Feds say ‘star’ DEA agent abroad stole millions
MIAMI — A U.S. federal narcotics agent known for his expensive tastes and high-profile drug seizures has been implicated in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering conspiracy that involved the very cartel criminals he was charged with fighting in Colombia.
A once standout Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Jose Irizarry is accused of conspiring with a longtime DEA informant to launder more than $7 million in illicit drug proceeds, sometimes using an underground network known as the black-market peso exchange, according to five current and former law enforcement officials.
The officials described the case as one of the biggest black eyes in the history of the DEA, an agency that has seen repeated scandals in recent years, and one they fear could have compromised undercover operations in the U.S. and South America.
The conspiracy not only allegedly enriched Irizarry but is believed to have benefited one of South America’s top money launderers, who is a relative of Irizarry’s Colombian wife, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the federal investigation.
The allegations have sent shockwaves through the DEA and drawn new scrutiny to the agency’s Colombia field office, a critical outpost that has been steeped in turmoil in recent years. The division has seen internal strife and turnover in leadership even as it grapples with record-high levels of cocaine production.
Some of the details emerged in a federal case in Tampa, Florida, in which a former DEA informant, Gustavo Yabrudi, a dual Venezuelan-American citizen, recently pleaded guilty to money laundering. That case refers to an unnamed “co-conspirator 3” — a suspect who is in fact Irizarry, the five officials said.
It is unknown where the 44-year-old Irizarry is living, or whether he has been charged in the ongoing criminal probe. Repeated messages seeking comment left on a cellphone number the law enforcement officials said belongs to Irizarry were not returned.
Chad Van Horn, a Miami attorney who represented Irizarry in a bankruptcy case, said he had no comment and could provide no assistance in efforts to reach him. Barry Wax, a Miami defense attorney who has also represented Irizarry, did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
A DEA spokeswoman said Irizarry resigned from the agency after he was recalled from Colombia to Washington in 2017 but declined further comment.
When word of the scandal reached Washington that year, the FBI and Justice Department dispatched investigators to Colombia to conduct criminal and internal inquiries, fearing that it could backfire on the DEA’s ability to keep the trust of sources in the criminal underworld, the law enforcement officials said.
The case raises new questions about the DEA’s screening practices in its hiring of special agents. Irizarry was hired by the DEA despite indications he showed signs of deception in a polygraph exam he took upon admission, three of the law enforcement officials said.
There were other red flags. In 2010, Irizarry declared bankruptcy with debts of almost $500,000, but he was nevertheless permitted to handle financial transactions in his role at the DEA.
Before he was exposed, Irizarry had been a model agent, the law enforcement officials said, winning praise from his supervisors. Based out of Miami, he won special permission to set up an undercover operation to send money and ship contraband merchandise to Colombia on behalf of suspected drug traffickers using front companies, shell bank accounts and couriers.
His investigations led to scores of drug arrests, earning him an early-career transfer to a coveted foreign posting in the Colombian resort city of Cartagena, where his successes continued.
“He was the superstar everyone wanted to be,” one former law enforcement official said.
But unbeknownst to his bosses, Irizarry and Yabrudi, his long-time informant, allegedly opened a bank account where they directed deposits from a growing network of criminal contacts looking to repatriate drug proceeds to Colombia, the officials said. Sometimes the funds were used to purchase electronics, textiles and other goods that were exported to Colombia for resale in pesos, which were used to pay the traffickers.
Prosecutors allege that $7 million flowed through a single account over almost six years. Yabrudi, in pleading guilty, admitted he withdrew cash from the account and gave payments to his unnamed DEA co-conspirator — Irizarry, the officials said — and accounts he controlled.
“None of these deposits, nor the use of the funds that followed, were officially sanctioned DEA operations,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.
They said Yabrudi knew that the funds were illegal drug proceeds and that his co-conspirator had been “acting outside the scope of his authority” as a DEA agent.
Yabrudi’s lawyer, Leonardo Concepcion, declined to comment about the case but described it case as “involving serious corruption by a DEA agent.”
At times, Irizarry fabricated DEA seizure orders or letters from banks in order to pocket some of the money, the law enforcement officials said. Given the huge sums laundered every day, his unsuspecting criminal clients chalked up the losses to a cat-and-mouse game with the feds.
Irizarry also adopted the ostentatious tastes of the drug traffickers he was tasked with targeting. Unlike most agents earning a government salary on temporary assignment, Irizarry bought a home and Land Rover in Cartagena. He traveled first-class to Europe sporting Louis Vuitton luggage and a gold Hublot watch, one official said.
He hosted raucous yacht parties with bikini-clad prostitutes, which fellow agents and at least one supervisor attended against DEA policy, according to an official, who went to one such party. The DEA banned such gatherings in the wake of the 2015 “sex parties” scandal in Colombia that prompted the retirement of the DEA’s administrator at the time.
Investigators are also examining whether Irizarry’s marriage into the mafia was driving his off-the-chart arrest and seizure numbers, the law enforcement officials said. His second wife, Nathalia Gomez, is related to Diego Marin, who U.S. and Colombian officials describe as one of the top money-laundering suspects in the country over the past decade.
Authorities believe Marin is Colombia’s contraband king, importing shipping containers full of electronics and textiles with drug dollars that wind up being sold at flea markets featuring contraband goods 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 U.S. law enforcement agencies, the officials said.
Current and former U.S. law enforcement officials now suspect Irizarry was using his badge to turn in Marin’s rivals.
Calls and text messages sent to Irizarry’s wife seeking comment from Marin, who is her relative, went unanswered, as did repeated phone calls and emails to Marin’s Miami-based lawyer, David Macey.
Irizarry’s undoing came when he was caught stealing from police informants and interfering in legitimate law-enforcement actions. Among the missteps was an $87,000 wire transfer destined for a trafficker in Cali that mysteriously went missing. Irizarry didn’t know the trafficker was an informant for the Miami-Dade money-laundering strike force, which complained to the Justice Department, leading to Yabrudi’s arrest last year.
Around the same time, the law enforcement officials said, an Internal Revenue Service agent flagged to the DEA what he considered a suspicious phone call Irizarry made trying to reverse the seizure of a container of commercial goods. Later, the officials said, it was learned that he had also been falsifying DEA paperwork used to pay informants — pocketing the money for himself.