969 F.3d 1245 (11th Cir. 2020), 17-15405, United States v. Estrada

Docket Nº:17-15405
Citation:969 F.3d 1245
Opinion Judge:JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Julio ESTRADA, Bartolo Hernandez, Defendants-Appellants.
Attorney:Stephen Schlessinger, H. Ron Davidson, John C. Shipley, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Emily M. Smachetti, U.S. Attorney Service — Southern District of Florida, U.S. Attorney Service — SFL, MIAMI, FL, Christopher Jackson Smith, U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, Washingto...
Judge Panel:Before ROSENBAUM, JILL PRYOR and BRANCH, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:August 13, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

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969 F.3d 1245 (11th Cir. 2020)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Julio ESTRADA, Bartolo Hernandez, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 17-15405

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 13, 2020.

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:16-cr-20091-KMW-2

Stephen Schlessinger, H. Ron Davidson, John C. Shipley, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Emily M. Smachetti, U.S. Attorney Service — Southern District of Florida, U.S. Attorney Service — SFL, MIAMI, FL, Christopher Jackson Smith, U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Appellate Section, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Howard M. Srebnick, Benjamin Samuel Waxman, Black Srebnick Kornspan & Stumpf, PA, Miami, FL, for Defendant-Appellant Julio Estrada.

Jeffrey E. Marcus, Daniel L. Rashbaum, Allison Marie Green, Marcus Neiman &

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Rashbaum, LLP, Miami, FL, Kathryn Ashley Meyers, Law Office of Kathryn Meyers, PLLC, Miami, FL, for Defendant-Appellant Bartolo Hernandez.

Before ROSENBAUM, JILL PRYOR and BRANCH, Circuit Judges.

JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judge.

Julio Estrada, a baseball trainer, and Bartolo Hernandez, a baseball manager, partnered with business professionals, human traffickers, and members of a Mexican criminal organization to smuggle baseball players out of Cuba and into the United States so that the players could enter into lucrative "free agent" contracts with Major League Baseball ("MLB") teams.1 At the time of the events underlying this appeal, MLB rules required Cuban citizens to obtain "unblocking" licenses from the United States Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC") before they could enter into free agent contracts. To obtain unblocking licenses, the players were required to prove that they had moved to a third country with no intention of returning to Cuba. The defendants' operation would smuggle players into Mexico, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, where Estrada, Hernandez, and other co-conspirators would procure fraudulent documents to establish the players' residencies in those countries. The players used the false residency documents to obtain unblocking licenses permitting them to contract with MLB teams. Sometimes they also relied on the false documents to obtain visas, which allowed them to come to the United States to play baseball.

A federal grand jury charged Estrada and Hernandez with smuggling four Cuban baseball players into the United States, in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1324(a)(2),[2] and conspiring to commit crimes against the United States. At trial, the government's theory of prosecution was that Estrada and Hernandez, along with others not parties to this appeal, aided and abetted in bringing noncitizens3 into the United States. After a 30-day trial, the jury convicted them of conspiring to bring and bringing four noncitizen Cuban players into the United States. On appeal, Estrada and Hernandez raise several challenges to their convictions, including whether: (1) the district court erred in ruling that the Cuban Adjustment Act ("CAA") and the Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot policy did not provide the players with "prior official authorization" to come to, enter, or reside in the United States under § 1324(a)(2); (2) there was sufficient evidence to support their convictions; and (3) the district court committed evidentiary errors. After a thorough review of the parties' briefs and the record, and with the

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benefit of oral argument, we affirm their convictions.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This case arises out of a scheme to smuggle Cuban baseball players into the United States. Estrada and Hernandez facilitated the smuggling operation in four ways: first, they helped the players move from Cuba to either Mexico, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic; second, they procured fraudulent residency documents for the players, which they used to obtain OFAC "unblocking" licenses; third, they used the fraudulent residency documents to obtain visas for the players to enter the United States; fourth, they facilitated the physical bringing of noncitizens to the border. In exchange for their work, Estrada and Hernandez charged a percentage of the players' free agent contracts, which often were worth millions of dollars. Below we recount the events that led to the defendants' convictions.4

A. Hernandez Works with a Retired Baseball Player and Human Trafficker to Form the Smuggling Operation

Hernandez, a sports agent who "specialized in Cuban baseball players," owned and operated Global Sports Management. Doc. 527 at 16.5 As an agent, Hernandez negotiated with MLB teams on the players' behalf. As compensation, the players paid him an agent's fee. One of his business partners was Scott Shapiro, an immigration attorney. Estrada became the company's baseball director.

The scheme began when Rider Reyes— a retired baseball player who lived in Miami — started organizing an operation to smuggle Cuban players into the United States so they could enter MLB contracts. To that end, he contacted Alberto Ramos — a known human trafficker with boats for smuggling players. Reyes and Ramos needed money to finance the operation, so they called Hernandez.

Hernandez and Reyes met at a mall to discuss the smuggling operation. Reyes told Hernandez that he had a contact, Ramos, who could smuggle players to the United States in go-fast boats. He also showed Hernandez a list of Cuban baseball players. Hernandez picked players from the list that interested him, and he and Reyes discussed bringing those players to the United States. Hernandez then decided to call Estrada.

Three days later, Hernandez and Reyes met again. This time, Estrada and Ramos joined them. The men discussed which players to target and how they would go about smuggling the players out of Cuba. Estrada told the group that he had a cousin from the Dominican Republic who could contact Cuban players about their interest in being smuggled into the United States. Estrada's cousin joined them at later meetings. They determined that Reyes, Ramos, and Estrada would physically move the players out of Cuba. Estrada made "various phone calls to Cuba" and

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told the conspirators tat they "could start." Doc. 517 at 85-86. They initially decided that the players would be taken to Cancun, Mexico.

While the smuggling operation was underway, a man called Nacho contacted Reyes. Nacho told Reyes that he had smuggled a player into Cancun, and unless Reyes paid him $50,000, he would beat the player. Nacho, along with his "right-hand man" Eliezer Lazo ("Lazo Sr."), worked for a separate smuggling operation in Cancun. Doc. 514 at 57. In response to Nacho's threat, Hernandez, Ramos, and Reyes traveled to Cancun, where they met Nacho at a restaurant. There, Nacho told the group that he worked for a criminal organization and that he had to pay a tax— or "piso"— of $2,000 to that organization to smuggle immigrants into the United States. Doc. 517 at 104. Nacho and Hernandez left the group to discuss the $50,000. When they returned, Nacho told the men that Hernandez was "going to do business with [him]." Id. at 105.

At the same restaurant meeting, the men— including Nacho— discussed the baseball smuggling operation. Nacho agreed to help manage the baseball players while they were in Cancun. Hernandez explained the concepts of free agency and "unblocking" to Nacho. Id. at 106. He also defined the terms of the smuggling operation's agreement with the players. He explained that they would charge a percentage (up to thirty or thirty-five percent) of the value of the players' contracts and divide that money among themselves. They each agreed on their share of the players' contracts. Once the meeting was over, Hernandez, Reyes, and Ramos all agreed that Nacho— who was always surrounded by armed bodyguards— "was a very dangerous person." Id. at 107. Back in Miami, the conspirators signed contracts to formalize the deal.

A few months later, Estrada traveled to Cancun to meet Nacho. They discussed smuggling more players and dividing the proceeds from the players' MLB contracts. Estrada also met Diana Tilbert, a business operator who was involved in smuggling Cuban citizens into Mexico.

B. The Smuggling Operation Begins Smuggling Cuban Players to Mexico

The operation began smuggling Cuban players to Cancun by boat. One player described the trip as "tough." Doc. 515 at 64. Once they arrived in Cancun, Hernandez would meet the players and explain the concept of free agency and the necessity of unblocking licenses, which would allow them to enter MLB contracts. To help the players establish residency, Nacho would pay a Mexican immigration official to produce fraudulent residency documents. The players would list fake jobs like "tinsmith" and "welder" on their documents, and they would joke about their fake jobs in front of Estrada. Doc. 514 at 72; 515 at 73. The players understood that the fake jobs would allow them to establish residency in Mexico.

Hernandez was responsible for preparing the players' unblocking applications. He would include the players' Mexican residency papers in the applications. OFAC granted the applications and issued the players unblocking licenses, which allowed them to enter into contracts with MLB. Hernandez also worked on securing visas for the players. Once the players received their visas, they could enter the United States. While they were in Mexico, Estrada trained the players.

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2 practice notes
  • Securities And Exchange Commission v. Marin, 121420 FED11, 19-13990
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
    • December 14, 2020
    ...in making a determination, or makes findings of fact that are clearly erroneous." United States v. Estrada, 969 F.3d 1245, 1261 (11th Cir. 2020) (quotation "A district court's role in a proceeding to enforce an administrative subpoena is limited." EEO......
  • Velasquez v. U.S. Attorney General, 121820 FED11, 20-10606
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
    • December 18, 2020
    ...to the statutory term "alien." See Nasrallah v. Barr, 140 S.Ct. 1683, 1689 n.2 (2020); United States v. Estrada, 969 F.3d 1245, 1253 n.3 (11th Cir. [3] To the extent that Gomez argues that the BIA erred in this conclusion, we lack jurisdiction to consider ......
2 cases
  • Securities And Exchange Commission v. Marin, 121420 FED11, 19-13990
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
    • December 14, 2020
    ...in making a determination, or makes findings of fact that are clearly erroneous." United States v. Estrada, 969 F.3d 1245, 1261 (11th Cir. 2020) (quotation "A district court's role in a proceeding to enforce an administrative subpoena is limited." EEO......
  • Velasquez v. U.S. Attorney General, 121820 FED11, 20-10606
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
    • December 18, 2020
    ...to the statutory term "alien." See Nasrallah v. Barr, 140 S.Ct. 1683, 1689 n.2 (2020); United States v. Estrada, 969 F.3d 1245, 1253 n.3 (11th Cir. [3] To the extent that Gomez argues that the BIA erred in this conclusion, we lack jurisdiction to consider ......