By JOSHUA GOODMAN and JIM MUSTIAN, Associated Press Writers
MIAMI (AP) — A once-standout U.S. federal narcotics agent known for spending lavishly on luxury cars and Tiffany jewelry has been arrested on charges of conspiring to launder money with the same Colombian drug cartel he was supposed to be fighting.
José Irizarry and his wife were arrested Friday 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.
“It’s a black eye for the DEA to have one of its own engaged in such a high level of corruption,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former Chief of International Operations. “He jeopardized investigations. He jeopardized other agents and he jeopardized informants.”
Federal prosecutors in Tampa, Florida, allege the conspiracy not only enriched Irizarry but benefited 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 organization 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 raucous yacht parties with bikini-clad prostitutes 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
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 David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. “It could have a ripple effect and cause courts to re-examine any case he was involved in.”
Irizarry and his wife posted $10,000 bond each and were released later Friday. Nathalia Gómez-Irizarry declined to comment to AP and closed the door at the house she shares with her husband, saying he wasn’t home. Messages to Irizarry’s attorney were not immediately returned. The DEA referred comment to the Justice Department.
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.
“Mr. Yabrudi has been waiting for almost two years for this day,” said Leonardo Concepción. “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’s also accused of sharing sensitive law enforcement information with his co-conspirators.
The DEA has declined to comment on its employment of Irizarry and potential red flags that came up during his screening process. Irizarry was hired by the DEA despite indications he showed signs of deception in a polygraph exam, and had declared bankruptcy with debts of almost $500,000. Still, he was permitted to handle financial transactions after being hired by the DEA.
In total, Irizarry and informants under his direction handled at least $3.8 million that should’ve been carefully tracked by the DEA as part of undercover money laundering investigations.
Not all of that amount was pocketed by the co-conspirators, but the indictment details at least $900,000 that was paid out from a single criminal account opened by Irizarry and an informant using the name, passport and social security number of a third person who was unaware their identity was being stolen.
Proceeds from the alleged scheme funded a veritable spending spree. It included the purchase of a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring, a BMW, three Land Rovers and a $767,000 home in Cartagena as well as homes in south Florida and Puerto Rico, where the couple has been living. To hide his tracks, Irizarry allegedly opened a bank account in someone else’s name and used the victim’s forged signature and Social Security number.
It also funded the purchase in Miami of a 2017 Lamborghini Huracan Spyder on behalf of a family member of co-conspirator 2.
A red Lamborghini with the same vehicle ID named in the indictment belongs to Jenny Ambuila, who was arrested last year in Colombia along with her father, Omar Ambuila, a customs agent in the port of Buenaventura, a major transit point for cocaine and contraband goods used to conceal the proceeds of narcotics sales. Before her arrest, Ambuila shared photos and videos of herself on Facebook posing next to the red sports car, which is valued at more than $300,000.
The indictment was handed up a week after another former DEA agent was sentenced to four years in federal prison for his role in a decade long drug conspiracy that involved the smuggling of thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York.
Mustian reported from New Orleans. AP reporter Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.