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.
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.
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.
“He was the superstar everyone wanted to be,” one former law enforcement official said.