations, he said, a Cuban soldier had asked him what players he was targeting to take back. “All of them,” he said he told the soldier. “If the bearded guy could still play first, I’d take him, too.”

Perez hadn’t played on the Cuban national team, so not many MLB teams knew his background and Ascona was able to persuade him to change his age from twenty-three to nineteen. Perez said that he didn’t know who had been responsible for falsifying his Cuban passport, which I found hard to believe since Ascona told me he had discussed the change in age with Perez and that most everyone involved knew about it. He said that he hadn’t seen the actual passport until it was handed to him by Collado so that Perez could show it to Martin Valerio, who was then the director of the Yankees’ DR complex. After looking at the passport, Perez said, that was when he knew that the year of his birth had been changed from 11-12-1984 to 11-12-1988.

Torres showcased Perez to teams, and he ended up signing with the Yankees for $3.5 million.

Before Perez went to the US Embassy in the Dominican Republic to apply for a visa, MLB’s DR office’s lead investigator, Arlina Espaillat Matos, conducted a residency investigation on Perez as part of the limited investigations the office did on Cuban players. Espaillat was a Dominican lawyer and childhood friend of Rafael Perez, the DR office’s original administrator, and soon after DOI came on board we discovered that many of Espaillat’s investigations of Dominican and Cuban players had been rubber-stamped or, at a minimum, poorly executed. It was apparent that many if not all of the investigations would have to be conducted again.

Before the DOI was created, the DR office conducted age/ID fraud investigations on Dominican players but not Cuban players, and we would later take on that task. The office investigators’ main mission was to make sure that Cuban players had properly established residency in a country other than Cuba or the United States. By this I mean that they merely contacted the country of residency and its immigration department and determined whether the residency document was a true and original copy, and never looked into how it was obtained. That issue would become a key charge in the Miami human-trafficking case.

Espaillat’s investigation determined that Perez had legally obtained his residency, but Valerio, who had been made aware of what DOI had found out about Espaillat’s investigations, requested that the DR office conduct a second investigation.
By then the DR office was feeling the heat from MLB because of all the corruption DOI was uncovering. Ronaldo Peralta, who had become the head of the office, authorized a second investigation, and the new investigator started asking Perez more pointed questions.

Perez told the new investigator how he had been taken out of Cuba by boat by a Mexican gang and been stripped of his original ID document and held in an apartment with other Cuban baseball players. US Embassy officials who began working on Perez’s visa request confirmed that the passport he had presented to them was a false document. At that point Valerio called me and asked DOI to get involved. Perez was hesitant to talk at first, but he eventually told us the whole sordid story about his journey, his passport, and all the people involved. We forwarded our report to the embassy and told the officials there that Perez would come in and cooperate fully. They offered him leniency and another chance in exchange for his cooperation. He agreed and eventually obtained another visa.
MLB’s concern in Perez’s case—or any other case that involved Cuban players—was never the conditions the player faced as he tried to get into the United States, whether his passport was falsified, or how he had gone about getting his residency, only whether his residency was “legal.”

I was contacted by FBI agent Hector Ortiz late in 2013 about trafficking of Cuban players in general and a situation in Haiti in which six Cuban players had been detained because of visa issues, a group that would become known as the Haitian Six. I had met Ortiz, a fellow Cuban, in Boston and at a dinner in DC, where we had both received awards, and he wanted to set up a meeting among me, the US Attorney’s Office in Miami, and FBI and ICE agents concerning what I knew about MLB’s involvement in how residencies were obtained in various countries.

I agreed to the meeting and communicated the information to Mullin, who reported it to Manfred and Halem. They assigned Labor Relations Department attorney Patrick Houlihan to handle the situation, and he told me not to talk to anyone from the prosecutor’s office before speaking with lawyers from the Miami-based firm of Kobre & Kim. I was to meet with attorneys Matthew Menchel and Adriana Riviere-Badell to discuss my involvement.

I flew to Miami and located Kobre & Kim’s office downtown. The place had a clean, contemporary look, and after being greeted by a secretary, I took a seat and waited. After a few minutes, Adriana appeared and we moved to a conference room in the front of the office, near the secretary’s desk. I was apprehensive about how she might interview me, but in the back of my mind I already knew how it was going to go. She simply asked me to tell her about my dealings with Cuban players, so I explained my duties for MLB, which were to confirm a Cuban player’s residency in a country other than Cuba or the United States. All I was required to do was check with the immigration officials of the country of residency to make sure that the player’s residency documents were authentic.
I then purposely pushed my luck by telling her that if I had been allowed to dig further into how those residencies were obtained, I would have certainly found that they had been obtained fraudulently. She stopped writing, looked up, and made it very clear that I should stick to describing my official duties and not offer my opinions or beliefs. The trial balloon thus popped, I decided not to share any of my thoughts, including on the Viciedo case, or any of the information I had accumulated from sources and reports that led me to believe that MLB teams were conspiring with human traffickers to bring specific players out of Cuba. I have no regrets about that decision, because if I had told all that I knew, MLB would certainly have known what I was intending to disclose to authorities after baseball let me go.

The second meeting, in early 2014, was on the same day we were to go to the US Attorney’s Office. Menchel and Riviere-Badell were both present, and I now understood that they wanted me to tell the authorities only what they wanted me to tell them. I was to follow their lead throughout the interview. It wasn’t hard to see that they were there to make sure I didn’t leak any information that would cause problems for MLB. I was told flat out not to answer any question unless they directed me to.

As we walked over to the US Attorney’s Office, I had a sick feeling in my stomach. The thought had crossed my mind that here was the chance to blow up this trafficking thing. If in the middle of this interview I just started telling the prosecutor everything I knew, two things would happen: Menchel and Riviere-Badell would have ministrokes, and I would be fired not ten minutes after they called 245 Park Avenue. Neither the ministrokes nor the firing would bother me, but I kept thinking of Mullin and Hanna, who still thought we would weather the storm. I don’t have many regrets, but the choice not to simply keep talking after the first question was asked is one of them.
At the US Attorney’s Office, I was met by Ron Davidson, the prosecutor assigned to the case, Ortiz, and ICE agent Albert Ordonez, the investigators involved. For the first time in my life I felt like a defendant, though one who was muzzled. Menchel and Riviere-Badell answered most of the questions on behalf of MLB, and allowed me to answer only when they deemed it appropriate. When it was over, I felt dirty. There was so much more I wanted to say, but MLB and its hired guns wouldn’t allow me to. As I drove back to my condo in Delray Beach, I kept second-guessing myself: I should have blown it up but didn’t. I called Mullin and Hanna and told them what had happened. I could sense that they both breathed a sigh of relief. George, who had been physically ill over what had happened throughout the Biogenesis investigation, was silent during the call. He was a man never at a loss for words, and I could almost hear his thought: if this crazy Cuban had said everything he wanted to say, all of us would’ve lost our jobs. I should have done it.

The next day, I sent Hector Ortiz, the FBI agent, the following text message: “Hector it was nice seeing you yesterday and I’m sorry it was under those awkward circumstances. When this is all over let’s have a beer.”

The beer would have to wait until I was fired from MLB in April 2014. I spoke with Ortiz and immediately agreed to meet the investigators and the prosecutors. It was a relief to unburden myself. I was finally going to tell Ortiz and the US Attorney’s Office all I knew about the Cuban players, human trafficking, and MLB.

Davidson sent my lawyer, Tom Frongillo, a subpoena, and we met in my lawyer’s Boston office. This time I turned over documents, including my reports from the Viciedo case, and a report I had entered into the DOI case management system concerning information I had received from Halem in 2012. Halem said he had received a phone call from an owner telling him that an agent for the prized Cuban right fielder Yasiel Puig had contacted his staff and offered them Puig’s services if the team fronted the agent $500,000. That, much like the [Dayan] Viciedo case, would have circumvented MLB’s free agency rules governing Cuban players, who were supposed to establish residency in a country other than Cuba or the United States before they could enter MLB’s free agent market. Puig, who ended up signing a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Dodgers in June 2012, had tried repeatedly to defect from Cuba, and had been embroiled in all kinds of troubles surrounding his defection at the hands of smugglers and Mexican cartel members. I immediately opened a case on the Puig situation in the DOI’s case management file but was told by Halem to forget about it once Puig was declared eligible to sign as a free agent. In 2015, a South Florida businessman named Gilberto Suarez, whom Puig had paid $2.5 million to help get him across the Mexico border to the United States, pleaded guilty to violating immigration laws and was sentenced to house arrest and one month in jail.

I told the US Attorney’s Office everything I knew.

Ortiz was very excited and told me that the investigation had stalled and that the end goal was to indict anyone associated with the smugglers. A few months after that conversation, Ortiz, Ron Davidson, and ICE agent Albert Ordonez flew up to Boston, and we met at Frongillo’s office overlooking the Boston skyline and Boston Harbor.

I told them that I had informed MLB that its rules governing Cuban players were crazy and that all they led to was corruption on the part of the trainers, agents, and smugglers.
Ortiz, Ordonez, and Davidson were all very interested not only in what I had to say but also in the documents I supplied them, especially since MLB had not submitted many of those documents to the US Attorney’s Office in answer to subpoenas sent to them.
Ortiz said that the case, which by now had been in limbo for more than two years, needed a jump start and that my information would help do just that. He also told me that Davidson was doing a great job but they were trying to get Miami assistant US attorney Michael “Pat” Sullivan—who had also prosecuted the Biogenesis case—involved in the investigation.

Sullivan was highly respected and extremely capable. A decorated career prosecutor, he was recognized as one of the best in the country. The case would be the last of his illustrious career.

On February 11, 2016, Bartolo “Bart” Hernandez, an MLBPA- approved agent who represented the vast majority of Cuban-born players who managed to escape the country by boat, was indicted by the US Attorney’s Office in Miami on one count of conspiracy to encourage and induce an alien to enter the United States and one count of bringing an alien into the United States for the purpose of private financial gain.

The indictment was superseded two months later, and Hernandez, along with two accomplices, Amin Latouf and Julio Estrada, were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and three counts of bringing an alien into the country.

All told, Hernandez was looking at maximum penalties of ten years for the two conspiracy charges and forty years for the four counts of bringing an alien into the United States.

As the trial approached, I was prepped several times, by Sullivan and others, and I have to say, the feeling was strange. For almost twenty-nine years I had been prepped by assistant district attorneys and assistant US attorneys, but that was when I was in law enforcement. The old saying “Once you’re gone you’re gone” applies to law enforcement in an almost blinding way. I was no longer in the inner circle. When they huddled and talked about what I had just told them, I, of course, wasn’t included in the huddle. When they walked me out of the FBI satellite office they waved good-bye as if I were a civilian, which I now was. I understood it, but it was a strange feeling.

Issues also arose concerning my meeting with the feds prior to being fired from MLB and the fact that I had spoken to law enforcement in the shadow of attorneys who had instructed me to only answer questions they approved. Pat Sullivan feared that Bart’s lawyers would ask why I hadn’t told the US Attorney’s Office about this information back in late 2013, early 2014.

The day came, Friday, February 3, 2017, when I would testify in the Bart Hernandez case. A few months before, the Manhattan DA’s office had sent police officers to my house in what I believed was an effort by MLB to sully my credibility, not to mention intimidate me.

I had weathered that storm, and now it was time. I wasn’t looking forward to testifying against Hernandez for many reasons. First of all, I believed that MLB’s rules had left Bart and all other agents involved with Cuban players in a no-win situation, and I believed that everyone who had conspired with the traffickers should be the ones being prosecuted. To achieve that outcome, however, somebody would have to cooperate, and that somebody would have to be Bart Hernandez. The prosecution had almost convinced Bart to cooperate—until he obtained new counsel and abruptly decided not to.
Without Hernandez, or a middleman like him, you have nothing. The traffickers deal with the agents, who in turn deal with the MLB teams. When MLB first heard about the ongoing Cuban trafficking case, I remember that Dan Mullin’s phone began ringing off the hook—teams’ general counsels were wondering what the feds were really looking into. MLB has said in the past that it fully cooperated with authorities in this case and that it was not a target. I believe neither of those statements.

There is no question that some unsavory details emerged in the trial involving Hernandez and Estrada. Though they claimed they had simply been helping players prepare for tryouts and negotiate contracts through a process that had been accepted by the US Treasury Department and MLB, prosecutors said that players were victimized by thugs such as Joan “Nacho” Garcia, an ex-con who had been kidnapped and murdered in 2009. I had never met Nacho. I had heard his name but had never been allowed to investigate him. Word was that he was one of the traffickers murdered as a result of a battle over White Sox player Jose Abreu between Nacho and the trafficker who had taken over for him. Months later, Ortiz would process four suspects who had been arrested for Nacho’s murder.

What only emphasized the dark and troubling nature of the case was the testimony of one player’s wife who was told that her husband would be chopped up and sent to her in a box if he fled Cancún and signed with somebody else.

Hernandez and Estrada were portrayed in the trial as the masterminds behind what prosecutors called “The Plan,” in which Cuban ballplayers moved through an underground pipeline via third-country way stations onward across the US border. Fraud was integral to the plot because the US embargo of Cuba and immigration laws had to be circumvented to convert the Cubans into free agents eligible to negotiate with teams so they could sign lucrative contracts.

But to be honest, I wasn’t interested in seeing Hernandez go to jail. Bart and people like him are the direct result of baseball’s rules governing Cuban players signing as free agents with MLB teams and MLB’s decision to willfully ignore the human-trafficking aspect of signing Cubans. As Mullin and I had warned our bosses in 2009, when I had gotten involved in the Perez matter, MLB rules governing Cubans led to corruption. I had even spoken to Hernandez about it and asked if he would speak to Selig, Manfred, or Halem about those issues. He had said he would. Whether he meant it or not, only he knows. If you took away free agency for Cubans, they would have to enter the United States, go through the immigration process, and then enter baseball as drafted ballplayers. I understand that smugglers would still be involved, but the payoffs to government officials and the fraud committed to obtain residency in a third country outside of the United States and Cuba would be eliminated. MLB would surely counter by saying it would have to bargain such changes with the Players Association. So what? Bargain. I’m sure there could be a happy medium. After the Viciedo case I never got the green light to fully investigate Cuban traffickers. Manfred’s words the day he called concerning Viciedo were clear to Mullin and me: Stand down. When it comes to Cuban players, human traffickers, and all the corruption that goes with that, MLB is not interested.

ON MARCH 15, 2017, Hernandez was convicted of conspiring with Estrada to deceive the US government into granting visas to two dozen Cuban ballplayers so they could sign with major-league teams. He was also convicted of bringing Leonys Martin, an outfielder who signed with Texas for $15 million in 2011, into the United States after he had been smuggled from Cuba to Mexico. He was sentenced on November 2, 2017, to almost four years in prison.

Estrada was found guilty of conspiracy and three additional counts of bringing Jose Abreu, Omar Luis, and Dalier Hinojosa into the United States illegally. Abreu had signed a $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013. Estrada got five years. Latouf remains a fugitive.

At the sentencing, US district judge Kathleen Williams said, “This case is not about the love of the game,” echoing the defense team’s theme during the sentencing hearing. “This case is about money.”

As far as I’m concerned, truer words couldn’t describe what MLB is all about.

Hector Ortiz, the FBI agent, would tell me in 2018 that the case was called Operation Sisyphus, because the prosecutors felt, at the outset, as though they were pushing a big rock up a hill for no gain.

“We knew who we were facing, and it took awhile, but we finally got Bart,” he said. “And we’re hoping to get more.”

I felt there was much more to Cuban trafficking than was ever revealed during the trial. Interestingly, the case remains open.

Written with Christian Red and Teri Thompson

Excerpted from Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime by Eddie Dominguez, Christian Red and Teri Thompson. Copyright ©2018 Eddie Dominguez by Hachette Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Header Photo by Jose Morales on Unsplash