AP Exclusive: DEA agent accused of conspiring with cartel

US & World

FILE – This June 13, 2016 file photo shows Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in Florida. On Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, the FBI arrested U.S. federal narcotics agent Jose Irizarry and his wife, Nathalia Gomez Irizarry, at their residence in Puerto Rico, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the arrest. He has been charged with conspiring to launder money with the very same Colombian drug cartels he was supposed to be fighting. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

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.

The FBI arrested Jose Irizarry and his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, Friday at their home near San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to a law enforcement official familiar with the case.

In an indictment unsealed Friday, federal prosecutors in Tampa, Florida, accuse Irizarry of “secretly using his position and his special access to information” to divert millions in drug proceeds from DEA control.

Prosecutors 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 Colombian head of a drug trafficking and money laundering organization who became the godfather to the Irizarry couple’s children in 2015. Irizarry 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. While an agent in Miami beginning in 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

“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 credited federal authorities, however, for identifying the scheme and bringing charges.

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 indictment,” 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. The DEA referred comment to the Justice Department and messages to Irizarry’s attorney were not immediately returned.

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.

Proceeds from the alleged scheme funded a veritable spending spree. It included the purchase of a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring, a BMW and Land Rover as well as a $760,000 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, Oma 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.

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Mustian reported from New Orleans.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

Follow Mustian on Twitter: twitter.com/jimmustian

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