Chicago

DEA’s most corrupt agent says he’s not the only one who laundered money for Colombia cartels

José Irizarry accepts that he’s referred to as the most corrupt agent in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration historical past, admitting he “became another man” in conspiring with Colombian cartels to build a lavish life-style of high-priced sports activities automobiles, Tiffany jewels and paramours round the world.

But as he used his ultimate hours of freedom to inform his story to The Associated Press, Irizarry says he will not go down for this alone, accusing some long-trusted DEA colleagues of becoming a member of him in skimming hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from drug money laundering stings to fund a decade’s price of luxurious abroad journey, fantastic eating, high seats at sporting occasions and frat house-style debauchery.

The method Irizarry tells it, dozens of different federal brokers, prosecutors, informants and in some instances cartel smugglers themselves had been all in on the three-continent joyride referred to as “Team America” that selected cities for money laundering pick-ups largely for get together functions or to coincide with Real Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops alongside the method in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with loads of booze and greater than a dozen prostitutes.

Jose Irizarry, former DEA agent
This picture obtained by The Associated Press exhibits Jose Irizarry in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2017. Irizarry accepts he’s the most corrupt agent in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration historical past, admitting he conspired with Colombian cartels to build a lavish life-style. But he says he will not take the rap alone, accusing long-trusted DEA colleagues of becoming a member of him in skimming hundreds of thousands from money laundering stings to fund a decade’s price of excessive dwelling.

/AP


“We had free access to do whatever we wanted,” the 48-year-old Irizarry instructed the AP in a sequence of interviews earlier than starting a 12-year federal jail sentence. “We would generate money pick-ups in places we wanted to go. And once we got there it was about drinking and girls.”

All this revelry was rooted, Irizarry stated, in a crushing realization amongst DEA brokers round the world that there is nothing they will do to make a dent in the drug warfare anyway. Only nominal concern was given to truly constructing instances or stemming a file movement of unlawful cocaine and opioids into the United States that has pushed greater than 100,000 drug overdose deaths a year.

“You can’t win an unwinnable war. DEA knows this and the agents know this,” Irizarry stated. “There’s so much dope leaving Colombia. And there’s so much money. We know we’re not making a difference.”

“The drug war is a game. … It was a very fun game that we were playing.”

Irizarry’s story, which some former colleagues have attacked as a fictionalized try to scale back his sentence, got here in days of contrite, bitter, typically tearful interviews with the AP in the historic quarter of his native San Juan. It was a lot the similar account he gave the FBI in prolonged debriefings and sealed courtroom papers obtained by the AP after he pleaded responsible in 2020 to 19 corruption counts, together with money laundering and financial institution fraud.

But after years of portraying Irizarry as a rogue agent who acted alone, U.S. Justice Department investigators have in current months begun carefully following his confessional roadmap, questioning as many as two dozen present and former DEA brokers and prosecutors accused by Irizarry of turning a blind eye to his flagrant abuses and typically becoming a member of in.

With little fanfare, the inquiry has centered on a jet-setting former associate of Irizarry and several other different trusted DEA colleagues assigned to worldwide money laundering. And a minimum of three present and former federal prosecutors have confronted questioning about Irizarry’s raucous events, together with one nonetheless in a senior function in Miami, one other who appeared on TV’s “The Bachelorette” and a former Ohio prosecutor who was confirmed to function the U.S. lawyer in Cleveland this year before abruptly backing out for unspecified household causes.

The increasing investigation comes as the nation’s premier narcotics regulation enforcement company has been rattled by repeated misconduct scandals in its 4,600-agent ranks, from one who took bribes from traffickers to a different accused of leaking confidential info to regulation enforcement targets. But by far the greatest black eye is Irizarry, whose wholesale betrayal of the badge is at the coronary heart of an ongoing exterior evaluate of the DEA’s sprawling overseas operations in 69 international locations.

The once-standout agent has accused some former colleagues in the DEA’s Miami-based Group 4 of lining their pockets and falsifying data to replenish a slush fund used for overseas jaunts over the higher a part of a decade, till his resignation in 2018. He accused a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent of accepting a $20,000 bribe. And not too long ago, the FBI, Office of Inspector General and a federal prosecutor interviewed Irizarry in jail about different federal staff and allegations he raised about misconduct in maritime interdictions.

Jose Irizarry, former DEA agent
Jose Irizarry, a once-standout DEA agent sentenced to greater than 12 years in federal jail for conspiring to launder money with a Colombian cartel, speaks throughout an interview the evening earlier than going to a federal detention middle, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. “You can’t win an unwinnable war. DEA knows this and the agents know this,” Irizarry says. “There’s so much dope leaving Colombia. And there’s so much money. We know we’re not making a difference.”

Carlos Giusti / AP


“It was too outlandish for them to believe this is actually happening,” Irizarry stated of investigators. “The indictment paints a picture of me, the corrupt agent that did this entire scheme. But it doesn’t talk about the rest of DEA. I wasn’t the mastermind.”

The federal decide in Tampa who sentenced Irizarry final year appeared to agree, saying different brokers corrupted by the “allure of easy money” have to be investigated. “This has to stop,” Judge Charlene Honeywell instructed prosecutors, including Irizarry was “the one who got caught but it is apparent to this court that there are others.”

The Justice Department declined to remark. A DEA spokesperson stated: “José Irizarry is a criminal who violated his oath as a federal law enforcement officer and violated the trust of the American people. Over the past 16 months, DEA has worked vigorously to further strengthen our discipline and hiring policies to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of our essential work.”

AP was in a position to corroborate some, however not all, of Irizarry’s accusations by means of 1000’s of confidential regulation enforcement data and dozens of interviews with these aware of his claims and the ongoing investigation, together with a number of who spoke on the situation of anonymity as a result of they had been not licensed to debate them.

The probe is targeted partially on George Zoumberos, one of Irizarry’s former companions who traveled abroad extensively for money laundering investigations. Irizarry instructed AP that Zoumberos loved unfettered entry to so-called fee funds and improperly tapped that money for personal purchases and unwarranted journeys, utilizing names of individuals that did not exist in DEA stories justifying the excesses.

Zoumberos remained a DEA agent even after he was arrested and briefly detained on allegations of sexual assault throughout a visit to Madrid in 2018. He resigned only after being stripped of his gun, badge and safety clearance for invoking his Fifth Amendment rights to remain silent in late 2019, when the similar prosecutor who charged Irizarry summoned him to testify earlier than a federal grand jury in Tampa.

Authorities are so centered on Zoumberos that in addition they subpoenaed his brother, a Florida wedding ceremony photographer who traveled and partied round the world with DEA brokers, and even granted him immunity to induce his cooperation. But Michael Zoumberos additionally refused to testify and has been jailed outdoors Tampa since March for “civil contempt” — an exceedingly uncommon strain tactic that underscores the rising temperature of the investigation.

“I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m not going to talk about my brother,” Michael Zoumberos instructed AP in a jailhouse interview. “I’m basically being held as a political prisoner of the FBI. They want to coerce me into cooperating.”

Some present and former DEA brokers say Irizarry’s claims are overblown or flat-out fabrications. The former ICE agent scoffed at Irizarry’s accusation he took a $20,000 bribe, saying he raised early pink flags about Irizarry. And the lawyer for the Zoumberos brothers says prosecutors are on a “fishing expedition” to deliver extra indictments due to the embarrassment of the Irizarry scandal.

“Everybody they connect to José is extraneous to his thefts,” stated lawyer Raymond Mansolillo. “They’re looking to find a crime to fit this case as opposed to a crime that actually took place. But no matter what happens they’re going to charge somebody with something because they don’t want to come out of all of this after five years and have only charged José.”

Making Irizarry’s allegations extra egregious is that they got here on the heels of a 2015 Inspector General’s report that slammed DEA brokers for collaborating in “sex parties” with prostitutes employed by Colombian cartels. That prompted the suspension of a number of brokers and the retirement of Michele Leonhart, the DEA’s administrator at the time.

Central to the Irizarry investigation are overly cozy relationships developed between brokers and informants — strictly forbidden beneath federal pointers — and free controls on the DEA’s undercover drug money laundering operations that few Americans know exist.

Every year, the DEA launders tens of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} on behalf of the world’s most-violent drug cartels by means of shell firms, a tactic touted in long-running abroad investigations similar to Operation White Wash that resulted in additional than 100 arrests and the seizure of greater than $100 million and a ton of cocaine.

But the DEA has additionally confronted criticism for permitting big quantities of money in the operations to go unseized, enabling cartels to proceed plying their commerce, and for failing to tightly monitor and monitor the stings, making it troublesome to guage outcomes.

A 2020 Justice Department Inspector General’s report faulted the DEA for failing since a minimum of 2006 to file annual stories to Congress about these stings, referred to as Attorney General Exempted Operations. That rebuke, coupled with the embarrassment introduced on by Irizarry’s confession, prompted DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to order an outdoor evaluate of the company’s overseas operations, which is ongoing.

“In the vast majority of these operations, nobody is watching,” stated Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in New York and outspoken critic of DEA money laundering. “In the Irizarry operation, nobody cared how much money they were laundering. Nobody cared that they weren’t making any cases. Nobody was minding the house. There were no controls.”

Rob Feitel, one other former federal prosecutor, stated the DEA’s lax oversight made it straightforward to divert funds for all types of unapproved functions. And so long as money seizures saved driving stats larger — a low bar given plentiful provide — few questions had been requested.

“The other agents aren’t stupid. They knew there were no controls and a lot of them could have done what Irizarry did,” stated Feitel, who represents a former DEA agent beneath scrutiny in the inquiry. “The line that separates Irizarry from the others is he did it with both hands and he did it over and over and over. He didn’t just test the waters, he took a full bath in it.”

Irizarry, who speaks in a clean patter that seamlessly switches between English and Spanish, was a federal air marshal and Border Patrol agent earlier than becoming a member of the DEA in 2009. He stated he discovered the tips of the commerce as a DEA rookie from veteran cops who got here up in New York City in the Nineties when cocaine flooded American streets.

But one other key a part of his schooling got here from Diego Marín, a longtime U.S. informant identified to investigators as Colombia’s “Contraband King” for allegedly laundering dope money by means of imported home equipment and different items. Irizarry stated Marín taught him higher than any agent ever might the nuances of the black-market peso alternate utilized by narcotraffickers throughout the world.

Irizarry parlayed that information into a lifetime of luxurious that prosecutors say was bankrolled by $9 million he and his Colombian co-conspirators diverted from money laundering investigations.

To additional the scheme, Irizarry filed false stories and ordered DEA employees to wire money slated for undercover stings to worldwide accounts he and associates managed. Hardened informants who saved a hefty fee from each money switch sanctioned by the DEA additionally stepped in to fund a few of the revelry in what amounted to unlawful kickbacks.

US DEA Corruption
This picture offered by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration exhibits U.S. foreign money confiscated in “Operation White Wash” in 2016. The long-running abroad investigation resulted in additional than 100 arrests and the seizure of greater than $100 million and greater than a ton of cocaine.

AP


Irizarry’s spending habits shortly started to imitate the ostentatious tastes of the narcos he was tasked with focusing on, with spoils together with a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring for his spouse, luxurious sports activities automobiles and a $767,000 house in the Colombian resort metropolis of Cartagena. He’d journey top notch to Europe with Louis Vuitton baggage and sporting a gold Hublot watch.

“I was very good at what I did but I became somebody I wasn’t. … I became a different man,” Irizarry stated. “I got caught up in the lifestyle. I got caught up with the informants and partying.”

Irizarry contends as many as 90% of his group’s work journeys had been “bogus,” dictated by partying and sporting occasions, not actual work. And he says the U.S. authorities money that helped pay for it was justified in stories as “case-related — but that’s a very vague term.”

Case in level: an August 2014 journey to Madrid for the Spanish Supercup soccer finals that was charged as an expense to Operation White Wash.

But Irizarry instructed investigators there was little precise work to be performed aside from courtesy calls to a couple pleasant Spanish cops. Instead, he stated, brokers spent their time eating at dear eating places — racking up a 1,000-euro invoice at one — and having fun with field-side seats for the championship match between Real and Atletico Madrid.

Joining the posse of brokers at the sport was Michael J. Garofola, a then-Miami federal prosecutor and erstwhile contestant on “The Bachelorette” who posted a thumbs-up picture on Instagram standing subsequent to Irizarry and one other agent — all clad in white Real Madrid jerseys.

“Soaking up the last bit of Spanish culture before saying adios,” he posted just a few days later outdoors a pub.

Irizarry alleged that Garofola additionally joined brokers, cartel informants and others in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo in 2014 for an evening at a strip membership referred to as Doll House. In a memo to the courtroom in search of a discount in his sentence, Irizarry recalled being in the VIP room with one other agent and Garofola, racking up a $2,300 invoice paid for by a violent emissary of Marín with a menacing nickname to match: Iguana.

Garofola stated the journeys included official business and he was instructed every thing was being paid for out of DEA funds.

“There were things about those trips that made me question why I was there,” Garofola instructed AP. “But Irizarry totally used me to ratify this behavior. I was brand new and green and eager to work money laundering cases. He used me just by my being there.”

When Irizarry was awarded with a switch to Cartagena in 2015, the get together adopted. The agent’s rooftop pool, with sweeping ocean views, grew to become an compulsory cease for visiting brokers and prosecutors from the U.S.

One that Irizarry remembers seeing there was Marisa Darden, a prosecutor from Cleveland who he says traveled to Colombia in September 2017 and was at a gathering the place he witnessed two DEA brokers taking ecstasy. Irizarry says he did not see Darden taking medication.

Federal authorities have taken a eager curiosity in that get together, quizzing Irizarry about it as not too long ago as this summer season. At least one DEA agent who attended has been positioned on administrative depart.

Darden went on to develop into a associate in a high-powered Cleveland regulation agency and final year was nominated by President Joe Biden to be the first Black lady U.S. lawyer in northern Ohio. But quickly after she was confirmed, Darden abruptly withdrew in May, citing only “the importance of prioritizing family.”

Darden refused to answer questions from AP however her lawyer stated in an announcement that she “cooperated fully” with the federal investigation into “alleged illegal activity by federal agents,” an inquiry separate from the FBI background examine she confronted in the affirmation course of.

“There is no evidence that she participated in any illegal activity,” Darden’s lawyer, James Wooley, wrote in an electronic mail to AP.

A White House official stated the allegations did not come up in the vetting course of. And U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who put Darden’s identify up for the put up, was additionally unaware of the allegations in the nomination course of, his office stated, and had he identified “would have withdrawn his support.”

Another federal prosecutor named by Irizarry and questioned by federal brokers was Monique Botero, who was not too long ago promoted to go the narcotics division at the U.S. lawyer’s office in Miami. Irizarry instructed investigators and the AP that Botero joined a gaggle of brokers, informants, Colombian police and prostitutes for a celebration on a luxurious yacht.

Botero’s attorneys acknowledge she was on the yacht in September 2015 for what she thought was a cruise organized by native police, however they are saying “categorically and unequivocally, Monique never saw or participated in anything illegal or unethical.”

“Irizarry has admitted that he lied to everyone around him for various nefarious reasons. These lies about Monique are part of a similar pattern,” stated her lawyer, Benjamin Greenberg. “It is appalling that Monique is being maligned and defamed by someone as disgraced as Irizarry.”

Irizarry’s downfall was as sudden because it was inevitable — the outgrowth of a lavish life-style that raised too many eyebrows, even amongst colleagues prepared to bend the guidelines themselves. Eventually, he was betrayed by one of his closest confidants, a Venezuelan-American informant who confessed to diverting funds from the undercover stings.

“José’s problem is that he took things to the point of stupidity and trashed the party for everyone else,” stated one protection lawyer who traveled with Irizarry and different brokers. “But there’s no doubt he didn’t act alone.”

Since his arrest, Irizarry has written a self-published e-book titled “Getting Back on Track,” a part of his try to come clean with his errors and pursue a less complicated path after bringing a lot disgrace upon himself and his household.

Recently, his Colombian-born spouse — who was spared jail time on a money laundering cost in alternate for Irizarry’s confession — instructed him she was in search of a divorce.

Adding to Irizarry’s despair is that he’s nonetheless the only one to pay such a heavy worth for a sample of misconduct that he says the DEA allowed to fester. To date, prosecutors have but to cost another brokers, and several other former colleagues have quietly retired quite than endure the shame of presumably being fired.

“I’ve told them everything I know,” Irizarry stated. “All they have to do is dig.”

Back to top button