A sports agent and a baseball trainer convicted of operating a sophisticated, sometimes violent network that smuggled Cuban players to the U.S. were sentenced to prison Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams ordered a sentence of nearly four years for agent Bartolo Hernandez and just over five years for trainer Julio Estrada. Both were convicted by a jury in March of conspiracy and alien smuggling charges that included some high-profile Major League Baseball players who paid them a cut of their lucrative contracts.
During a four-hour hearing, Williams heard from numerous friends and family members of the two men about how close they remain with most of the players who made it to the U.S. and how involved they are with youth baseball in South Florida. Williams acknowledged what she called a "paradox" between the upstanding community figure and smuggler within both men.
But she said the case, which came to a close a day after this year's World Series ended, is actually fairly simple.
"This case is not about fulfilling dreams. This case is certainly not about love of the game. This case is about money, millions and millions of dollars," the judge said.
Hernandez, Estrada and members of the smuggling network received about $20 million for Cuban player contracts worth about $230 million, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson.
"The truth is, these defendants corrupted young men. They attempted to corrupt the process," Davidson said.
Hernandez and Estrada were ordered to surrender Dec. 14 to begin serving their sentences.
Trial evidence showed an existing Cuban smuggling operation that brought people from the communist-run island to Mexico became the platform in 2009 for the much more lucrative trade in elite ballplayers. People involved in that operation testified it was ultimately overseen by Hernandez and Estrada, and it had connections to the violent Zetas drug cartel in Mexico.
The players would be whisked from Cuba to Mexico or Haiti in a speedboat, sign papers claiming residency in their new country and eventually be cleared to sign with MLB teams. Prosecutors showed jurors how many of those documents contained false information, such as made-up jobs for players, and some travel documents were forged.
One player, Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu, testified that he ate pieces of his phony Haitian passport while flying to the U.S. in 2013 because he feared repercussions if he landed in Miami with a false document. Abreu later signed a $68 million deal with the White Sox.
Other players smuggled into the U.S. by the operation are Adeiny Hechavarria of the Tampa Bay Rays and Leonys Martin of the Chicago Cubs. Many others played in the major and minor leagues.
Minor leaguer 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.
Attorneys for Hernandez and Estrada sought Thursday to minimize how much they profited from the operation, highlighting instead their good works in South Florida's baseball world and how they helped talented players realize their MLB dreams by escaping an oppressive government in Cuba.
Hernandez lawyer Jeffrey Marcus noted that two Cuban-born players, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Yuli Gurriel of the Houston Astros, played key roles in this year's World Series. Neither is connected to the Hernandez-Estrada operation.
"The biggest beneficiaries of this entire episode were the players," Marcus said. "They're all here and they are all living their version of the American dream."
Hernandez and Estrada are planning to appeal their convictions and sentences.