Friday, August 22, 2014

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 outfielderLeonys 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 prisonlike 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, Davidson 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 its 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 that the criminal case is nearing its end and that the lawsuit against him likely will 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.