MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) - A South Florida businessman pleaded not guilty Thursday following his arrest for his alleged role in a human smuggling venture that brought Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig out of Cuba.
Gilberto Suarez, 40, entered the plea to a charge of alien smuggling conspiracy during a brief hearing in Miami federal court and was granted release on $120,000 bail. He was arrested Wednesday by agents with Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The indictment includes few details and only identifies Puig by his initials. But it does seek forfeiture of any money obtained by Suarez from Puig's $42 million contract as well as just under $3 million in cash, a condominium, a Miami house, a 2014 Mercedes-Benz and a 2013 Porsche.
"My client is a sports agent. He's not in the business of smuggling people into the country. All he's involved in in this case is purely to do, nothing else, work as a sports agent," defense attorney Bijan S. Parwaresch explained.
On his attorneys instructions, Suarez didn't say a word as he walked out of the federal courthouse Thursday.
A civil lawsuit filed in Miami against Puig contains details about Suarez's alleged involvement in the plot.
Those documents describe Suarez as one of the Miami-based men who financed Puig's 2012 trip by boat from Cuba to Isla Mujeres, a fishing village near Cancun, Mexico. The initial price for the trip was $250,000, then was raised by the smugglers to $400,000.
An affidavit in the lawsuit by a Cuban boxer who was on the trip said the financiers eventually hired men to take them away from the smugglers to Mexico City. The boxer, Yunior Despaigne, said at one point he was threatened at gunpoint by an unnamed man who worked for the smugglers. According to an affidavit and several media interviews, Despaigne said he was told to alert Puig that he needed to pay up or he would be killed.
Puig, a 23-year-old outfielder, signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Dodgers. After a stellar rookie season in 2013, Puig this year is batting .290 with 13 home runs and 60 runs batted in for the first-place Dodgers.
Despaigne said in the affidavit he was told that Suarez and others were supposed to receive a sizable percentage of Puig's contract.
Later, after Despaigne had crossed the U.S. border in Texas, he said he met with Suarez in Miami.
Despaigne was told, he said in the affidavit, that one of the original smugglers who was issuing threats because he had not been paid would be "neutralized."
Suarez told the boxer to look up the man's name on the Internet, where Despaigne found articles that he had been shot and killed near Cancun.
The lawsuit, filed by a man jailed in Cuba, claims Puig falsely accused him of human trafficking to curry favor with Cuban authorities so he could rejoin Cuba's national baseball team. Puig had been removed from the team because of fears he would defect.
Through attorneys, Puig has denied the allegations.
Last month in a separate case, Eliezer Lazo, described by prosecutors as the mastermind of a massive Cuban human smuggling operation, pleaded guilty to extortion charges. Among the more than 1,000 people smuggled in that case were several athletes including Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin, according to court documents.
Lazo faces up to 20 years behind bars when sentenced Nov. 10. A second man, Juan Urrutia, is scheduled to plead guilty next week in that case.
Former Federal Prosecutor Ben Daniel, who has tried similar cases in the past involving the smuggling of ball players from Cuba, said the smuggling trade has changed in recent years.
"There's a lot more violence than there was 7 or 8 years ago," Daniel said. "The player themselves become so valuable the smugglers are now vying for their rights to smuggle them."
If convicted, Suarez faces up to 10 years on prison.
He'll also have to forfeit nearly $3 million in money and property it's believed he obtained as a result of his alleged dealings.
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