Yasiel Puig's journey to Los Angeles — and riches with the Dodgers — is a serpentine tale of drug cartels, nighttime escapes and international human smuggling.

Yet in the booming marketplace for Cuban ballplayers, it is far from unique.

Since 2009, nearly three dozen have defected, with at least 25 of them signing contracts worth more than a combined $315 million.

Many, like Puig, were spirited away on speedboats to Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. Once there, they typically were held by traffickers before being released to agents — for a price.


FOR THE RECORD:
This article misspells the name of Puig's original agent, Jaime Torres, as Jamie.

Puig's case drew widespread attention after Los Angeles magazine and ESPN the Magazine published articles this month detailing the gifted young outfielder's harrowing trek to the United States.

That spotlight aside, the smuggling of Cuban players has been the subject of federal investigations for years, resulting in a handful of prosecutions.

Still, the flood of risky defections has continued.

Over the last six months, the Department of Homeland Security has been working on at least two separate cases involving smuggling rings that brought baseball players out of Cuba into the United States, said a former federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter.

The pattern has been for smugglers to force players to sign agreements stipulating they will turn over a percentage of any initial contract signed with a big league club — often more than 20%.

The players are viewed as victims and were not under investigation themselves, the former official said. Investigators said they had spoken with Major League Baseball officials about the probes and presented them with a list of players who were being extorted.

Some, authorities said, still are making payments to smugglers. And some of their families in Cuba still are threatened with violence.

Nestor Yglesias, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Miami, would not comment on whether agents were looking into the Puig smuggling case.

But a long-running investigation by Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI resulted in the indictment late last year of a trio of Cuban nationals for the alleged smuggling of as many as a dozen players, including current Texas Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin.

Even as U.S. authorities are trying to stop the smuggling, the prospect for multimillion-dollar major league contracts remains a powerful lure for Cuban players — and those willing to bring them here.

"Ten years ago a player would leave Cuba, sign a nice contract, and people in Cuba might kind of hear rumors about how well he's doing," said Joe Kehoskie, a former player agent.

Now, he said, pointing to Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman — who defected in 2009 during a tournament in the Netherlands and signed a six-year, $30.25-million contract —"Chapman's Lamborghini is on Facebook. Chapman's mansion is on Facebook."

The trafficking is a result of the trade embargo with Cuba, which prevents any economic assistance to people on the island, and Cuba's unwillingness to allow its players to sign with major league teams.