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MIAMI -- Federal prosecutors told jurors Tuesday that a Florida sports agent and a baseball trainer orchestrated an illegal Cuban ballplayer smuggling ring to get rich by making it easier for the players to escape the communist island and sign lucrative Major League Baseball contracts.
Defense lawyers countered that agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada stayed within the law while helping players navigate the free-agent complexities Cuban defectors must overcome to play big-league U.S. baseball.
Now that closing arguments are done, jurors are expected to begin deliberations Wednesday morning after six weeks of testimony. Hernandez and Estrada are charged with conspiracy and alien smuggling.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael "Pat" Sullivan said trial evidence showed the pair decided to persuade leaders of an existing, sometimes violent human smuggling network based in Cancun, Mexico, to switch from bringing regular Cuban citizens off the island for $10,000 each to the big-payday possibilities of elite Cuban ballplayers.
"They would all get rich," Sullivan said.
Cuban players must establish residency in a third country such as Mexico or Haiti before they can be declared MLB free agents and are cleared by the U.S. government from the economic embargo against Cubans. Much of Sullivan's argument focused on player residency documents and travel papers filled with falsehoods, such as fake jobs and addresses, and evidence of bribes paid to Mexican immigration officials to speed things up.
"This was a scam," Sullivan said. "They are chock full of misrepresentations and lies throughout."
Testimony showed Estrada's company got 30 percent of the player contracts and Hernandez got 5 percent. Some of the bigger names among the nearly three dozen smuggled players include Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, who signed a $68 million deal; the Seattle Mariners' Leonys Martin, who got a $15.5 million contract; and Adeiny Hechavarria of the Miami Marlins, who signed for $10 million.