Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria told a federal jury Friday he lied to investigators about knowing a key figure in an alleged Cuban ballplayer smuggling network linked to a Florida sports agent and a trainer.
Hechavarria testified in the trial of agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who are accused of conspiracy and alien smuggling. Hechavarria admitted lying to federal agents in a 2012 interview about knowing a man who helped organize smuggling trips and obtain Cuban player documents.
Hernandez acted as a translator in the interview for Hechavarria, who said he spoke almost no English at the time.
"I was a little nervous and I did not want to tell the truth. And I did not want to be a snitch," Hechavarria testified.
The man Hechavarria was asked about, Eliezer "Chicharo" Lazo, pleaded guilty to extortion charges in 2014 in a separate Miami case that involved Seattle Mariners outfielder Leonys Martin, who was also smuggled out of Cuba. Hechavarria testified Friday that Lazo introduced him to Hernandez and was a key player in the smuggling network based in Cancun, Mexico.
After the interview with investigators, Hechavarria said Hernandez asked him why he didn’t admit knowing Lazo and that Hernandez had told him he must tell the truth to the FBI. Hernandez attorney Daniel Rashbaum said with jurors out of the room that federal prosecutors sought improperly to downplay those comments.
"The government is leading these witnesses to only tell part of the story," Rashbaum said.
Hechavarria will return Tuesday to continue his testimony. He was promised by the Justice Department in a letter that he would not face any charges in the smuggling case if he testified truthfully in the trial.
The Marlins obtained Hechavarria in a 2012 multi-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he originally signed after leaving Cuba for $10 million. He testified that 30 per cent of that contract went to a Mexican-based sports academy called Baseball Stars that prosecutors say Hernandez and Estrada used as a smuggling hub. Hernandez himself got 5 per cent as his agent.
The Cuban baseball players had to establish residency in another country such as Mexico in order to sign as free agents with a Major League Baseball team rather than going into the less-lucrative draft. They had to show they no longer lived in Cuba, where they were restricted by the U.S. economic embargo.
Prosecutors say the smuggling ring used falsehoods and fraud to obtain many of the necessary documents, such as putting fake jobs for the players on Mexican residency papers. Hechavarria, for example, was listed as an "area supervisor" for a Mexican company.
"Besides training for baseball, did you have any other job?" said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Davidson.
"Not as far as I know," Hechavarria responded.
Hechavarria also testified that after he arrived in the U.S., he paid another $10,000 to $12,000 to a woman who was part of the alleged smuggling operation to get his mother flown out of Cuba.
"How did you feel when you saw your mother again?" Davidson said.
"Well, you can imagine. Very happy. It had been a while since I last saw her," Hechavarria said.