The Cuban baseball smuggling machine behind Major League Baseball

There's a vast and vicious human trafficking network that supplies Major League Baseball with some of its top players. It starts with the players, superbly talented young men who seek to escape the poverty of Cuba. And it ends with MLB teams that pay massive contracts to get them.

In the middle is an underworld of smugglers that goes as far as teaming up with Los Zetas one of the world's most dangerous drug cartels.

At least 25 Cuban players have been brought into the United States by smugglers since 2004, according to court documents stemming from more than a dozen federal investigations.

In all, the players have paid smugglers more than $11.4 million of their salaries, according to court records.

The public sees a Cuban refugee land a free agent deal worth millions. But behind the scenes, these ballplayers owe their smugglers a hefty portion van cleef alhambra bracelet replica of their MLB paychecks. Sometimes their families are held prisoner until they sign extortive contracts that turn their smugglers into their sports agents, according to prosecutors and one player's own account.

Related: MLB accused of ignoring Cuban baseball player smuggling

Some of these details have been exposed in the past. In 2014, a lawsuit revealed how Cuban slugger Yasiel Puig survived a journey through Mexico's underworld before he signed a mega million dollar deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And in November, federal prosecutors detailed the harsh life in Mexican stash houses, where smugglers threatened to shoot "kidnapped" ballplayers if they tried to escape.

Jos Abreu, seen in his Cuban uniform and his Chicago White Sox uniform, is on a witness list for the January van cleef bracelet replica trial of an accused smuggler.

It's a side of baseball MLB does not publicly acknowledge. But new details about this shadowy underworld will finally come to light next month when sports agent Bartolo Hernandez goes on trial in Miami for allegedly taking part in smuggling 17 Cuban players to secure them as clients.

The witness list includes MLB superstars Yoenis Cspedes and Jos Abreu. The sports agent denies the charges. His lawyer calls them "pure fiction."

Exploiting the rules

Like in the United States, baseball is a beloved national pastime in Cuba. But Fidel Castro eliminated professional imitation van cleef perlee bangle sports there half a century ago. As a result, Cuba's amateur league is stacked with star talent. These players gain international recognition for their skill, but even the best players make less than 1,500 pesos a month, roughly $56. coast. If a player manages to reach Florida, he can immediately cash in on his talents. government, thanks to the American "wet foot, dry foot" immigration policy. soil are immediately placed on a path toward legal residency.

But that also means that Cubans who arrive as refugees like anyone else in the United States and Canada are subject to the MLB's draft. They are picked by only one team. Without negotiating power, rookies are usually offered the minimum salary of $500,000.

International players aren't subject to the draft, though. They can negotiate with any team they choose, and the subsequent bidding can send contract deals into the millions.

That little wrinkle creates the perfect motivation for smugglers.

They sneak Cuban ballplayers into Mexico with forged immigration documents, according to several cases outlined by federal prosecutors. As supposed "Mexican residents," they qualify as international players, and can negotiate free agency contracts with MLB teams.

Everyone seems to win. The player gets a shot at an inflated salary. Smugglers get a huge cut. MLB gets its star players. But the entire process fuels criminal enterprises engaged in violent human trafficking. It lines the pockets of a drug cartel. And it preys on the players themselves by extorting them.

MLB has declined to comment about the smuggling operations despite numerous requests from CNNMoney.

The route used by smugglers who brought Leonys Martn Tpanes and other ball players to the United States.

One player's journey through Mexico

FBI and Immigration Customs Enforcement investigators have not made public their agents' interviews with players and their families. And no baseball player would speak to CNNMoney for this series.

But there does exist a single, detailed firsthand account of this odyssey. It comes from one player, Leonys Martn Tpanes, who sued his smugglers in 2014 rather than pay up. The following is the description laid out in his lawsuit.

Martn was a star slugger on the Cuban national team when he finally made his way out in late August 2010. He and his father, along with their two girlfriends, arranged a charter boat escape from Havana. At a beach far outside the city, they swam out to the vessel one night.

Leonys Martn Tpanes offered smugglers $40,000 to let him go. They refused because he was worth much more.

The boat slipped into Cancn's port, where a van waited for them. An armed man drove them to a house 15 minutes away.

According to federal investigators, this port operation belongs to Los Zetas, Mexico's notoriously violent drug cartel. In several criminal cases, human smugglers describe how they pay the Zetas to facilitate the operation: The Zetas provide protection from rival cartels and bribe police to ignore the illegal immigration.

It was at the stash house where Martn first met Eliezer Lazo, his smuggler. Lazo, a Cuban exile, had traveled from Miami to meet his new prize. Lazo was carrying a holstered gun and wouldn't let him go without squeezing a contract out of him, according to Martn.

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