AP Legal Affairs Writer
POSTED: 9:34 a.m. HST, Apr 17, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 12:24 p.m. HST, Apr 17, 2014
MIAMI >> The smugglers who helped Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig leave Cuba on a speedboat have made death threats against him and against a Cuban boxer who says he defected with Puig, according to court documents.
The documents are part of a federal lawsuit in Miami and describe a dangerous odyssey of shady characters, unpaid smuggling debts and threats of violence that have followed Puig since he left Cuba by boat in June 2012.
The tale is based almost entirely on the account of the boxer, Yunior Despaigne, who says he is afraid he will be hurt by the smugglers or their associates if Puig hasn't paid them money he owes. In a 10-page affidavit, Despaigne said a smuggler he knew as "Leo" sent someone to see him in Miami to deliver a message.
"The man pushed me up against my car and pressed a pistol to my liver and told me to tell Puig if he didn't pay them, that they would kill him," Despaigne said. The documents didn't say when the threat occurred.
Puig's smuggling venture, first reported by Los Angeles Magazine, is a common way for Cuban baseball players to make it to U.S. professional leagues. Puig went to Mexico first. If Puig had come directly to the U.S., he would have been subjected to the Major League Baseball draft. By establishing residency in a country such as Mexico, he could negotiate a far more lucrative contract as a free agent.
Puig, a 23-year-old outfielder, signed a $42 million, seven-year contract with the Dodgers in June 2012, a record for a Cuban defector. He received a $12 million signing bonus and made $2 million in his rookie year, when he hit .319 in 104 games with 19 home runs and 42 RBI. He finished second in the voting for National League Rookie of the Year.
Puig's agent, Adam Katz, issued a statement Wednesday saying Puig was aware of the news articles and understood people had questions, but he was not going to comment.
A day later, in a Spanish interview with The Associated Press on Thursday at his locker at San Francisco's AT&T Park, Puig said he was concentrating on helping his teammates and not thinking about anything negative.
"I'm only thinking about working on the things that are going to make me a better ballplayer," said Puig, who was back in the starting lineup for the series finale against the Giants after entering off the bench Wednesday night.
Despaigne's affidavit was filed as part of a lawsuit against Puig in which a man jailed in Cuba claims Puig falsely accused him of human trafficking to curry favor with Cuban authorities in an attempt to rejoin Cuba's national baseball team. Puig had been removed because the Cubans feared he would defect.
Through his lawyers, Puig has denied the man's claims and wants the lawsuit dismissed.
Despaigne said Puig was responsible for several human trafficker arrests in Cuba and that he appeared to be playing both sides to his own advantage.
"Puig told me that if he cooperated with state security, he would be permitted back on the (Cuban national) baseball team," the boxer said. "He appeared to take a strange sort of pride in the number of people he had sent to prison."
Puig's attempts to defect, according the court documents, started in the spring 2011. Despaigne said he got a call from a Miami man named Raul Pacheco, an air conditioning repairman and recycling business owner with past arrests for burglary and credit card fraud, according to public records.
Despaigne said Pacheco and several other men told him they could get Puig out of Cuba in exchange for 20 percent of the ballplayer's future contracts. They needed Despaigne to convey the offer to Puig, which he did, and Puig agreed to the plan.
A call Thursday to a phone number listed for Pacheco was met with a message saying it wasn't accepting voice mail. No number for Despaigne was listed.
Over the following year, Puig and Despaigne tried four times unsuccessfully to leave the communist island, according to the affidavit, including one occasion when their boat was intercepted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and they were returned to Cuba. Finally, a group of smugglers with a speedboat took them to Isla Mujeres, a fishing village on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula not far from Cancun.
Despaigne said Pacheco and his investors originally planned to pay the smugglers $250,000, but they decided Puig was worth $400,000. The group stayed at a motel for a month in Isla Mujeres while the two sides haggled over the price. Then, the Miami investors found another group of men to take Puig, Despaigne and others to Mexico City.
A few weeks later, Despaigne crossed the border into Texas and traveled to Miami to stay with one of the investors. It was there he learned, according to his affidavit, about the 20 percent Puig promised to pay them and the smugglers' claims they were still owed money after Puig signed his Dodger contract in June 2012.
After the threat at gunpoint, Despaigne said one of the investors said the smuggler known as "Leo" would be "neutralized." About a month later, Despaigne was told to look up "Leo" on the Internet using his full name -- Yandrys Leon -- and he found that the man had been shot to death in Cancun.
"I am concerned that something may happen to me," Despaigne said in the affidavit, adding that Puig has severed all ties with him.
Associated Press sportswriter Janie McCauley in San Francisco contributed to this report.