April 20, 2014


No One Walks Off The Island : Two years ago, Yasiel Puig fled Cuba in the hands of black-market smugglers. This is the story of how the cost of the defection journey - in money and human lives - shadows him still. (Scott Eden, 04/17/14, ESPN the Magazine)

Just before dawn one day in late April 2012, four young Cubans stood on an otherwise deserted beach, peering hard into the Caribbean darkness. They were trying to escape their native country, and they were waiting for the boat that would take them away. Thirty minutes passed, then 60. Still no boat. Three men and one woman, the group had arrived at the designated spot close to the appointed hour: 3.a.m. By design, the rendezvous point was located on one of the most isolated coastal stretches in a country famous for nothing if not isolation -- so remote it could be reached only by foot.

They had spent the previous 30 hours hiking there, without sleep, and had reached varying levels of emotional distress; the stakes were high. Covert interests in Miami and Cancun had made the arrangements from afar. Their goal was to extract from Cuba a baseball player of extraordinary talent and propitious youth. Just 21 years old at the time, Yasiel Puig already was well-known to both Cuba's millions of fervid baseball fans as well as officials high in the hierarchy of the Cuban state-security apparatus.

With Puig was Yunior Despaigne, then 24. A former national-level Cuban boxer and a friend of Puig's from their teens, Despaigne had spent the previous year recruiting Puig to defect, under the direction of a Cuban-born resident of Miami named Raul Pacheco. If caught and found out as an aider and abettor, Despaigne would inevitably face serious prison time. He and Puig had together made four failed attempts to escape the island over the previous year. The authorities were almost certainly wise to their machinations. They needed this trip to work.

According to Despaigne, in the escape party were Puig's girlfriend and a man who, Despaigne says, served as a padrino, or spirit guide, a kind of lower cleric in the Afro-Catholic religion of Santeria. Sometime before this latest escape attempt, Puig and his girlfriend had sought out the padrino; a vatic ritual had revealed that their voyage would end in good fortune, Despaigne says. The couple decided to take the padrino along so as to improve their chances for safe passage.

From the start, the journey had seemed both hexed and charmed. Two days earlier, they'd hitched a ride from Cienfuegos, the city they all lived in, to a sleepy seaside hamlet called Playa Girón, where, around nightfall, they were supposed to meet their guide. Instead, they spied what appeared to be a squadron of police milling around close to their planned meeting place. They drove past without stopping; they placed a few frantic cellphone calls; they managed to reconvene with their guide 35 kilometers up the coast in the town of Playa Larga. But almost immediately, right near the beach, they ran into two policemen. Among the guide's first instructions: "Run!" They ran along the beach and then into the sea -- it was tranquil and waveless there -- and waded in water up to their necks. They could see police on land trying to pursue. Dogs barked, and the beams of flashlights played in the air and on the water. When they saw the lights range over the water, they dived. Eventually, the police gave up, but the Cuban coast guard did not. The guide's course took them along the edge of a fjord-like inlet that cuts deep into the country. On its western side stretches a vast Evergladian swamp -- the Ciénaga de Zapata, one of the most prodigious wetlands on earth. It was slow going. During daylight hours, they picked their way through dense mangrove thickets, careful to keep their distance from the packs of crocodiles that lazed in the lagoons and among the marsh grasses, and careful not to walk on the beach, far easier though it would have been, and risk exposing themselves to the coast guard making regular patrols just offshore. At nights, they resumed hiking along the beach, occasionally plunging into the water up to their noses, driven there by swarms of mosquitoes.

Now, at the rendezvous point, dawn broke. In the gray morning light, the group came to a decision. Despaigne and Puig, veterans of the defection process, knew that the smugglers who helmed these vessels, lancheros, as they're known across Cuba -- would almost assuredly not want to risk capture by attempting a daylight pickup. And so the group decided to give up. They would surrender. All were severely dehydrated, and starving, having ditched their provisions when they were forced to run from the police into the sea. They would start walking back toward the nearest settlement, some 40 kilometers in the direction they'd come, and in the meantime attempt to flag down one of the patrolling coast guard ships. Better to go to prison then die in the Ciénaga de Zapata.

They'd walked about 400 meters when the padrino stopped; he said he had to go back. At the rendezvous point, he'd left something important behind: the figurine of Elegua, a Santeria deity, Lord of the Crossroads, a powerful spirit in the faith's pantheon of them -- in the words of Despaigne, also a believer, "the one who opens and closes the way." You don't leave Elegua behind. All four turned around and trekked back, except the guide, who at that point had had enough and abandoned the group. They found Elegua resting safely on the sand; Puig was the one who reached down and picked it up. That's when, raising their eyes to the Caribbean horizon one last time, they saw it. A vessel. It appeared to be approaching. At first they thought: coast guard. But as it drew nearer its details emerged: 40 or 45 feet, outboard engines of many growling horsepower -- a long, lean, late-model cigarette boat, "like the ones you see," Despaigne recalls, "on Miami Beach."

"Are you Puig?"

"Are you Despaigne?

The lancheros wanted ID confirmation, and before anyone knew it, Puig, Despaigne, Puig's girlfriend and the padrino had waded out and climbed aboard to meet their ferrymen. As Despaigne and the rest would later learn, these men were the leaders of an alien-smuggling-and-boat-theft ring with links to the Mexican cartel Los Zetas. At least two were fugitives from American justice, their names on the wanted lists of several law enforcement agencies. The lancheros apologized for their lateness; they'd gotten lost.

As Cuba receded, the four defectors went quiet. The moment must have been bittersweet. They'd finally escaped, yes, but they were leaving home, maybe never to return. 

Posted by at April 20, 2014 5:29 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus