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Bart Hernandez indicted on charges of alien smuggling

Bart Hernandez, a baseball player agent who has specialized in representing Cuban defectors, has been indicted on charges of alien smuggling by a federal grand jury in Miami, where he was arrested early Friday by agents from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

Hernandez has been affiliated with the Miami-based agency Praver Shapiro and has represented a handful of Cuban stars on Major League Baseball rosters, including Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Adeiny Hechavarria of the Miami Marlins, Jorge Soler of the Chicago Cubs and Leonys Martin of the Seattle Mariners.

According to the indictment, Hernandez conspired with two already-convicted Cuban alien smugglers, Eliezer Lazo and Joel Martinez Hernandez (no relation), to bring a Cuban national identified in the indictment by the initials "L.M.T." into the United States illegally. Those initials stand for Leonys Martin Tapanes, Martin's full Spanish name, several people close to the case told ESPN.

Another person close to the case said Hernandez had rejected a pre-indictment plea deal offered by federal prosecutors.

Hernandez's attorneys, Jeffrey E. Marcus and Daniel L. Rashbaum, released a statement Friday that read: "As we will show at trial, Bart Hernandez is a talented and ethical sports agent who has always done right by his clients. Today, on the eve of a long-scheduled Major League Baseball arbitration, the government unfairly seeks to criminalize a player/agent fee dispute. Bart is innocent and the charges are baseless."

Hernandez faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The indictment is also demanding the forfeiture of $1.5 million, which prosecutors allege is the amount Hernandez received in "gross proceeds" from his dealings with Martin, and from "all interests the defendant has, directly or indirectly, in any contracts with" two people identified in the indictment only as "J.A.C." and "D.H.H." Abreu's full name is Jose Abreu Correa. Also, Philadelphia Phillies reliever Dalier Hinojosa had Hernandez as his agent when he originally signed with the Red Sox in 2013.

Hernandez's indictment is part of a broad federal investigation into the elaborate underground operations that smuggle baseball players out of Cuba and into the United States. The all-important endgame for these defectors is to sign lucrative contracts with MLB teams. Then the smugglers can charge those players millions of dollars for their clandestine services.

Hernandez is the first player agent to be charged with playing a role in this shadowy pipeline since Gus Dominguez was convicted on smuggling charges a decade ago.

A year ago, a Cuban native and U.S. citizen named Gilberto Suarez pleaded guilty to helping smuggle Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig into the U.S. Suarez has said that he played a vital role in negotiating Puig's contract directly with Dodgers executives.

For a time, according multiple sources familiar with the investigations, federal law-enforcement authorities were looking for potential links between smugglers and employees of MLB teams. It is unclear whether officials continue to investigate along those lines or whether they've abandoned that component of the broader probe.

The historic thawing of relations between Havana and Washington has placed the investigations in an awkward context. With President Obama scheduled to visit Cuba next month, sources have told ESPN that high-level and sensitive conversations involving U.S., Cuban and MLB officials have taken place, with the goal of forging a deal by which Cubans could freely play in professional baseball in the United States and maintain their Cuban citizenship.

Law-enforcement authorities have known for years about the allegations levied by Martin, who cooperated with investigators and told his defection story to them. Martin has said that Lazo's group essentially held him hostage in Mexico after smugglers had brought him and others out of Cuba on a go-fast boat, the usual first leg of a ballplayers' journey to the U.S.

In 2014, Lazo, aka "El Chicharo," the Chickpea, admitted to being a high-level operator in a Cuban alien smuggling business that brought regular citizens as well as prized baseball talent out of the island nation. In court documents, meanwhile, Martin has alleged that Bart Hernandez had a relationship with the Lazo group to represent ballplayers and seek MLB contracts for them.

The violent Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas has also sometimes been involved in the Cuban ballplayer trade, according to Lazo's statements and many other sources ESPN has spoken with. Smugglers paid the Zetas a "tax" in order to use Cancun, long controlled by the cartel, as a way station.

Hernandez made his initial appearance before a magistrate judge at a federal courthouse in downtown Miami Friday afternoon. Assistant U.S. Attorney H. Ron Davison, who has supervised the federal investigations into Cuban ballplayer smuggling, moved for a continuance. A bond hearing was scheduled for Monday morning, meaning Hernandez would have to spend the weekend in jail.