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Luxury cars, diamond rings and wild yacht parties: Former DEA agent laundered millions for Colombian cartel, prosecutors allege

Former DEA agent Jose Irizarry was arrested on charges of conspiring to launder money, as well as honest services wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit identity theft and aggravated identity theft. (Joe Burbank/AP)
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Jose Irizarry was the model agent for his bosses at the Drug Enforcement Administration. Seen as a rising star in Miami for overseeing undercover investigations that led to dozens of drug arrests, Irizarry transferred to the Colombian city of Cartagena to continue to fight the violent cartel.

“He was the superstar everyone wanted to be,” a former law enforcement official said last year, according to the Associated Press.

But when the DEA special agent allegedly began to spend lavishly on homes, cars and jewelry, and hosted wild yacht parties with bikini-clad prostitutes, it raised some red flags within the agency. How was someone who had declared bankruptcy years earlier able to afford homes in Cartagena, Puerto Rico and South Florida, three Land Rovers, a BMW, trips to Europe and a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring?

As it turns out, Irizarry allegedly laundered money for the very Colombian drug cartel he was fighting against. Irizarry, 46, was arrested Friday at his home near San Juan, Puerto Rico, on charges of conspiring to launder money, as well as honest services wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit identity theft and aggravated identity theft. Irizarry, who was arrested along with his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, is accused of diverting millions of dollars of drug money from the control of the DEA by using his power and access to information to his financial benefit, the Justice Department announced. Irizarry, who resigned in early 2018 after the agency grew suspicious, is believed to have laundered more than $7 million, according to the AP.

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

In a 35-page indictment filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Tampa, prosecutors accuse Irizarry of working with a Colombian public official and the head of a drug trafficking and money-laundering organization who would eventually become the godfather to Irizarry’s children. CBS Miami reported that Gomez-Irizarry, 36, is related to Diego Marin, who has been previously linked to the Cali cartel. Described as “Colombia’s contraband king,” Marin has reportedly used drug dollars to import Asia shipping containers full of electronics and textiles, and eventually sell them at a steep discount at flea markets.

“Throughout his tenure at DEA, Irizarry engaged in a corrupt scheme in which he worked with confidential informants to investigate the money laundering activity of drug trafficking organizations,” prosecutors wrote in the 19-count indictment, “while at the same time enriching himself by secretly using his position and his special access to information to divert drug proceeds from DEA control to the control of himself and his co-conspirators.”

The scheme allegedly started around February 2011, when Irizarry had been in the DEA for about 18 months. Despite previously showing signs of deception on a polygraph test and declaring bankruptcy with nearly $500,000 in debt, the DEA allowed him to handle millions of dollars in financial transactions. But the special agent’s talent was apparent. He was recognized by the DEA early on for setting up an undercover operation to send money and contraband to Colombia on behalf of suspected drug traffickers using front companies and shell bank accounts, according to the AP.

As he started to file false reports, he directed DEA agents to wire money reserved for undercover stings to accounts in places like Spain and the Netherlands that were tied to his wife and his two unnamed co-conspirators, according to the indictment. The account would be in someone else’s name and used the unknowing victim’s forged signature and Social Security number to make it look legitimate.

The financial arrangement began to show itself through his conspicuous tastes. While on a government salary for the temporary assignment in Cartagena, he wore a gold Hublot watch and traveled to Europe with Louis Vuitton luggage, the AP reported. The indictment detailed how he bought a Tiffany diamond ring, a BMW, three Land Rovers and three homes, including the $767,000 property in Cartagena. In addition to the four cars Irizarry purchased, the spending spree also included a 2017 Lamborghini Huracan Spyder, valued at more than $300,000, for a family member of one of the co-conspirators.

The behavior hit a tipping point when, against DEA policy, he started hosting yacht parties featuring prostitutes that were attended by fellow agents and a supervisor, according to the AP. Shortly thereafter, he would be reassigned from Cartagena to Washington and resign in January 2018.

Gomez-Irizarry is accused of running a shell company out of the couple’s home in Miramar, Fla., according to the indictment, and is charged with conspiracy to launder monetary instruments. The Justice Department and attorneys for the Irizarry couple did not immediately return requests for comment early Monday.

Irizarry’s case has raised new concerns within the DEA about whether the conspiracy compromised undercover operations and criminal cases. It comes weeks after another former DEA agent, Fernando Gomez, was sentenced for his role in smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York over a decade.

A lawyer for the star witness in Irizarry’s case celebrated the former DEA agent’s arrest. Gustavo Yabrudi, one of the informants used by Irizarry in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering conspiracy, was sentenced last July to almost four years in prison for his role in the scheme. Leonardo E. Concepcion, Yabrudi’s attorney, previously said that his client’s case involved “serious corruption by a DEA agent.”

“It’s time that the puppet masters who pulled his strings and abused their authority over him are made to answer for their actions,” Concepcion told the AP.

Irizarry and Gomez-Irizarry were released on $10,000 bond each Friday, according to court records. They are due back in court on Wednesday.

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