Eric Reynoso (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — This past Wednesday, US federal authorities cracked down on a human contraband network implicated in the kidnapping and extortion of Cuban baseball players. The perpetrators were also allegedly involved in the South Florida Medicare fraud.
On Thursday, the Miami District Attorney’s Office accused 40-year-old, former Miami Lakes resident Eliezer Lazo, 37-year-old Miami-Dade resident Joel Martinez Hernandez and 30-year-old Hialeah resident Yilian Hernandez of conspiracy to carry out human trafficking and of kidnapping and extorting Texas Rangers player Leonys Martin, born in Villa Clara, Cuba.
According to a communiqué issued by the Attorney General’s Office, Yilian Hernandez was arrested by federal officers in the Miami-Dade county on Wednesday morning. She was to appear before Judge Edwin Torres at a Miami court on Thursday.
The other two alleged culprits, Lazo and Martinez, are already serving five and seven-year prison terms after being found guilty of money laundering in acts of fraud aimed at embezzling the state’s Medicare program.
It appears that the Medicare fraud is now also tainted by human contraband, extortion and the illegal transportation of Cuban baseball players wishing to play in the Major Leagues.
The criminal charges aren’t exclusively related to Martin, the Cuban-born baseball player who deserted Cuba’s national selection in Taiwan in 2010. The three individuals implicated are also being accused of smuggling some additional 13 Cuban baseball players into the country, after taking them out of Cuba illegally via Mexico.
Mexico and the Dominican Republic are the routes most commonly used by baseball players fleeing Cuba, chasing the dream of playing in the US Major Leagues.
Martin, who signed a US $15.5 million Major League contract in 2011, made headlines owing to the communiqué issued by the Attorney General’s Office, which made mention of a lawsuit brought before a Broward County court last year by the Mexican firm Estrellas del Beisbol (“Baseball Stars”).
Curiously, Lazo and Martinez were shareholders at Estrellas del Beisbol. The lawsuit claimed that Martin had not honored a previous contract signed upon his arrival in Mexico, through which he had committed to pay 30 percent of his earnings as payment for services received in the country.
Relatives Taken Hostage
Martin’s legal representatives, however, turned the tables on the Mexican firm and accused the claimants of smuggling people out of Cuba and of taking the baseball player’s relatives hostage until such time as he secured the Major League contract and was able to pay the ransom requested.
In his counter-suit, Martin claims to have paid Estrellas del Beisbol US $1.35 million to avoid reprisals against his family.
Martin’s lawyers deny that Estrellas del Beisbol is a sports academy that takes in and trains amateur players wishing to make it to the Major Leagues, identifying it rather as a front for a criminal organization responsible for illegal activities such as human smuggling, kidnapping and blackmail.
Reportedly, the organization lodged and fed Martin upon his arrival in Mexico. The baseball player, however, claims he was kept there against his will, while his captors awaited the signing of a Major League contract. In the meantime, his relatives were kept hostage in a house in Miami owned by Lazo.
Lazo and Martinez are currently under the custody of the Prisons Bureau. They are to appear before a Miami court to hear these new criminal charges.
The case is in the hands of federal prosecutors H. Ron Davidson and Evelyn B. Sheehan. The accused could receive a life sentence if found guilty.