LA Dodgers star Yasiel Puig at centre of kidnapping and gangster drama
As one of the most volatile players in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers slugger was already synonymous with drama. Every time he stepped on to the field fans held their breath, unsure if they were about to witness genius or petulance.
The 23-year-old Cuban inspired passion not just among supporters of the Dodgers, who recruited him from nowhere two years ago, but across . Here, everyone agreed, was an extraordinary and unpredictable talent.
Few suspected that Puig, who made his major-league debut last season, a year after he signed a $42m, seven-year contract, was also a protagonist in a hidden, darker drama involving gangsters, kidnapping, extortion, death threats and murder.
A storyline closer to The Sopranos than Field of Dreams has detonated under the Dodgers, the league's richest team, raising fears for Puig's safety.
Los Angeles Magazine this week published an , in which it claimed that people linked to the Zetas, a Mexican cartel noted for extreme violence, smuggled Puig to Mexico in a speedboat in June 2012, setting off a murky chain of events which led to his signing for the Dodgers later that month – and an aftermath of allegedly unpaid debts and, perhaps, lethal score-settling.
Steve Moore, a retired FBI agent who headed extraterritorial investigations at the bureau’s LA office, told the Guardian that the reports about Puig’s defection, and the manner in which it occurred, could attract the interest of federal authorities.
"When you start using human smuggling rings and drug cartels to do this, you are establishing a precedent that is not helpful to the United States of America,” Moore said.
“If that is what happened here, it may come down to the point where the United States of America, and specifically the Justice Department, has to do something about it.”
The Los Angeles Magazine article, which was followed by an equally detailed investigation in , has ricocheted across the media.
In a statement released via his agent, Adam Katz, Puig said he was aware of the reports but wished to focus on winning games.
“I understand that people are curious and have questions,” he said, “but I will have no comment on this subject.”
The Dodgers' manager, Don Mattingly, he was concerned to learn about rumors that smugglers had threatened Puig. Other senior Dodgers officials have stayed silent and the team has made no formal response. The Dodgers upgraded their security last year, after Puig joined their major league roster.
Accounts of the underworld saga are based largely on the account of a boxer, Yunior Despaigne, a now-estranged friend of Puig with whom he fled .
Despaigne has accused Puig of helping Cuban authorities to arrest several human traffickers, in order to curry official favour while plotting his own flight. The claim is contained in a 10-page affidavit the boxer filed in Miami, as part of a lawsuit against Puig by one of the purported traffickers who is currently incarcerated in Cuba.
Despaigne said he liaised between the baseball player and Raul Pacheco, a Miami-based air-conditioning repairman and recycling business owner who was allegedly part of a group that offered to extract Puig in exchange for 20% of all his future earnings. Pacheco reportedly has past arrests for burglary and credit card fraud, according to public records.
After several failed attempts to escape from Cuba, smugglers spirited Puig, Despaigne, Puig’s then girlfriend and a santería priest to Isla Mujeres, a fishing village on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, near Cancún.
According to the reports, the smugglers detained the group in a motel while they haggled with Pacheco over Puig's worth. A team allegedly sent by Pacheco and some of his associates ended the stand-off and, shortly thereafter, Puig entered the US.
Despaigne said that eventually an envoy of a smuggler boss known as Leo confronted him in Miami, demanding payment.
"The man pushed me up against my car and pressed a pistol to my liver and told me to tell Puig if he didn't pay them, that they would kill him," Despaigne told Los Angeles Magazine.
One of the investors in the defection plot promised to “neutralise” Leo, Despaigne said. Despaigne claims that a month later he was told to look Leo up on the internet using his full name – Yandrys León – and found that he had been shot dead in Cancún.
Puig helped his team to on Thursday, but pressure is growing on the Dodgers to clarify what they knew about how Puig came from Cuba to the US, and when they learned any details about his journey or its aftermath.
Richard Johnson, co-author of , said it “sounds like a movie” to him.
“You have Mexican cartels, a big election issue like immigration, a phenomenally talented athlete, the Dodgers. Were laws broken? Ethics violated? Violence committed? It's a kaleidoscope of events focusing on one player.”