Yasiel Puig subjected to threats, suit

Updated: April 20, 2014, 11:09 AM ET
ESPN Staff

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has received threats from the human traffickers who orchestrated his 2012 defection from Cuba to Mexico, according to a five-month ESPN The Magazine investigation, which uncovers new details about Puig's harrowing escape from Cuba and the complexities of the illegal human trafficking rings that continue to shuttle major league prospects off the island.

The magazine's report, written by Scott Eden and to be posted online Thursday, also explores a civil lawsuit filed in a Florida federal court that accuses Puig of wrongfully accusing a man of attempting to set up a defection. The suit was reported by Los Angeles Magazine earlier this week.

Much of the information came through interviews with more than 80 sources, in addition to court documents in the civil suits filed against Puig and fellow Cuban Aroldis Chapman, who pitches for the Cincinnati Reds.

ESPN The Magazine's reporting included exclusive conversations with a childhood friend of Puig's, Yunior Despaigne, who was with Puig throughout the escape journey and whose firsthand account sheds new light on Puig's fifth -- and ultimately successful -- attempt to defect.

Puig issued a statement Wednesday on the reports of his trek from Cuba that said: "I'm aware of the recent articles and news accounts. I understand that people are curious and have questions, but I will have no comment on this subject. I'm represented on this matter, and I'm only focused on being a productive teammate and helping the Dodgers win games."

Puig had previously not talked publicly about his defection, other than to once say there would be a movie based on it someday. Major League Baseball issued its own statement Wednesday, saying "The safety and security of everyone involved in our sport is of paramount importance to Major League Baseball. MLB and its clubs have individuals and resources in place to provide appropriate security, but as a matter of policy, cannot comment on such measures that have been taken without potentially compromising those efforts."

According to Despaigne's account, the future Dodgers right fielder was in physical danger numerous times -- diving into dark waters to evade Cuban authorities, hiking through crocodile-infested mangrove swamps and being held captive on an island near Cancun, Mexico.

Puig and three other defectors, including Despaigne, spent several weeks in a guarded apartment on Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun. The trafficking ring that delivered him from Cuba to Mexico was headed by an escaped felony suspect wanted by U.S. authorities, sources told the magazine. The group was awaiting payment from a Miami middleman who arranged the escape, but when that payment was slow in coming, things escalated, sources said.

In the Los Angeles Magazine story, Despaigne said, "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."

Puig and three other defectors spent several weeks in a guarded apartment on Isla Mujeres, just off the coast of Cancun. The trafficking ring that delivered him from Cuba to Mexico was headed by an escaped felony suspect wanted by U.S. authorities.

However, a rival ring executed a successful late-night plan to steal Puig and get him to Mexico City, sources told the magazine. Once there, Puig was granted residency status in weeks, and after his auditions for scouts from several teams, Puig's agent at the time, Jaime Torres, announced that the slugger had signed with the Dodgers for $42 million.

Upon receiving his signing bonus, Puig allegedly paid 20 percent of his total contract value to the Florida group that ultimately brought him to the United States in July 2012. After arriving, Puig joined the Dodgers' farm system and was invited to their 2013 spring training, where he hit .517 in 58 at-bats.

ESPN The Magazine learned from a source close to a smuggler involved in the episode that, during that time, at least one person affiliated with the Mexican-based smugglers who initially got Puig out of Cuba showed up at the Dodgers' team hotel and demanded Puig pay the money they felt they were still owed.

Prior to that, a member of that same ring was found shot to death on the side of a road in Cancun. Later, a member of the rival group that "stole" away Puig was allegedly abducted but later released.

Puig is being sued for $12 million in Florida in an action that alleges he wrongfully accused a man of attempting to set up a prior defection. The plaintiff, a Cuban citizen, was sentenced to seven years in jail as a result of Puig's testimony. The suit has been filed in the United States under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a piece of human rights legislation signed by George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Informant tactics are referred to as denunciations. According to ESPN The Magazine's interviews with Cuban ballplayers in the U.S., both retired and active, former Cuban government officials and former Cuban and American spies, denunciations are common among Cuban athletes trying to avoid harsh penalties from the government following unsuccessful defections.

In a case similar to Puig's, a Florida family seeks $18 million from Chapman. Neither Puig nor Chapman has yet been found liable. The Chapman case is scheduled for trial on Nov. 17. The judge in Puig's suit is deliberating a second motion to dismiss.

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