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Guilty plea entered in Cuban ballplayer smuggling

Posted on Friday, 08.22.14

Guilty plea entered in Cuban ballplayer smuggling
BY CURT ANDERSON
AP LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

MIAMI — A man accused of masterminding a human trafficking ring pleaded
guilty Friday to U.S. extortion charges involving the smuggling of more
than 1,000 Cubans, including baseball players such as Texas Rangers
outfielder Leonys Martin.

Eliezer Lazo, 41, entered the plea Friday in Miami federal court. Lazo
is already serving a five-year prison sentence for money laundering in a
Medicare fraud case and now faces up to 20 additional years behind bars.
Lazo agreed to cooperate with investigators, which could reduce his
prison time when he is sentenced later this year.

Prosecutors say Lazo led an organization that smuggled Cubans by boat
into Mexico, where they were held until ransom payments were made. The
cost was typically about $10,000 for each person, although it could be
much higher in the case of Cuban baseball stars such as Martin.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson said the migrants who were not
sports stars were often crowded together in rooms of 20 or more under
armed guard, in prison-like conditions. If the smugglers weren’t
immediately paid, Davidson said, “the Cuban migrants in Mexico were
restrained and beaten while relatives could hear the screams on the phone.”

Court documents show that the valuable Cuban baseball stars were treated
far better than others involved with the smuggling ring, even though
they were watched over by armed guards.

If the money was paid up front, prosecutors say the Cubans were brought
directly to the U.S. without incident. Under the U.S. “wet foot, dry
foot” policy, Cubans who reach shore generally are allowed to stay in
the U.S. while those intercepted at sea are returned to the communist
island.

All told, Davison said Lazo’s smuggling venture netted up to $1.5
million for the group.

Authorities are seeking forfeiture of properties, cars and bank accounts
controlled by Lazo, including one traced to a purported Mexican baseball
academy used to showcase players for Major League Baseball scouts. The
documents in the Lazo case require forfeiture of the smuggling group’s
interests of a number of other contracts involving Cuban baseball
players, but they are identified only by their initials.

Martin signed a five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers in 2011.

Details of Martin’s journey through Mexico to the big leagues came to
light in a lawsuit filed against him by the Estrellas baseball academy,
which claimed that he had agreed to pay up to 35 percent of his MLB
contract to it operators, including Lazo. Martin paid about $1.2 million
to the group but refused to fork over any more.

Martin’s civil attorney, Paul Minoff, said the speedy outfielder is
happy the criminal case is nearing a conclusion and that the lawsuit
against him will likely disappear. The U.S. attorney’s office is seeking
forfeiture of any money Lazo obtained through Martin’s big-league
contract, but it’s unclear if funds are available for seizure.

“We’ve asked for a return for the money paid. In reality, the chance of
that is fairly slim,” Minoff said. “It’s still better than paying out an
additional $4 or $5 million.”

Other Cuban baseball players, notably Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel
Puig, have been smuggled out of Cuba to Mexico, where they are free to
negotiate with any U.S. big-league team rather than be subjected to the
MLB draft if they came directly to the U.S. In practice, that means a
much bigger contract for the best players. Puig was not involved with
Lazo’s smuggling operation.

Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt

Source: MIAMI: Guilty plea entered in Cuban ballplayer smuggling –
People Wires – MiamiHerald.com –
http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/08/22/4302689/guilty-plea-set-in-cuban-ballplayer.html

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