It's a rainy night on Germany's North Sea coast, almost midnight, when a 25-year-old Cuban named Erislandy Lara finally reaches the end of his long trip. Wearing blue boxing shorts, he climbs into a brightly lit ring in the Kugelbake sports hall in the small northern German city of Cuxhaven. A photographer from a local paper snaps a couple of pictures. Lara leans back against the ropes and looks around at his new life.
It was a long journey from Havana to Cuxhaven. Lara fled first across the Yucatán Channel to Mexico in a speedboat, then traveled overland from Cancún to Mexico City with forged documents. Along the way he was blackmailed, and once someone wanted to kill him. The seats here in the Kugelbake hall are only sparsely filled and the few fans on hand hang around the snack stand eating sausages. Lara, 2005 amateur world champion in the welterweight division, seems to have strayed into the wrong hall, the wrong ring.
His opponent is a pale Latvian man who is a little chubby around the middle. It's a provincial fight tonight, there are no fortunes to be won here and no one is going to achieve instant fame. But for Lara it's a start, a step on his way to a title in a professional world championship. He glares briefly at his opponent and smacks his fists together. Cuxhaven will only be a stop along his way.
Across the Ocean
Cubans are considered the best-trained boxers in the world, elegant, fast and technically perfect. Cuba has had 32 Olympic wins. But under Fidel Castro's socialism, opportunities for boxers are limited, since they're not allowed to participate in professional competitions. Each year the country's best boxers disappear across the ocean, to join the capitalist world. Cubans are known for boxing the way Brazilians are for soccer -- and the trade in Cuban boxers is booming. The business is built on the hopes of young Cuban men, and many profit from it, from escape agents in Cuba to human smugglers in Mexico to boxing promoters in Europe and the United States.
After a rain of blows in the first round, Lara wins the bout with a technical knockout. His promoter storms into the ring and throws his arm around the boxer. Ahmet Öner, 37, is the head of a promotional company called Arena and was once a professional boxer himself. Most of his German competitors depend on low-cost boxers from Eastern Europe, but Öner counts on Cubans. He admires their style and courage: "When they're in the ring, they're like robots, and they're not afraid to box against the really big guys."
Born in Turkey but raised in Duisburg, Germany, Öner has the best Cuban connections in the boxing business. Among his contacts are lawyers, expatriate Cubans in Germany, contact people in Havana and middlemen in Miami.
When Olympic champions Odlanier Solís, 28, Yuriorkis Gamboa, 27, and Yan Barthelemy, 28, defected after a competition with Venezuela's national team in late 2006 and fled to Colombia, Öner was the first promoter on the scene and presented the trio with his employment offer. There are now nine Cubans boxing for Arena. The oldest of them is Juan Carlos Gómez, 35, who will compete against Vitali Klitschko this Saturday in Stuttgart, and has the possibility of becoming the first Cuban professional heavyweight world champion.
Öner says he doesn't talk any boxers into fleeing and he's never even been to Cuba. But he has good informants there, and when one of the country's top boxers wants out, Ahmet Öner in Hamburg is the first to know.
Erislandy Lara made his first escape attempt in July 2007. Together with two-time Olympic champion Guillermo Rigondeaux, 28, he defected on a trip to a disco during the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. Öner had been tipped off, and he was on the spot immediately. But then the two refugees gave up -- pressure from the authorities was too great, and Castro himself even intervened.
'A Pointless Existence'
Lara and Rigondeaux returned to Cuba, where they were banned from boxing. Living in isolated poverty with their families, they sold their gold medals to buy food. "It was a pointless existence," Lara says.
In November 2007, he alerted one of Öner's middlemen in Havana that he wanted to make a second escape attempt and that Rigondeaux was prepared to go as well. Öner agreed to cover the costs and a deal was made.
There are certain bars in Havana where contact can be made with escape agents. Lara and Rigondeaux suddenly disappeared, and by the time the police started looking for them, they were staying with farmers in the mountains. On a clear night, men brought them to a stretch of beach where a speedboat was already waiting. At the last moment, Rigondeaux changed his mind. But Lara got into the boat and set out toward Mexico with 20 other refugees.
It's 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the westernmost tip of Cuba to Cancún, Mexico. Hundreds of Cubans are transported along this route every year by Mexican smugglers. The trip costs between $10,000 and $15,000 (€7,700-€11,600). There are many athletes among those making the journey, especially baseball players hoping to be hired by the professional leagues in the US. Where athletes are concerned, the smugglers increase their prices considerably.
Lara had registered as a normal passenger, but during the trip he was recognized as a famous boxer. Instead of the agreed-upon $15,000, the smugglers suddenly wanted $200,000 -- "Or we'll throw you overboard."
The smugglers are based in the north of Cancún, where ferries depart for the Isla Mujeres. Fishermen live here, while tourists stick to the expensive hotels along the beaches to the south. One of the most influential bosses is a short man with burly arms -- they call him "el Enano," the Dwarf. He likes to bring his wife and three children along on his business trips, but that appearance can be deceiving.
A few days later, a representative from Germany arrived in Cancún to negotiate. The men agreed on a payment of $40,000 for Lara and the Dwarf suggested an old warehouse at the harbor as a place to make the handoff. Öner's negotiator rejected the idea.
"Scared?" the Dwarf asked.
"No. But I'm a professional too," replied the negotiator from Germany.
Smoothing the Way
That negotiator now sits in a Berlin restaurant over a cup of coffee, wearing a black suit. He's a lawyer and a boxing fan, speaks Spanish and knows his way around Latin America. He's a levelheaded man with alert eyes, and doesn't want his name published. Öner says he's "my most important man."
The lawyer has often dealt with Mexican smugglers. "At a certain point you get a sense of how best to interact with them," he says. He suggested the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel in Cancún as the handoff spot. It's well populated during the day, and a good place to meet people who can't necessarily be trusted.
The Dwarf arrived accompanied by two bodyguards. The money was handed over in a suitcase and Lara was free. Then the Dwarf made an offer: there was a direct flight from Cancún to Düsseldorf that was "under control," and he could also procure the necessary documents for Lara. Öner's negotiator agreed. But on the scheduled day of departure, the Mexican president visited Cancún and the airport was under heavy security. Plans were changed and Lara was brought to Mexico City. There he was stopped by police during a control, and they threatened to send him back to Cuba. Öner's lawyer took care of that hitch as well, a $1,000 bribe smoothing the way.
A Speculative Trade in Human Beings
Ahmet Öner stands in his training gym in Gross Borstel, a northern neighborhood of Hamburg, and watches Juan Carlos Gómez sparring in practice for the weekend bout against Vitali Klitschko. Öner is known for his temper. At one of his competitors' bouts in Hamburg, he started a fight with security personnel he felt were provoking him. His son is in the same preschool as Vitali Klitschko's son, and Öner says in the past weeks he watched for the world champion there now and then, just to ask him if his hands start to sweat when he thinks about the fight against Gómez. People in Klitschko's corner don't exactly find Öner likeable.
In an environment that's dubious by its very nature, Öner is considered especially controversial for his business conduct. And in Cuba he's seen as something of an enemy of the state, and accused of human trafficking. When Öner contracted Lara, Castro himself complained about the "German mafia" turning the heads of Cuba's proud sons.
"Oh, Fidel," Öner says and straightens his sports coat. "Castro should think about why these guys take off. They just want a better life. That's why they come to me."
It's a speculative trade in human beings, and as soon as the business carries one of the boxers to the top, there's a lot of money to be earned. But the boxers alone carry the risk. If they're caught escaping from Cuba, it's over for them. The promoters, on the other hand, just wait for the next candidate to come along.
A Smuggler's Boat
When it becomes known that certain boxers want to leave Cuba, a grotesque competition starts. Promoters from all over the world send intermediaries to Havana. Most of them bring along preliminary contracts, which the candidates sign before they even set foot in a smuggler's boat.
Öner's special agent for such occasions is a woman with an impressive décolleté and a deep voice. She was born in Cuba and lives in southern Germany, and she too doesn't want her name printed. Her last deployment was a few months ago, when Öner heard that Olympic champion Rigondeaux wanted to escape after all, although he'd backed out when Lara fled. There would be three other friends with him too, all good boxers. Öner's representative arranged to meet them somewhere in the Cuban countryside. Driving to the meeting point, she grew somewhat uneasy when three men in a dark sedan suddenly started following her car. They stopped her at a curve in the road -- they were police officers, but turned out only to want to flirt. She continued on and got the boxers' signatures on the preliminary contracts, and the next day she was already on a flight back to Europe.
The Cubans who box for Arena don't like to talk about their escape, saying they don't want to cause further difficulties for their families. For most of them, the West is a shock at first, with its affluence and myriad possibilities. "They act like children in a giant toy store," Öner says.
Gómez, who defected in 1995 during the Chemie Pokal tournament in Halle, Germany, squandered the money he earned as world champion. He's said to have seven children with six women and was once locked up for cocaine use. Lara, who now lives in Miami like most of the Cubans who box for Arena, developed problems with alcohol, and heavyweight Odlanier Solís started overeating and gained 20 kilograms (45 pounds).
So far, Yuriorkis Gamboa has been the most successful of all. He's celebrated in the United States as the king of knockouts and HBO broadcasts his fights. He recently boxed in a casino near Las Vegas, where he arrived dressed like a rapper, draped in necklaces and showy rings. Gamboa brought a 50-person entourage and had a Bentley as his rental car. Before the fight, his wife sang a Latino rap song in the ring. "You have to keep the guys busy, best of all keep them under pressure with constant training, so they don't start getting dumb ideas," Öner says.
Fidel Castro Is Afraid
The business with Cuban boxers is a difficult one, with the unexpected happening constantly. Five weeks ago Öner's negotiator, the lawyer, got a call from Miami. Rigondeaux and the three other boxers who had signed preliminary contracts with Arena were already in Florida. Along with Rigondeaux were Yudel Johnson, 27, who won a silver medal in Athens in 2004, Yordanis Despaigne, 29, who won bronze medals at the World Amateur Boxing Championships in 2001 and 2003, and up and coming boxer Yunier Dorticós, 23. They had been brought first to Cancún and then on to the US border. There they climbed over the fence and surrendered themselves to an American patrol.
It then emerged that the escape had been organized by boxers in Miami, who offered their "wares" to multiple promoters. Öner now had to share the four boxers with American promoter Don King.
The best boxers of an entire generation have now arrived in the West. Lara has since had four professional fights and won them all. Experts think he could soon become a world champion. But boxing is a national sport in Cuba, and a new boxing generation is already taking shape.
This year there were no boxers from Cuba at the Chemie Pokal in Halle, one of the biggest amateur tournaments. Cuba likewise won't be participating in the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Italy.
Fidel Castro is afraid, Öner believes, that more of Cuba's proud sons will turn their back on the country. "Now they're trying to hide them," he says and laughs.