No one walks off the island


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Some 36 hours after leaving Cuba, they reached their destination: a white-sand-and-resort-rimmed isl...

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No one walks off the island

  1. 1. No one walks off the island Some 36 hours after leaving Cuba, they reached their destination: a white-sand-and-resort-rimmed island off Cancun, about 400 miles as the crow flies from the mouth of the Bay of Pigs, known as Isla Mujeres. It was another grueling, near-sleepless journey wrought with anxiety. To stay awake, Despaigne says, the lancheros snorted lines of cocaine. Despaigne is not ashamed to admit that he did too. (Puig, according to Despaigne, did not partake.) There were delays. Halfway into the passage, in the middle of the Caribbean, they ran out of gas. The lead lanchero, a burly thug known as Tomasito, had to radio a colleague on Isla Mujeres who brought a 50-foot yacht to come refuel them, but not before the group spent a fretful night adrift at sea on the dead-in-the-water cigarette boat, pitching, rolling and, at one point in the wee hours, coming hair-raisingly close to getting plowed under by a passing containership. Then, within some miles of Isla Mujeres, they had to fake- fish for several hours, waiting for nightfall before entering port, the better to evade the Mexican naval patrols that had, in the past, nabbed Tomasito's boats. The lancheros escorted the group to a small, tumbledown boardinghouse blocks from the beach. It had at least 10 rooms, Despaigne recalls, each one full of recently arrived Cuban migrants -- no vacancies. The place was apparently under the control of Tomasito, aka Tomas Valez Valdivia, born in Cuba in either 1971 or 1974 (the record is unclear). With his thick neck and near unibrow, Tomasito had a face made for a mug shot. In 2005, he was arrested in Florida on charges of grand larceny (theft of a conveyance) as well as aggravated assault of a police officer with a weapon. For some reason, he was allowed to post bail. He fled immediately south of the border, where he set up shop in Cancun. The boss of a thriving alien-smuggling operation, Tomasito and his crew ferried defectors from the coasts of Cuba to either Isla Mujeres or Cancun, under prior arrangement with the migrants' relatives in the United States, chiefly South Florida. Once those families had paid -- for years, the going rate for a garden-variety smuggle of a regular Cuban civilian has been $10,000 a head -- Tomasito's crew would transport the migrants to the Mexico-Texas border, usually at Matamoros or Nuevo Laredo. There, the Cubans would take advantage of the 1995 revision to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially makes it possible for Cubans to seek asylum in the U.S., no questions asked, as long as they can prove they're Cubans and as long as they enter the U.S. on dry ground, as opposed to crossing into U.S. territory at sea -- the so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy. If for some reason payment wasn't forthcoming, the lancheros would either hold the migrants until their families made good or kick them out onto the streets, where Mexican authorities would likely catch them and deport them back to Cuba. All over Isla Mujeres, in shoddy hotels and nondescript private homes on backstreets never visited by the island's endless streams of hard-partying American and European tourists, Tomasito and several other rival lanchero groups secreted away their smuggled Cubans for weeks and sometimes months at a time. At the Isla Mujeres apartment, Despaigne recalls talking to a young mother with several children. She was crying. She'd been trapped there for perhaps a month; her husband, so far, hadn't been able to come up with the
  2. 2. money. The lanchero rings could handle the sunk costs of an occasional nonpaying customer. Their boats regularly carried 25 people each trip -- a quarter of a million dollars per haul, two or three times a month. Yasiel Puig, of course, was not your garden-variety smuggle. That Tomasito and four of his chief associates were on the cigarette boat at all -- normally, they had pilots in their employ to handle that kind of dangerous work -- suggested how valuable they felt this commodity was. One of those associates, Yandrys Leon, aka Leo, had just a few months earlier been indicted in the U.S. for allegedly extorting the Cuban migrants he'd smuggled to Cancun. Within South Florida's tight-knit Cuban-?migr? community there are probably tens of thousands of people who have been brought out of Cuba by Cancun-based lancheros. Through that grapevine, Raul Pacheco managed to contact Tomasito and hire him to conduct Puig's extraction. The price: $250,000. At the Isla Mujeres apartment, Despaigne and Puig surreptitiously communicated, via Skype, with Pacheco in Miami. He told them something worrisome: He didn't yet have the funds to pay Tomasito. Rest assured, though, he was working on it. In the meantime, guards kept watch over the four. No one was allowed to leave the boardinghouse's premises unchaperoned. Escape, everyone agreed, was out of the question. They had no Mexican pesos. Nor, of course, did they have visitors' visas, or even their passports -- only their Cuban ID cards. If caught by Mexican authorities, they'd be put on a plane for Cuba and likely prison. Days passed. Still no money from Pacheco. They swam in the hotel's small courtyard pool; they watched Mexican soap operas; they ate takeout. The atmosphere became increasingly tense. "Don't play with me," Despaigne recalls Tomasito saying at one point. "I'm the one who took you out of Cuba. You guys have to follow through just like I followed through." Go big or go home: from his 110 mph speeding ticket to his Ruthian exploits, Puig is a man of outsized efforts. Photo by: Christian Petersen/Getty Images THAT YASIEL PUIG -- who can now be seen in paparazzi photographs, his arms around the shoulders of people like Jay Z -- departed Cuba in a clandestine operation that involved a 50- kilometer swampland trek and a cigarette boat piloted by Zeta-affiliated gangsters speaks to a certain root absurdity in the ways of man. Puig would have had no reason to embark on his strange odyssey were it not for the adversarial relationship between Cuba and the United States, still nurtured by both nations 25 years after the collapse of communism nearly everywhere else on the planet. The United States' trade embargo against Cuba, established by the Eisenhower administration in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro took power, makes it illegal for American entities to do business with Cuban nationals, or hire them, unless those Cubans have first defected and, in effect, renounced their citizenship to that dangerous enemy state 90 miles from Key West. The Cuban government, meanwhile, last year eased restrictions by allowing its baseball players to sign with overseas professional leagues in countries like Mexico and Japan. But because of the embargo, its players are still banned from playing the game for those depraved American capitalist- imperialists just to the north -- unless, of course, they defect. To this day, the senescent Castro regime considers even the expression of the desire to do so an act of ideological treason. learn lean logistics
  3. 3. To take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity created by the opposing policies of the two nations, a robust underworld industry has developed over the last decade. It is, essentially, a baseball-player black market -- bolsa negra in Cuban slang, which translates literally as "black bag." Puig's experience, in that regard, is hardly unique. To traffic in this rarefied kind of human, the best smugglers have so perfected the art of circumventing the laws of the two adversarial nations that they've made themselves into millionaires. Since 2009, the market value for the most talented Cuban players has exploded. That's when Aroldis Chapman, a shutdown relief pitcher with a supra-100 mph fastball, departed the Cuban national team at a tournament in the Netherlands, quickly became a resident of the obscure European microstate of Andorra, and months later signed with the Cincinnati Reds for $30 million. In October 2013, the slugger Jose Abreu, lately of Cuba, but then suddenly a resident of Haiti (or the Dominican Republic, depending on what news source you read), set the current record: $68 million, courtesy of the Chicago White Sox. Both took advantage of rules collectively bargained between Major League Baseball and the players' union that allow baseball-playing residents of any country other than the U.S., Canada or Puerto Rico to become free agents, rather than enter the draft. As such, Puig and Abreu were able to instruct their representatives to conduct an auction, multiple bidders ballooning their price effectively without limit. While not every Cuban player in the U.S. is the product of a smuggling ring, the bull market for their talent has inspired the leading tycoons in la bolsa negra de beisbol, themselves native Cubans, to handle the entire process of defection. Over the years, according to those we spoke to within and around such smuggling rings, they and their attendant personnel have developed a highly specialized expertise, encompassing marine navigation, boat handling, bribery, forgery, money laundering, the immigration policies of multiple nations, and the ins and outs of MLB's collective bargaining agreement. Through a network of contacts in Cuba, they approach and recruit baseball players, enticing them to defect with cash payments and, of course, promises of Major League fame and fortune. The smugglers hire the lancheros. They act as fixers; they're in charge of the speedy obtainment of residency papers in a third country, often through bribery or forgery -- time is money. They bankroll the care and feeding of the players as they work out for scouts in those third countries. Sometimes they even keep experienced trainers on their staffs. Because all of these costs come up front, the smugglers must occasionally finance their operations by raising money from "investors," in effect hawking equity in the players' future earnings, or by "selling" players to a third party. And they maintain relationships with the U.S sports agents who can negotiate big-money deals with MLB franchises. For this suite of hard-to-come-by services, the smugglers want between 20 percent and 30 percent of the top-line value of a player's first professional contract. That kind of revenue stream has interested a whole lot of colorful people in the underworlds of several countries: Mexico, the Dominican Republic and, of course, Miami, USA. In Cancun, long the seat of smuggling rings that specialize in bringing regular civilians out of Cuba as well as ballplayers, turf wars have been waged over the business. Players have been stolen at gunpoint from one group by the next, hits taken out, rivals driven by, and strafed, bullet-ridden corpses left lying in the streets. OF THE MANY colorful people drawn to the smuggling of Cuban baseball players was a group of Miami-based partners, all Cuban-born men, who had built an alien-trafficking ring with deep connections in Cancun. The ringleader of the group was a blond man in his early 40s, born in the
  4. 4. town of G?ines, due south of Havana near the coast. Because of the many sensitivities regarding a story that involves both cartel-associated smuggling rings and ongoing federal investigations, we will call him El Rubio. Through their many Cancun connections, El Rubio and his partners came to learn of a young, healthy, five-tool prospect -- hits for average, hits for power, runs fast, has a live arm, plays the field, 1.9 meters tall, more than 100 kilos of muscle -- who'd just arrived on Isla Mujeres in the hands of an occasional colleague of theirs, nicknamed Tomasito. Yasiel Puig, it was obvious, represented the score of a lifetime. El Rubio and his partners -- at that point unaware that Pacheco in a sense had "dibs" on Puig and was still trying to find the money to pay the lancheros -- phoned Tomasito in Cancun, according to a person familiar with the Rubio group. Breaking with their typical methods (they preferred to source their own players in Cuba), they struck a deal to buy Puig for $250,000. Enter Jaime Torres, a former Chicago tax attorney who has become known as something like the Scott Boras of Cuban defector baseball agents. One of the first Cuban players Torres represented was Jose Contreras, he of the $32 million contract with the Yankees in 2002. Torres has since represented so many Cuban defectors that Fidel Castro himself once denounced him as a kind of baseball-agent agent provocateur. For Yasiel Balaguert in 2011, Torres negotiated a $400,000 minor league contract with the Chicago Cubs. For left-handed pitcher Gerardo Concepcion, in March 2012, he brokered a $6 million deal -- also, as it happens, with the Chicago Cubs. Torres has also represented Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (Philadelphia Phillies, $12 million), Dariel Alvarez (Baltimore Orioles, $800,000) and Aledmys Diaz (St. Louis Cardinals, $8 million), to name a few. According to Torres himself in interviews with the media on the subject of his Cuban clients, he has a simple ground rule: He will never sully his name by stooping to work with smugglers. There is no proof that Torres does anything other than what any good agent does: strive to obtain as large an MLB contract as possible for his clients. It remains an open question, however, how Torres learns of these opportunities.