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MIAMI (AP) — 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.
Lawyers for Hernandez and Estrada, neither of whom testified, sought to distance them from any criminal aspects of the smuggling venture.
They said neither man encouraged players to come to the U.S. illegally and that neither was involved directly with the smuggling of players by boat from Cuba, although there were a number of contacts and meetings with some of the shadier characters.
Hernandez simply negotiated deals with the teams as sports agent, his attorneys said.
"What the government has done is, they have tried to convict Bart Hernandez by association," said defense lawyer Daniel Rashbaum. "He is absolutely, 100 percent innocent."
Rashbaum and co-counsel Jeffrey Marcus reminded jurors that players who testified, including those who came to the U.S. illegally without visas, insisted that Hernandez urged them to wait until their legal documents were ready. Some did not and were still permitted to stay and sign with teams.
"Every single player said Bart Hernandez told me: 'Wait. Be patient. You must come into this country legally,'" Marcus said.
Estrada attorney Sabrina Puglisi said her client saw a way to benefit financially from the desire of Cuban ballplayers to escape oppression and build better lives in the U.S. She said Estrada had no role in getting the player residency papers but mainly trained them and saw to their needs until they were cleared legally to come to the U.S.
"You heard from these players — they were desperate to leave," Puglisi told jurors. "They wanted to be free. Julio always encouraged the players to do things the right way."
Both defense lawyers pointed out that none of the 33 Cuban players associated with Hernandez and Estrada have had their legal U.S. status revoked or lost their permission to play baseball here.
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