11th Circuit Upholds Convictions of Men Who Smuggled Cuban Baseball Players into US

The 11th Circuit Thursday upheld the convictions of two men who smuggled Cuban baseball players into the U.S. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(CN) — An 11th Circuit panel Thursday upheld the convictions of baseball agent Bartolo Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada, who smuggled Cuban baseball players into the U.S. and profited off their major league contracts.

“The evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove that Estrada and Hernandez aided and abetted in bringing Cuban players to the United States,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jill Pryor wrote in the 57-page ruling.

Hernandez and Estrada were convicted in 2017 of conspiracy charges in their scheme to smuggle Cuban baseball players Jose Abreu, Omar Luis, Dalier Hinojosa and Leonys Martin into the U.S. Hernandez was sentenced to three years in prison, while Estrada received a five-year sentence.

After helping players move to Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic, Hernandez and Estrada obtained fake residency documents and used them to acquire visas to enable the players to enter the United States.

Estrada paid for or facilitated the financing of the players’ travel expenses, and immigration officials were paid off to procure fraudulent residency documents. Hernandez, who owned and operated Global Sports Management, received an agent’s fee after representing the players in negotiations with MLB teams.

In April, Hernandez and Estrada’s attorneys argued before the three-judge panel that “the district court erred by rejecting their arguments related to the [Cuban Adjustment Act] and the Wet Foot-Dry-Foot policy,” and that the evidence presented during trial was “insufficient to support their convictions.”

The panel ruled that “the evidence showed that Estrada made ‘every effort’ to ensure that Luis made it to the United States-Mexico border.”

“By organizing Luis’s passage to the United States and funding his journey, Estrada ‘contributed to and furthered’ Luis’s border crossing,” the ruling states.

According to the ruling, Hernandez “played a critical role with Martin.”

“The record shows that Hernandez traveled to Guatemala to secure a passport for Martin, which Martin needed to apply for a visa,” the ruling states. “Hernandez also contacted MLB to determine whether it would honor Martin’s contract if he crossed into the United States without a visa. Then, Martinez took Martin to the border, and they crossed separately.”

Martin testified that Hernandez’s assurance that Major League Baseball would honor his contract led to his decision to cross the border.

“We must assume that the jury found credible Martin’s testimony that he decided to cross into the United States upon Hernandez’s assurances,” the ruling says.

Hernandez and Estrada’s attorneys had also argued that the court abused its discretion by admitting lay opinion testimony of State Department agent Bryan Baer and Treasury Department investigator Timothy Smith. The ruling, however, says “their testimony was helpful to the finder of fact because it explained the process for reviewing and granting unblocking licenses and visas and emphasized the importance of the residency requirements.”

The judges also rejected the argument that the court abused its discretion by “admitting prejudicial evidence of uncharged violence or extortion inflicted on nonplayers or their families by third parties.”

“The evidence was essential to illustrate how the smuggling operation partnered with a criminal organization in Mexico to smuggle Cuban players into the United States,” the ruling states.

Hernandez is represented by Jeff Marcus and Estrada is represented by Howard Srebnick.

U.S. Circuit Judges Robin Rosenbaum, an Obama appointee, and Trump appointee Elizabeth Branch joined Pryor on the panel. Pryor was also appointed by President Barack Obama. 

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