DEA agent accused of conspiring with cartel

MIAMI (AP) — A once-standout United States (US) federal narcotics agent known for spending lavishly on luxury cars and Tiffany jewellery has been arrested on charges of conspiring to launder money with the same Colombian drug cartel he was supposed to be fighting.

Jose Irizarry and his wife were arrested at their home near San Juan, Puerto Rico, as part of a 19-count federal indictment that accused the 46-year-old Irizarry of “secretly using his position and his special access to information” to divert millions in drug proceeds from control of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

“It’s a black eye for the DEA to have one of its own engaged in such a high level of corruption,” said the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations Mike Vigil. “He jeopardised investigations. He jeopardised other agents and he jeopardised informants.”

Federal prosecutors in Tampa, Florida, allege the conspiracy not only enriched Irizarry but benefitted two unindicted co-conspirators, neither of whom is named in the indictment. One was employed as a Colombian public official while the other was described as the head of a drug trafficking and money laundering organisation who became the godfather to the Irizarry couple’s children in 2015, when the DEA agent was posted to the Colombian resort city of Cartagena at the time.

When The Associated Press revealed the scale of Irizarry’s alleged wrongdoing last year, it sent shockwaves through the DEA, where his ostentatious habits and tales of yacht parties were legendary among agents.

But prior to being exposed, Irizarry had been a model agent, winning awards and praise from his supervisors. After joining the DEA in Miami 2009, he was entrusted with an undercover money laundering operation using front companies, shell bank accounts and couriers. Irizarry resigned in January 2018 after being reassigned to Washington when his boss in Colombia became suspicious.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in Florida. PHOTO: AP

The case has raised concerns within the DEA that the conspiracy may have compromised undercover operations and upend criminal cases.

“His fingerprints are all over dozens of arrests and indictments,” said former federal prosecutor in Miami David S Weinstein. “It could have a ripple effect and cause courts to re-examine any case he was involved in.”

Irizarry and his wife posted USD10,000 bond each and were released. The DEA referred comment to the Justice Department and messages to Irizarry’s attorney were not immediately returned.

One of the two unnamed co-conspirators in the indictment is Diego Marin, a relative of Irizarry’s wife, according to two people familiar with the investigation who agreed to reveal details only if not quoted by name because they were not authorised to discuss the probe. Irizarry-Gomez, 36, was charged with conspiracy to launder money.

US and Colombian officials consider Marin one of the top money-laundering suspects in Colombia over the past decade. Dubbed Colombia’s contraband king, he is believed to use drug dollars to import shipping containers full of electronics and textiles from Asia that wind up being sold at flea markets at a steep discount.

Marin was arrested in 1993 for allegedly hiding dope money for the Cali cartel in Colombia-bound home appliances. But he was never charged and has eluded prosecution ever since by leveraging relationships built over decades as an informant to multiple US law enforcement agencies, the officials said.

It was not immediately possible to locate Marin or an attorney representing him.

A lawyer for the star witness in the case, a former DEA informant who was handled by Irizarry, celebrated the charges. Gustavo Yabrudi was given a 46-month sentence last year for his role in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering conspiracy.

“Yabrudi has been waiting for almost two years for this day,” said Leonardo Concepcion. “It’s time that the puppet masters who pulled his strings and abused their authority over him are made to answer for their actions.”

Starting around 2011, Irizarry allegedly used the cover of his badge to file false reports and mislead his superiors, all while directing DEA personnel to wire funds reserved for undercover stings to accounts in Spain, the Netherlands and elsewhere that he controlled or were tied to his wife and his co-conspirators. He was also accused of sharing sensitive law enforcement information with his co-conspirators.