From Cienfuegos to LA: Yasiel Puig, Human Trafficking and “America’s Pastime”

Apr 20, 2014
6:05 pm

Last week Tony Castro published an article titled “Yasiel Puig’s ties to the Zetas could spell disaster.” His lead focused on possible danger at Dodger Stadium in the wake of recent allegations in Los Angeles Magazine and ESPN’s The Magazine that the Cuban outfielder owes money to human traffickers probably linked to the dangerous drug cartel. The articles say little about new security measures in Chavez Ravine, as both the team and MLB are hesitant to speak about them, but what is very clear is that Puig and many other Cuban stars have been brought to the US by criminal organizations that thrive thanks to our anachronistic policies in relation to the island and our broken immigration system. They also highlight at the top level of “America’s pastime” the way in which violence and corruption permeate our daily lives with the promise of money and the “American dream.”

Yasiel Puig in 2013 (CREDIT: Ron Reiring)

Yasiel Puig in 2013 (CREDIT: Ron Reiring)

In our immigration debates the Cuban case holds a special place. With the so-called “wet foot-dry foot” policy (officially the Cuban Adjustment Act) begun in 1995, Cubans who make it to US soil are usually allowed to become permanent residents. On the surface it seems that they have an easier path once they enter the country. The recent Puig story, with its cast of murderous human traffickers, points in a different direction.

I will not get into the details of Puig’s saga that are well narrated in the two magazine stories. What did come as a surprise was the reach of the human trafficking networks that regularly bring Cubans to the US through Mexico and other countries. According to ESPN’s Scott Eden, Puig was smuggled by Tomás Valdez Valdivia:

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…

He further asserts that “Within South Florida’s tight-knit Cuban-émigré community there are probably tens of thousands of people who have been brought out of Cuba by Cancun-based lancheros.”

Puig’s case was particular. He would not bring in the standard $10,000. According to both reports, Miami-based Raúl Pacheco was supposed to pay the smugglers $250,000 in exchange for 20% of the player’s future salary. The supposed danger at Dodger Stadium seems to come from Pacheco’s failure to deliver on his part of the deal.

The story, as told by both lengthy magazine articles, would be a comedy of errors were there not real lives involved: from the beginning, when the smugglers couldn’t find Puig and his three companions on the Cuban coast, through their detention in a seedy hotel in Isla Mujeres when Pacheco couldn’t come up with the promised money, to their “rescue” by a rival gang of smugglers. This last “stealing” of the human cargo is what seems to have precipitated the current threats of violence in Dodger Stadium and the October 2012 murder in Cancún of Yandrys León, “principal helmsman of the cigarette boat that brought Puig and the others out of Cuba.”

There is much money at stake in the trafficking of Cuban players. As Jesse Katz reports in Los Angeles Magazine, “Since 2009, at least 20 defectors have signed MLB contracts, worth more than $300 million.” And there are many more people involved than the professional human traffickers. In order to command such high salaries, players must pass through a third country:

Although Mexico was not his ultimate destination, Puig could not afford to take a straight path to the United States. A foreign-born player who immigrates without a contract is treated as an amateur by MLB; he can negotiate only with the team that drafts him. By declaring himself a free agent before arriving, that player can entertain all comers; the difference is worth millions. Federal law, of course, bars Americans from paying money to Cubans—or “trading with the enemy”—so a ballplayer like Puig needs not only to defect but also to establish legal residency in a country that he does not actually intend to live in.

Eden reports that a $20,000 bribe helped Puig obtain Mexican residency within 15 days, allowing him to sign a $42 million contract with the Dodgers.

Along similar lines, scouts, agents and other MLB agents also play the game. Eden quotes Dodger superscout Mike Brito:

How he got from Cuba I don’t care. I don’t wanna find out either. I never ask any Cuban player that. And even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell you. Only thing we care about is when a guy is in a territory where we can sign him. Sign players and keep my mouth shut. The less you talk, the less you get in trouble.

In making his argument for the widespread role of human smugglers from Cuba, Eden also mentions the case of “El Duque” Hernández, whose sanitized official story is presented as one of heroism and determination, but which is also tainted, according to the ESPN article, with these more nefarious connections.

The threat of a Zetas attack in Dodger Stadium sounds spectacular, haunting and a bit absurd. I personally doubt that it will materialize, but this story does raise a series of important questions linking “America’s pastime” to broader issues of corruption, inequality and migration. Yasiel Puig is not your average migrant, but his case does shed light on the dangerous forces that are unleashed by a broken migration system. We might continue hearing more about Puig because he is in the sports spotlight, yet the mainstream media tells us less about the thousands upon thousands who are brought anonymously by human traffickers across our nation’s Borderland.


luisLuis Marentes is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wants to explore ways in which to communicate and learn through the new social media. His academic work has focused on Mexican and Latin@ culture in the first half of the 20th century. As a member of a Pars-Mex New England family, Luis also has a great interest in the Middle East, and would hope to help foster an international dialogue. Follow @marentesluis.