7th Circuit upholds convictions, sentences in international drug scheme based in Indy

Two Hoosiers convicted for their roles in an international drug trafficking organization failed to convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that their convictions and sentences were inappropriate.

Both Angelica Guzman-Cordoba and Joel Alvarado-Santiago were convicted in April 2019 in a drug trafficking scheme that operated out of Indianapolis and sent proceeds from marijuana, cocaine, heroin and meth sales to California and Mexico. Guzman-Cordoba sold and transferred substances for the drug trafficking organization, while Alvarado-Santiago laundered drug proceeds through his family’s grocery store.

Guzman-Cordoba proffered a duress defense at trial, claiming that her boyfriend, Cesar Salgado, had brought her into the scheme and that she feared for her life and the lives of her children. For his part, Alvarado-Santiago denied that he was the “kartero” – or “mailman” – of the scheme or that he knew he was laundering drug money.

A jury found both defendants guilty as charged, including convictions of conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute controlled substances and distribution of methamphetamine against Guzman-Cordoba and a conviction of conspiracy to launder money against Alvarado-Santiago. In all, nine defendants were indicted as part of a federal investigation into the drug trafficking scheme.

As part of Guzman-Cordoba’s sentence, the district court “ordered forfeiture of a small arsenal of revolvers, pistols, handguns, and rifles found at the stash house, as well was $9,795 that was found with the weapons, consistent with the superseding indictment, which provided for the forfeiture of all property derived from the proceeds of the crime.”

On appeal, Guzman-Cordoba first argued that the Indiana Southern District Court abused its discretion when it barred evidence of two deaths that she claimed were relevant to her duress defense. Specifically, Guzman-Cordoba’s counsel was not permitted to cross-examine Salgado about the death of another member of the drug trafficking scheme, nor could she testify about what she claimed was the murder of her father for her non-compliance with the scheme.

“Here, the district court reasoned that the two deaths were irrelevant to Guzman-Cordoba’s duress defense. We agree,” Judge Amy St. Eve wrote in a Friday opinion. Guzman-Cordoba failed to identify evidence that she knew the member who was killed or knew of his death, St. Eve wrote, while her father died after her arrest.

“This is not to say that post-arrest conduct by a criminal enterprise will never be relevant to a duress defense by one of its members,” St. Eve wrote. “But in this case, Guzman-Cordoba did not sufficiently connect her father’s death with any reasonable fear of imminent and serious bodily harm while she engaged in criminal conduct.”

Guzman-Cordoba also argued on appeal that the district court’s duress jury instruction was erroneous because it “failed to indicate that the threatened injury could be to her or her family.” But her counsel actually approved the instruction given to the jury, St. Eve said, thus waiving her argument on appeal.

Finally, Guzman-Cordoba challenged the forfeiture of $9,795 in cash, claiming the district court violated Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.2 by failing to enter a preliminary order of forfeiture and failing to require the jury to a find a nexus between the cash and her crimes.

The district court did violate the rule, St. Eve wrote. However, Guzman-Cordoba did not raise either of those errors before the district court and thus was subject to plain error review, a burden she did not meet.

“Because the indictment put Guzman-Cordoba on notice of the property the government sought to forfeit, the outcome of the proceeding was not impacted by the district court’s error,” the judge wrote. She continued, “Guzman-Cordoba’s argument that the money was derived from her lawful employment as a restaurant manager and painter is unavailing given the location and context in which this significant amount of cash was discovered.”

Alvarado-Santiago fared no better in his appeal, which challenged his sentence and asked the 7th Circuit to remand for a new trial.

His first appellate argument challenged the district court’s decision not to let him “present his full post-arrest interview with law enforcement to the jury after the government had already introduced parts of that interview.” But “(g)iven the overwhelming evidence against Alvarado-Santiago, we need not determine whether the district court abused its discretion in denying his request to play his full interview for the jury, because any alleged error by the district court was harmless,” St. Eve wrote

Alvarado-Santiago further challenged the admission of an out-of-court statement in which Guzman-Cordoba identified him as “kartero,” or the mailman. But her statements were non-hearsay under Rule 801(d)(2)(A) because they were offered by the government against her, the 7th Circuit panel held. Also, “given the admitted evidence, the district court properly instructed the jury that it could ‘not consider the statement of one defendant as evidence against the other defendant.’”

“We agree, however, that the prosecutor’s invitation to the jury to use Guzman-Cordoba’s statements against Alvarado-Santiago was not appropriate,” St. Eve wrote for the panel that also included Chief Judge Diane Sykes and Judge Michael Brennan. But considered under a plain-error review, the judge continued, “the prosecutor’s reference did not deprive Alvarado-Santiago of a fair trial nor would the outcome of the trial have been different had the prosecutor not made the comment.”

Finally, the 7th Circuit rejected Alvarado-Santiago’s challenge to the “ostrich instruction” to the jury – that is, an instruction “on deliberate avoidance of knowledge.”

“Here, the government presented ample evidence showing that Alvarado-Santiago had acted to avoid knowledge of the source of the large sums the DTO had asked him to transfer out of the country,” St. Eve wrote. “… This evidence distinguishes this case from (United States v. Macias, 786 F.3d 1060, 1062 (7th Cir. 2015)) because the government presented evidence that Alvarado-Santiago acted to avoid discovering the truth by dividing up the larger sums of money into smaller wire transfers.”

The case is United States of America v. Angelica Guzman-Cordoba and Joel Alvarado-Santiago, 19-2526, 19-2937.

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