It's Major League Baseball's dirty little secret -- and it's being laid bare in the Florida Keys this week in the federal trial of a top sports agent charged with smuggling Cuban baseball players to the United States in speedboats piloted by a drug smuggler.
The American market for Cuban ballplayers is enormous. Ever since the 1990s, when former Cuban national team superstar Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez escaped Cuba and defected to the United States -- where he was signed to a $6.6 million contract -- Cuban players have proven to be a major boon to the multibillion dollar industry.
In the past, agents specializing in Cuban players have actively courted players after they've defected. Some have gone further, using more aggressive, less legitimate means -- like moving the men to South American countries where entry to the United States is easier.
But the trial of Beverly Hills-based agent Gustavo Dominguez is another thing entirely, former law enforcement officials tell ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.
"This absolutely represents a new extreme," said Guy Lewis, Miami's former U.S. attorney, who also served as director of the executive office for United States attorneys from 2002 through 2004.
"What this represents is beyond just smuggling for profit," he said. "This is smuggling for super profit. … I would represent to you that this is absolutely more lucrative than smuggling drugs.
"It's a whole new ballgame -- no pun intended," said Lewis, now in private practice with the firm Lewis Tein in Coconut Grove, Fla.
Among the government's star witnesses are a convicted marijuana smuggler and several Major League ballplayers, including Chicago Cubs catcher Henry Blanco and Seattle Mariners shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt.
Dominguez is also charged with transporting a handful of players from the U.S. Southeast to California, and harboring them in an apartment complex while he tried to sign them to Major League Baseball contracts.
The case has rocked the baseball world as the new season gets underway, and thrown a spotlight on the seldom seen back channels of the baseball industry.
"Though this case involves a Beverly Hills sports agent and talented baseball players, it is remarkably similar to the human smuggling operations that ICE encounters every day," said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement assistant secretary Myers when indictments were announced last year. "The ringleaders put the lives of illegal immigrants at risk and sought to profit from their labor. It is unfortunate that those who claim to support Major League Baseball taint America's pastime with these illegal human smuggling operations."
Calls to Dominguez's attorneys in Florida were not returned. The Major League Baseball Players Association declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing trial.
Dominguez is a legendary figure in the Cuban-American sports world who made his name and fortune representing Cuban ballplayers fleeing Fidel Castro's regime. He signed Rene Arocha, the first prominent Cuban ballplayer to defect to the United States, in 1991.
"Certainly there are agents who have worked very hard to effectuate the movement of Cuban players to the United States," said veteran sports agent Arthur Kaminsky, who represented Herb Brooks and most of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. "The players would show up on these strange islands that would qualify [for passport entry into the United States].