ATLANTA (CN) — A Colombian human smuggler linked to the rape and murder of a Cuban woman and the murder of a Cuban man during a migrant-smuggling operation has asked the 11th Circuit to overturn his sentence for conspiracy charges.
The case was scheduled for oral arguments via telephone Wednesday morning, but the convicted smuggler and the government both waived the opportunity to deliver arguments. The appeal was instead submitted to the Atlanta-based appeals court based on the briefs filed by each side.
Fredis Valencia Palacios pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy and smuggling charges resulting in death and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his participation in a 2016 smuggling operation with three Colombian accomplices.
In a brief submitted to the 11th Circuit by his attorney, Arturo Hernandez in Miami, Palacios claims that a Florida district court incorrectly calculated his sentence since he was not involved in the plan to rob and murder the migrants and was merely "a middle man."
According to court records, Palacios and his co-conspirators Jhoan Stiven Carreazo Asprilla, Carlos Emilio Ibarguen Palacios and Jorge Fernando Rivera Weir transported migrants via boat from Turbo, Colombia to an area near the Colombian-Panamanian border.
In September 2016, three Cuban nationals en route to Miami paid the four men to transport them from Colombia to Panama. Palacios delivered the three Cubans – two men and one woman – to a boat captained by Ibarguen and Carreazo, where the migrants were told they would begin their journey to Panama on their way to the United States.
Instead, Ibarguen and Carreazo tied the wrists of the two men and threw them overboard. One man was able to free himself and swim away. He later testified that Ibarguen and Carreazo raped the woman before slitting her throat with a knife and murdering her.
Ibarguen and Carreazo also cut the throat of the other male victim, killing him. They pleaded guilty in Colombia to murder, rape and aggravated robbery. The men were extradited to the United States, convicted of smuggling and conspiracy charges, and sentenced to 45 years and 50 years in prison, respectively.
Palacios argues that his involvement was limited to smuggling and alleges in his brief that the murder plot "ran in direct contradiction to the alien smuggling conspiracy whose object was to safely deliver the aliens to their destination."
According to Palacios, he did not know that the men had a history of violence until after his arrest and could not have foreseen that either of the accomplices would commit robbery or murder.
"The scope of what the appellant undisputedly agreed to was to illegally transport these aliens who were coming to the United States. There was no agreement or knowledge of the co-defendants’ plan to rob and murder," Palacios' brief states.
The filing continues, "It is abundantly clear that the appellant was more than significantly less culpable than the co-defendants that committed the murders.”
The government, meanwhile, says Palacios should have foreseen the violence perpetrated on the victims and asked the 11th Circuit to uphold his sentence.
"Palacios, despite knowing of Ibarguen’s history of robbing Cuban nationals and Carreazo’s mental instability, suggested and arranged for Ibarguen to captain the transporting ‘vessel’ after discussions with Weir, and stood idly by when the vessel departed for Turbo, Colombia with Carreazo, Ibarguen and the victims," the Justice Department’s brief states.
"To paraphrase the district court, without Palacios, the victims would not have had contact with their killers," the brief continues.
In a reply brief, Palacios claimed the government unfairly holds him liable for "anything and everything" that happened on the smuggling voyage.
An attorney representing the government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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