Ever since he earned a midsummer promotion to the Dodgers last year, Cuban defector Yasiel Puig has been the most electrifying man in Major League Baseball -- flying heedlessly into walls, smacking absurd home runs, and annoying columnists by showing up late to games and speeding in his sports car.
But in the shadows, Puig has lived a much darker narrative, where a smuggling ring held him captive in Mexico and threatened to kill him with a machete, and where fellow athletes have accused him of working as a snitch for Castro's regime. At the center of it all, according to an astounding feature this week in Los Angeles magazine, is a Miami air-conditioning repairman with a criminal record.
See also: Cuban Baseball Agents: Risks and Lies
The unbelievable story behind Puig's escape from Cuba and the terrifying aftermath of his encounter with a human smuggling ring are laid bare in a federal lawsuit filed in Miami. The tale hinges on a quirk in MLB's rules for defecting Cuban players.
For a star such as Puig, who was making $17 a game on the island, escaping isn't enough; MLB requires the player to establish residency in a third country first, supposedly to discourage dangerous escapes across the Florida Straits. But the reality is that the rule leads to a vicious smuggling industry centered on Mexico's violent drug gangs.
Puig's escape was masterminded, according to those court documents, by a Miami man named Raul Pacheco, who's been arrested three times since 2009 for burglary and credit card fraud.
Here's how it went down: Pacheco, a Cuban immigrant, knew a boxer back on the island who was friendly with Puig. So Pacheco promised to front $250,000 to a smuggling ring to take Puig and the boxer, Yunior Despaigne, to Mexico and then the States.
But things went wrong, according to affidavits in the lawsuit, once they made it to Mexico. With the athletes holed up in a tiny hotel room, Pacheco refused to pay, and the smugglers threatened violence. Eventually, the Miami man helped stage a raid on the hotel room that freed Puig.
But that wasn't the end of the drama. The smugglers still demanded their dues -- especially after Puig earned a new record signing bonus for a Cuban defector, nabbing $42 million from the Dodgers.
Henchmen showed up at a botanica that Despaigne had opened in Miami, jammed a pistol into his side, and demanded their cut -- up to 20 percent of Puig's contract -- or else they'd kill him. They began calling Despaigne's family on the island, threatening more violence, and trying to locate Puig's family so they could burn down his home, Despaigne says in the court docs.
According to the boxer, another Miami man wrapped up in the affair -- a businessman named Gilberto Suarez -- promised to "neutralize" the smugglers. A month later, the lead smuggler was found executed in the Yucatán. (Despaigne admits he has no proof that Suarez was tied to the killing.)
Yunior Despaign's affadavit:
There's another side to the whole conflict, and the reason behind the dispute. A man named Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot is serving seven years in Cuban jail under brutal conditions and claims he's there because Puig falsely accused him of being a human smuggler.
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It's a claim Despaigne echoes in the complaint. He paints a picture of the Cuban-born star as a man willing to do anything to leave the island -- including feeding suspects to the secret police to keep them off his back while he plotted an escape.
Puig denies those claims, but there's no doubt the entire saga -- worth reading in full in L.A. Magazine -- adds depth to the heart-rending choices Cuban athletes face when deciding whether to leave their homeland for possible riches in America.