Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig is typically reticent to discuss any topic with the media, but the one subject he has always made completely off-limits was how he escaped from Cuba.
And apparently with excellent reason.
An exclusive story in Los Angeles Magazine details his complex odyssey, a stunning tale of human trafficking, smugglers, a drug cartel, a staged kidnapping, betrayal, revenge and even alleged death threats.
The monthly magazine said the lengthy investigative report took contributing writer Jesse Katz five months to piece together. The story is scheduled to run in its May issue.
According to the article, Puig had been trying to escape Cuba for nearly a year, when smugglers under control of Los Zetas -- one of Mexico’s most notorious crime syndicates -- used a speed boat to pick up him and three others from a deserted stretch of beach and take them to the Yucatan Peninsula.
“He was traveling with three companions: a boxer, a pinup girl, and a Santeria priest, the latter of whom blessed their expedition with a splash of rum and a sprinkle of chicken blood,” wrote Katz.
They were reportedly stashed in one room of an old remote motel on the Isla Mujeres while the smugglers awaited payment.
Wrote Katz: “Puig’s journey, according to claims made in court documents and detailed in interviews, had been underwritten by a small-time crook in Miami named Raul Pacheco, an air-conditioning repairman and recycler who was on probation for attempted burglary and possession of a fake ID. Pacheco had allegedly agreed to pay the smugglers $250,000 to get Puig out of Cuba; Puig, after signing a contract, would owe 20 percent of his future earnings to Pacheco.”
According to the article, when the money did not arrive, the four defectors remained at the motel and their smugglers grew impatient.
Though Katz apparently had only one brief interview with Puig, which did not directly involve his escape ordeal, he did travel to Cuba and Miami, where he spoke with Yunior Despaigne, the boxer who was formerly on the Cuban national team and had known Puig for years through youth sports academies.
“I don’t know if you could call it a kidnapping, because we had gone there voluntarily, but we also weren’t free to leave,” Despaigne told Katz. “If they didn’t receive the money, they were saying that at any moment they might give him a machetazo” -- a whack with a machete -- “chop off an arm, a finger, whatever, and he would never play baseball again, not for anyone.”
Pacheco was a Cuban defector himself and aware of baseball’s interest in Puig. He reportedly approached him through Despaigne. The boxer said he was reluctant to approach Puig because the baseball star had a reputation as a state informant, but he also wanted out of Cuba.
One of the previous intermediaries who had allegedly approached Puig about defecting, Miguel Angel Corbacho Daudinot, was sentenced to seven years in prison after Puig and his mother reportedly testified against him.
Corbacho Daudinot’s lawyers filed a federal lawsuit last summer in Miami claiming Cuban guards have subjected him to a parade of horrors and that Puig and his mother, by turning him in, violated the Torture Victim Protection Act. He is seeking $12 million from Puig.
Despaigne reportedly said he was aware of Puig’s alleged involvement in Corbacho Daudinot’s sentencing when he first reached out to him.
“I told him, ‘I know that you are with state security, and that you have sent many people to jail,’ and I mentioned some of the names,” Despaigne said in an affidavit. “Puig nodded his head and said, ‘Yeah, so what?’ ” Despaigne reminded Puig that they both had a lot to lose. “If you snitch on me,” he told Puig, “I will snitch on you too.”
With that understanding, Despaigne told the magazine he gave Puig a few hundred dollars that Pacheco had sent him, a sum that would reportedly increase to almost $30,000. Despaigne said it wasn’t until their fifth attempt that they were actually able to escape Cuba.
But now in Mexico and stashed away in a dumpy hotel room for weeks, the article said, his smugglers were growing impatient and were increasing their payment demand for each day that passed. And they began to reach out to sports agents in the U.S.
“With interest accruing and tempers rising, Pacheco at last took action,” Katz wrote. “The lawsuit alleges that he, with the help of several other Miami financiers, hired a team of fixers to descend on Isla Mujeres. In a scene that could have been cribbed from a thousand screenplays, they stormed the motel and, according to court papers, ‘staged a kidnapping.’ Within days Puig was auditioning in Mexico City.”
The only way a Cuban can become a free agent for Major League Baseball is to first establish residency in another country. Puig signed with the Dodgers for seven years and $42 million.
Puig electrified Los Angeles and all of baseball after he was called up from the minors last June, but his journey here from Cuba remained a dark mystery. Once here, though, the story was hardly over.
“Even after he signed with the Dodgers, after the millions started to flow and he had ensconced himself in one of downtown Los Angeles’s newest luxury lofts, Puig’s escape was still pursuing him,” Katz wrote. “As court records and interviews show, the smugglers -- the ones who had been tacking on late fees as if that motel on Isla Mujeres were an impound lot -- had not stopped demanding money. When Puig was rescued, the mob went looking to collect.”
Katz said one of the henchmen showed up in Miami, found Despaigne and jammed a pistol into his liver.
“The man … told me to tell Puig that if he didn’t pay them, that they would kill him,” Despaigne said in the affidavit.
The magazine said that, according to court records, Puig paid $1.3 million to Pacheo and his three backers. One of the backers was Gilberto Suarez.
Despaigne told Katz he was a passenger when Puig called Suarez while driving in his car and he “claimed to have listened as Puig asked Suarez for help making the threats stop.” Suarez, according to Despaigne’s affidavit, told Puig not to worry: He would have [Yandrys León] Leo, the captain of the smugglers, “neutralized.”
A month later in Cancún, Leo’s body had been found with 13 bullet holes in it along the side of a road. Despaigne said he had no evidence Puig’s financiers were involved in the murder and actually believes the smugglers were paid off.