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How Cubs' Aroldis Chapman helped the Castro regime before Cuban defection

Aroldis Chapman knew he was in serious trouble.

Caught trying to escape Cuba in March 2008, he had put his baseball career — and possibly his family's future — in jeopardy. At just 20 years old, he worried about his parents, the reaction of his countrymen and whether he had destroyed his dream of one day pitching in the major leagues.

"Everybody calls you a traitor when that happens," Chapman said in a sworn deposition in 2013. "I thought I was not going to play any more baseball."

But Chapman — now the Cubs' star closer — suited up again for the Cuban national team in less than a year, a shorter penalty than typically imposed on players who try to escape. His reprieve was especially surprising given the hard line the Castro regime took against would-be defectors.

Chapman's quick return to baseball, however, coincided with his cooperation with the Cuban government in prosecutions of several men accused of offering to smuggle the pitcher out of Cuba.

The Tribune has identified four people convicted of human trafficking in Cuba after Chapman testified against them before his own successful defection in 2009. All four men were sent to prison, where at least one of them — Danilo Curbelo Garcia, then a small-time cattle and pig farmer from suburban Miami — was treated as a political prisoner.

To understand that period in Chapman's life, the Tribune interviewed numerous people who knew him then, including two of the men his testimony helped to convict. Tribune reporters also reviewed more than 4,000 pages of U.S. and Cuban court documents, police reports and other public records, including a four-hour deposition Chapman gave in 2013 as part of a lawsuit in the United States by Curbelo Garcia and another man who alleged Chapman was a Castro informant and should be held responsible for their torture while in prison.

In that deposition, Chapman denied he had worked at the behest of the Cuban government. He settled the case for an undisclosed amount after a U.S. judge found that Chapman had intentionally misled the Cuban court when he said he had no plans to try to leave Cuba again — false testimony that contributed to the men's convictions and helped Chapman appease the government.

Chapman never abandoned his dream of leaving Cuba to play in the big leagues. In fact, he made every effort to ensure it happened.

"Mr. Chapman feels bad about what happened to these men, but he doesn't feel responsible," Chapman attorney Manuel Garcia-Linares said. "He was summoned by the Cuban prosecutors and testified truthfully about what occurred. What other choice did he have?"

To be sure, Chapman and the four imprisoned men were all ensnared in a desperate situation, part of a lingering Cold War-era drama between the United States and Cuba. Chapman may have played a role in the prosecutions, but he was also a young man who found himself in the terrifying position of having angered his country's authoritarian government and still desperately wanting to escape.

"The Cuban government has made human trafficking an issue to deflect from the fact that people are desperate to leave," said Peter Bjarkman, a Cuban baseball expert and author of "Cuba's Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story." "The question shouldn't be how these people are leaving. It should be why they want to leave in the first place."

Even one of the men Chapman helped convict faults the Cuban government, not the baseball player. Alejandro Medina, who spent more than three years in prison, was convicted based almost entirely on testimony from Chapman, his one-time friend.

"He was still a kid ... and he was manipulated by the Cuban government," Medina said in Spanish during an interview in the Houston apartment where he now lives. "I cannot be angry with him for that."

Through his agent and the Cubs, Chapman, now 28, declined to speak to the Tribune about the events surrounding his departure from Cuba. His parents, who defected in 2013, could not be reached for comment.

Many Cuban ballplayers who have defected are reluctant to share the details of their escapes because they fear their stories could endanger others. Their journeys are usually fraught with peril and frequently involve opportunistic middlemen looking to profit from the athletes' desperation to flee their homeland, a baseball-mad country with about two dozen players in the major leagues this year in spite of a six-decade commercial embargo imposed by the United States.

Chapman has spoken minimally about his 2008 botched defection and his successful effort in July 2009. What he hasn't discussed publicly is what happened in the 15 months between the two attempts, a complex and controversial time for him.

His life in the United States hasn't been without controversy either. Chapman came to the Cubs in July as the first player suspended under the league's new domestic violence policy after he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired eight bullets into the garage wall of his home last fall. He was not arrested, and no charges were filed.

The Cubs saw Chapman, who has five of the six fastest pitches recorded by MLB's Statcast, as a key addition to a team with its eye on winning its first World Series in more than a century. After a disastrous inaugural news conference in which Chapman failed to back the front office claim that he had been warned about the importance of his off-field behavior, he has maintained a low profile.

He has earned 16 saves in 18 opportunities since arriving in Chicago. Going into the playoffs, he has a 1.01 earned-run average with the Cubs and an average pitch speed of 100.88 mph.

Chapman rarely speaks at length with local reporters, but he told The New York Times earlier this year that he prefers to look to the future rather than rehash the past.

The beginning

It's a past that begins in Frank Pais, a small municipality in eastern Cuba where he lived with his parents and two sisters in a three-room house. The son of a boxing coach, Albertin Aroldis Chapman didn't start playing baseball until relatively late, at about age 13. Initially assigned to first base, he began pitching several years later when a coach noticed his arm strength and sent him to the mound on a whim.

At 17, he joined the Holguin Sabuesos, the Cuban National Series team in his home province. He later helped the national team win gold at the 2007 Pan American Games and silver at the 2007 Baseball World Cup, where he was named the tournament's top left-handed pitcher.

Earning about $150 a month, he continued to live with his parents and used a battered bicycle as his primary mode of transportation.

He wanted more.

"I didn't have the conditions that I thought I deserved," he said during the 2013 deposition. "I couldn't help my family."

In March 2008, a Holguin teammate approached Chapman with a plan to sneak them both out of Cuba. They would be driven to a beach house, where they would wait for a speedboat to spirit them away to a nearby country. Once there, everything they craved — personal freedom and an untold fortune — would be within their reach. Chapman agreed and went at the assigned time to the beach house with his girlfriend.

His teammate never showed.

As Chapman and his would-be smuggler waited for the boat, state police arrived. Officers drove the pitcher back to his parents' home and took the smuggler into custody.

During the 2013 deposition, Chapman said he could not remember whether he testified against the smuggler at a criminal trial.

"Why wouldn't you remember testifying?" the attorney asked.

"Why should I?" he responded.

As punishment, Chapman said, he was kept off the 2008 Olympic team, which was favored to win gold at the Beijing Games. Though the Castro government has long viewed international baseball competitions as a way to demonstrate the country's political superiority, Cuba prizes fidelity as much as, if not more than, victory.

"At the Olympics ... our athletes in different sports will struggle to win the gold with more dignity than ever, and our people will enjoy their gold medals as they never have," Fidel Castro wrote in a July 2008 newspaper column. "Then the fanatics will remember the traitors."

In Holguin, the country's third-largest province, residents were still buzzing about Chapman's punishment when Danilo Curbelo Garcia arrived July 18, 2008. Born in Cuba, Curbelo Garcia had left with his wife and daughter in 2000 after winning the bombo, the Cuban lottery-style program in which winning participants can immigrate to the United States.

When he traveled back to Cuba in July 2008, Curbelo Garcia, then 38, had much for which to be proud. He had a small condo in Hialeah, a South Florida city where more than half of the residents are of Cuban descent. His wife worked as a hairstylist, and his 2-acre farm was starting to turn a small profit. His 16-year-old daughter, Yunis, had adapted to America and talked about becoming a doctor.

He spent the first week in Cuba visiting with relatives and mostly staying close to his parents' home in Holguin. On July 26, he attended a block party hosted by the local Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a once-mandatory organization with a history of reporting neighbors for suspicious activity.

With the Beijing Games just days away, Chapman's banishment from the national team was a hot topic at the party. Curbelo Garcia's childhood neighbor, Alejandro Medina, a die-hard Sabuesos fan who befriended Chapman, bemoaned the pitcher's upcoming absence. The two had such a close relationship that Chapman called him padrino, or godfather, court records show.

When Curbelo Garcia expressed doubts that Chapman could throw as fast as the locals said — his fastball had been clocked at 102 mph — Medina offered to introduce him to Chapman. Medina, a food buyer for Holguin's restaurant industry, welcomed almost any opportunity to tout both Chapman's talent and his own connection to the pitcher.

Court records show that a few days later, Curbelo Garcia traveled with Medina to Frank Pais, where they approached Chapman as he was bicycling near the local police station. After being introduced to Chapman, Curbelo Garcia immediately asked him when he planned to play in the United States. Cubans were making millions in the major leagues, Curbelo Garcia told him, and most didn't have Chapman's talent.

Chapman told Curbelo Garcia that he had no plans to leave his homeland.

Medina became angry, telling Curbelo Garcia to stop talking nonsense. In Medina's mind, the mere suggestion that Chapman leave Cuba could put all three men in danger.

Curbelo Garcia would later say in a court deposition that the discussion ended there.

Chapman insisted Curbelo Garcia took it a step further and offered to arrange a speedboat to take him off the island.

"(Chapman) answers that he is not for that," according to a Cuban police report signed by Chapman and obtained by the Tribune.

Either way, Curbelo Garcia and Medina climbed back into a rented Audi and headed to his parents' house. But police pulled them over and accused them of trying to smuggle Chapman even before they had reached the Frank Pais border.

Curbelo Garcia was arrested July 30, 2008. The next day, Chapman and his father, Juan, swore out statements accusing him and Medina of smuggling.

Medina told the Tribune he did not try to get Chapman out of Cuba and did not hear anyone make that offer. Curbelo Garcia, who later settled his lawsuit against Chapman, denied in court documents that he had engaged in smuggling.

But Jorge Cabrera, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Curbelo Garcia and Medina, told the Tribune that he and the Florida farmer had discussed a plan to help Chapman escape Cuba, though the proposal never moved beyond the talking stage. Knowing Medina's devotion to Cuban baseball, they didn't broach the topic in Medina's presence, Cabrera said.

The arrests served multiple purposes, including providing a reason to restore a strong pitcher to the national team and warning any would-be traffickers to stay away from star athletes.

"Once Chapman accused them, it was over for them," Cabrera, who immigrated to the United States four months ago, said in Spanish. "It was a political case with high standing. The government wanted to teach a lesson."

Chapman's signature on the police report included his name and "#52" — his national team jersey number.

The trials

After six months in prison awaiting trial, Curbelo Garcia and Medina were convicted in January 2009 based almost solely on testimony from Chapman and his father, Cuban court records show. Chapman testified he had no intention of ever leaving Cuba.

"I said it because I wasn't going to jail," Chapman said in the 2013 deposition.

In a four-page ruling, a Cuban judicial panel found Curbelo Garcia and Medina guilty of trying to smuggle out "one of Cuba's greatest pitching talents."

The panel labeled smuggling efforts as "crimes that considerably affect Third World countries and especially our country, which does so much for the welfare of the human beings," according to a ruling the Tribune translated from Spanish. "However, unscrupulous people try every means to affect our social system with the theft of sports talents, scientific personnel, technicians and professionals formed by the Revolution."

Curbelo Garcia was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Medina received seven years.

Chapman was named to the Cuban roster for the World Baseball Classic in January 2009, the same month he testified, bringing a quiet end to his exile from the team.

Having severely damaged his own career and possibly jeopardized his father's coaching job, Chapman would have been desperate after being banished, Cuban baseball experts said. Many aborted defection attempts had resulted in two-year bans from the government-run sport. Some players never took the field again.

"He's probably going to be pretty panicked," Bjarkman said. "I can see him agreeing to almost anything for a second chance."

Historically, the Cuban government has expected its athletes to help prosecute human smugglers, concerned that Major League Baseball is bleeding the island of some of its most beloved residents.

Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who defected in 2012, was accused of becoming an informant in order to regain the government's confidence after being kicked off the national team. Former White Sox pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez once refused to testify against a man accused of planning to smuggle him off the island and received a lifetime ban from Cuban baseball a short time later.

"There's no real choice," said Yale professor Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, who wrote "The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball." "When a repressive bureaucracy asks you to do something, you can't just say 'no' without there being consequences."

Against that backdrop, Chapman and his parents testified against two other alleged smugglers, Raul Magana and Carlos Rafael Mena. Court records show both men were arrested in July 2008 — the same month the pitcher accused Curbelo Garcia and Medina of trafficking.

Authorities learned about the alleged smuggling offer after Chapman's father reported it to the National Revolutionary Police Force and a Communist party official, according to Cuban records.

"(Juan Chapman) was concerned that if he didn't report what was considered a crime in Cuba that it would come back to haunt his family," Chapman attorney Garcia-Linares said.

Magana, who is still believed to live in Cuba, could not be reached for comment.

The Dominican-born Mena, who was married to Magana's sister, never met Chapman or his parents before the trial.

Authorities charged Mena with trafficking because he was with Magana in a car that Chapman said would be used in the proposed escape plan.

Mena's U.S.-based attorney declined to comment for this story. In a sworn affidavit signed in 2013, however, Mena denied any involvement in a defection plan and suggested Chapman testified against him to demonstrate his loyalty to the government.

"He testified that in addition to me, he would accuse and exposed to state security all the people who approached him and offered him money because he was a good revolutionary," Mena stated.

At Mena's trial, Chapman also repeated his earlier assertion that he had no intention of leaving his homeland, according to court records.

But Chapman later acknowledged that was not true.

Chapman had never abandoned his hope of escaping Cuba or of playing American baseball. In his 2013 deposition, Chapman said he had clung to his dream of defecting even after the botched attempt wreaked havoc on his life.

"From the moment. .. that you tried to leave Cuba," the attorney asked, "did you ever give up wanting to leave Cuba?"

"No," Chapman responded.

To that end, Chapman met with Carlos Thompson, a former teammate's father, in May 2009, to discuss defecting. Thompson had immigrated to the U.S. 13 years earlier through the lottery but was back in Cuba that spring and decided to help Chapman defect, according to court records and Thompson's written responses to questions from the Tribune.

Thompson developed two options for getting Chapman out of Cuba, one of which was to leave during an upcoming international baseball tournament in the Netherlands, he said.

Thompson, through his attorney Raymond Ausrotas, said there were three meetings about the defection — on a street under a hotel, at Thompson's house in Cuba and at a park in Holguin.

The escape

Three weeks after testifying against Magana and Mena, Chapman traveled with the Cuban baseball team to Rotterdam for the competition. On July 1, he walked out of his Dutch hotel, carrying his passport.

He hopped into a car driven by Thompson, who had arrived in Rotterdam 11 days earlier to prepare for the defection. A U.S. baseball agent was in another car. Both had hoped to get a cut of Chapman's eventual MLB earnings.

Chapman later signed a contract with Thompson, agreeing to pay him a percentage of his income in exchange for Thompson's help as his personal assistant. Thompson, who now lives in Mexico, has sued Chapman in the U.S. for breach of contract, and the case is pending.

Chapman traveled with Thompson to Amsterdam, though they only stayed two days because Chapman "was extremely afraid" of the Cuban government finding him and returning him to Cuba, Thompson told the Tribune.

They then went to Barcelona, where they weighed their options on where to establish Chapman's residency. Cuban ballplayers typically avoid seeking political asylum at a U.S. Embassy because MLB policy requires that players who defect directly to the United States be placed in the draft, where there are limits on how much the teams can pay their selections. Those who establish residency elsewhere — often the Dominican Republic or Mexico — can become international free agents and reap multimillion-dollar paydays.

Chapman eventually settled in Andorra, a tiny principality in the eastern Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, and waited for a U.S. visa to be approved. He passed the time by running, working out and texting with his family, which now included an infant daughter born after he left for Rotterdam. He spent much of his time with a U.S. private investigator hired to protect Chapman and handle the logistics to get to the U.S. The two flew together to Newark, N.J.

"I saw a man determined to play Major League Baseball, and he was focused and training hard and did what he had to do to achieve it," said Sean Crowley, the New York-based investigator and a former New York City police officer. "Aroldis never seemed to be concerned or worried about anything."

While waiting to get to the U.S., Chapman gave his only lengthy media interview about his defection, telling ESPN The Magazine he met with Cuban President Raul Castro after the failed escape in 2008. Thompson also confirmed to the Tribune that Chapman told him that he met with both the president and Tony Castro, one of Fidel's sons and a national baseball official.

Chapman denied the meeting in his 2013 deposition. The Cuban government did not respond to requests for comment.

In January 2010, Chapman agreed to a six-year, $30 million deal with the Cincinnati Reds. In his first season, he threw a 105.1-mph fastball, which remains the fastest pitch ever recorded.

While Chapman basked in his American Dream, Curbelo Garcia and Medina sat in Cuban prisons convinced their own dreams had slipped away.

Curbelo Garcia lived in a 4-foot-by-6-foot cell with up to five other men in a Holguin prison, one of four maximum-security facilities where he served time after his conviction. He was served maggot-infested meals and was routinely denied medical treatment, according to interviews and court documents.

He received a single bucket of murky water each morning, rationing it throughout the day for drinking and personal hygiene. He once went six months without exposure to sunlight, cellmate Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta told the Tribune.

"We were treated worse than dogs," said Herrera, a dissident journalist imprisoned for more than seven years as part of a government crackdown in 2003. "We suffered every minute of every day."

Authorities would frequently offer Curbelo Garcia a deal, Herrera said. If Curbelo Garcia would agree to repatriate — to give up his U.S. residency and move back to Cuba — his treatment would improve.

He refused.

"Your life means nothing if you have no honor," said Herrera, who was released from prison in 2010 and now works as a maintenance man in upstate New York.

Meanwhile, Medina was sent to a maximum security prison in Holguin, where, he said, his diet consisted primarily of bread, sugar water and food his wife could sneak to him. The stench of urine and feces was so overpowering at times that he found it difficult to breathe.

On the first anniversary of his imprisonment, a fellow inmate poured scalding water down his back, he said. His shoulder still bears the scars.

"Prison was the worst hell that you can imagine," he said. "I wouldn't wish that for anybody."

The aftermath

In 2012, Curbelo Garcia's wife, Maylen Turruellas, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, accusing Chapman of making false allegations that led to the farmer's torture.

The case, which Mena later joined as a co-plaintiff, was settled out of court after a federal judge found Chapman was dishonest when he testified in Cuba against Curbelo Garcia.

What's more, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga said that Chapman gave false testimony even though he saw in court the physical toll prison had taken on the men.

"He looks at them and nonetheless he gets up and gives false testimony resulting in their convictions," Altonaga said, according to a transcript of a November 2013 hearing.

Shortly after the hearing, Altonaga denied Chapman's request to dismiss the case.

"During Curbelo Garcia's trial, Chapman gave false testimony regarding his intent to defect in order to remain in good standing with the Cuban government and avoid potential penal consequences, such as imprisonment," she ruled. "Although Chapman protests Curbelo Garcia's imprisonment was not his fault, it was a foreseeable consequence of his testimony against Curbelo Garcia."

After Curbelo Garcia spent four years in prison and then 11 months in a work camp, he was placed on home confinement at his parents' house in Holguin. The Cuban government granted him a three-month pass to leave the country, and he went to the United States in June 2014 with no intention of returning to finish his sentence.

When he arrived in Miami, he discovered the American life he had worked so hard to build had collapsed in his absence. His home was in foreclosure, his car had been repossessed and his business had folded. He had no job, no money and a 22-year-old daughter he barely knew anymore and who was putting herself through college. Soon his marriage fell apart and he separated from his wife.

"He was very angry when he first came home," said his daughter, Yunis Curbelo. "He had worked so hard to make a life for himself, and it was all gone. It was like he had to start all over again."

The family settled its lawsuit against Chapman for an undisclosed amount about five months after Curbelo Garcia returned.

Curbelo Garcia declined to speak about Chapman or the smuggling allegation when a Tribune reporter and photographer approached him in South Florida, citing the settlement agreement and concern for his parents who still live in Holguin.

He now lives on a poultry farm about 30 miles south of downtown Miami. Public records show he purchased the 5-acre parcel in November for $150,000.

"We don't dwell on the past," Yunis Curbelo said. "We can't sit around thinking about all the time we lost. It may not ever be the same, but we're working on getting back to the way it used to be when I was younger. We try to be happy."

On a recent September evening, Curbelo Garcia sat on his concrete patio and smoked a hand-rolled Cuban cigar as he watched the sun set over his farm. Like Chapman and his daughter, Danilo Curbelo Garcia insisted he wants to focus on the future instead of rehashing the past.

"I was left destroyed by prison. It changed my life completely," he said in Spanish. "But time helps."

Medina did not sue Chapman, but he said he received about $30,000 as part of a settlement negotiated by Curbelo Garcia's lawyer. He said he used some of the money to finance his and his wife's escape to the United States. They arrived in Texas last year after they flew to Ecuador and then traveled over land through Central America for 29 days before reaching the U.S.-Mexico border.

Now 44, he works at a car wash in Houston and lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment on the city's southwest side. Last month, when the Cubs were in town to play the Astros, Medina learned that Chapman was at a local nightclub where a Cuban band was performing. Medina went to see him.

Medina said he approached Chapman, who initially looked like he had seen a ghost and then claimed not to recognize his former friend, who is missing a finger and has a scar down his forehead. Medina said the pitcher eventually acknowledged knowing him, but the cool greeting hurt.

"I wanted him to say he was sorry that I suffered," Medina said. "I was his friend."

Instead, Chapman posed for a picture with Medina's wife, Yadira, whom he had also known in Holguin. As they parted, Chapman hugged Medina, kissed his cheek and gave him a cellphone number, Medina said.

Medina has texted and called him multiple times since their meeting. He said he has yet to get a response.

Despite the silence, Medina said he will be cheering for Chapman during the Cubs' playoff run, which begins Friday.

"Why not?" he asked as he lit a menthol Marlboro. "I have nothing against Aroldis. I just want him to remember that we had a friendship and that I was innocent."

Tribune photographer Abel Uribe contributed.

sstclair@chicagotribune.com

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