from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 1:13-cr-20911-BB-4
HULL, MARCUS, and ROGERS [*] , Circuit Judges.
ROGERS, Circuit Judge.
United States prosecuted these four defendants-Lopez
Hernandez, Hernandez Almaraz, Aguilar Lopez, and Savala
Cisneros-under the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA),
which criminalizes an individual's possessing with intent
to distribute a controlled substance "[w]hile on board a
covered vessel, " which includes "a vessel subject
to the jurisdiction of the United States, " which in
turn includes "a vessel without nationality." 46
U.S.C. §§ 70502(c)(1)(A), 70503(a)(1), (e)(1)
(2012). The U.S. Coast Guard arrested the four defendants on
board the Cristiano Ronaldo, which the defendants
claimed was registered in Guatemala-and claimed so
truthfully, as it later turned out. Shortly before the search
of the ship, however, when asked by the Coast Guard, the
Guatemalan government could neither confirm nor deny the
ship's registry. The parties proceeded to trial. The
Government presented evidence that the defendants threw
overboard about 290 kilograms of cocaine shortly before
arrest. The jury convicted all four defendants of every
appeal, the defendants argue primarily that the Cristiano
Ronaldo was not "a vessel without nationality"
because the vessel was properly registered in Guatemala, as
the U.S. Coast Guard should have been able to determine with
the information that it had. But the Cristiano
Ronaldo fit within the MDLEA's broad definition of a
"vessel without nationality" because a designee of
the U.S. Secretary of State has certified, and thereby
"proved conclusively, " that Guatemala had not
"affirmatively and unequivocally" asserted that the
Cristiano Ronaldo was of Guatemalan nationality.
Under the clear terms of the MDLEA, that certification put
the crime within the territorial coverage of the statutory
prohibition. The executive branch thereby effectively assumed
responsibility for any diplomatic consequences of the
criminal prosecution. The defendants' other arguments-
insufficient evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, improper
suppression or loss of evidence, erroneous admission of
hearsay, and misapplication of two sentencing
enhancements-are also without merit.
November 5, 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard identified a
suspicious go-fast vessel in international waters, about 120
nautical miles southwest of the El Salvador/Guatemala border,
in the Pacific Ocean. The vessel was not flying any national
flag. When a Coast Guard helicopter approached it, the vessel
sped off, despite radio-transmitted orders in English and in
Spanish to halt, and despite several warning shots into the
water. The Coast Guard fired at the Cristiano
Ronaldo's engines, immobilizing the vessel. Crewmen
on the vessel then began dumping black packages overboard.
of the Coast Guard boarded the Cristiano Ronaldo and
ultimately arrested the four crewmen-the four defendants in
this case. When the Coast Guard officers boarded the ship,
Hernandez Almaraz said he was its captain. He also said he
was a Guatemalan citizen, as did the other three crewmen. He
claimed that the Cristiano Ronaldo was registered in
Guatemala. Soon thereafter, the Coast Guard contacted the
Guatemalan government to confirm or deny the claim of
registry. The Guatemalan government responded that it
"could neither confirm nor deny." The Coast Guard
proceeded to search the ship.
happened during the intervening period-the period after
Hernandez Almaraz claimed the ship's registry in
Guatemala but before the Coast Guard contacted the Guatemalan
government to check that claim-is unclear.
Coast Guard states, "No registration documentation was
provided to or located by United States law enforcement
personnel." That may have been true when the Coast Guard
asked the Guatemalan government about the ship's
registry, but the Coast Guard later found registration
documents on the ship, as the United States ultimately
provided the documents to the defendants during discovery.
the defendants claim, or at least suggest, that the Coast
Guard had the registration documents before it asked
Guatemala about the Cristiano Ronaldo's
registry. In support of the motion to dismiss the indictment,
Aguilar Lopez wrote, "As soon as Cristiano
Ronaldo was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard, [Hernandez
Almaraz] gave the Coast Guard a document, issued by the
Guatemalan Navy, certifying that Cristiano Ronaldo
is registered as a Guatemalan vessel." On appeal, Savala
Cisneros states that "once the Cristiano
Ronaldo was boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard, [Hernandez
Almaraz] gave the Coast Guard [the registration]
the Coast Guard retrieved some packages where the defendants
had thrown packages overboard. The retrieved packages
contained about 290 kilograms of cocaine, valued
contemporaneously on the streets at about $8.7 million.
the evidence from the scene was lost. The Cristiano
Ronaldo was accidentally sunk when Coast Guard officers,
during a standard "At Sea Space Accountability"
procedure, drilled holes in the Cristiano Ronaldo to
check if there were hidden compartments; they used putty to
cover the holes, but water nevertheless began pouring into
the ship. The wet clothes that the defendants were wearing
that day were discarded because of concerns of mold.
Similarly, and out of the same concern, the burlap sacks that
had covered the cocaine packages were discarded.
trial, the district court rejected the defendants' motion
to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, and granted the
Government's motion to determine that the vessel was
subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The court
relied on the certification from Commander Salvatore J. Fazio
of the U.S. Coast Guard, as designee of Secretary of State
John Kerry, which declared that Hernandez Almaraz claimed the
Cristiano Ronaldo's Guatemalan registry, and
that the Guatemalan government could neither confirm nor deny
that claim. The district court specifically declined to
inquire into "the factual underpinnings of the
certificate" because the court reasoned that they were
"neither relevant or appropriate" under the MDLEA.
In the same order, the district court denied the motion to
reconsider its previous order granting the Government's
motion to quash the subpoena to Commander Fazio.
parties proceeded to a four-day jury trial. The
Government's trial evidence included the testimony of
Officer Arambula of the U.S. Coast Guard about the actions
and statements of his colleague Officer Ligsay. The closing
arguments were somewhat heated, with the Government calling
the defense attorneys "spin doctors, " for example.
jury convicted all four defendants of all indicted crimes.
district court sentenced Lopez Hernandez, Savala Cisneros,
and Aguilar Lopez to 188 months' imprisonment. The
district court sentenced Hernandez Almaraz to 200 months'
imprisonment, applying to him two sentencing enhancements
related to his role as the captain of the Cristiano
district court properly determined that the Cristiano
Ronaldo was a vessel within the jurisdiction of the
United States because it was a "vessel without
nationality" within the meaning of the plain text of the
MDLEA. Such a vessel is statutorily defined to include:
[A] vessel aboard which the master or individual in charge
makes a claim of registry and for which the claimed nation of
registry does not affirmatively and unequivocally assert ...