José Irizarry was cursed with a drug lord’s tastes and a civil servant’s salary.
An agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Irizarry liked yacht parties with sex workers, jewelry from Tiffany, Louis Vuitton luggage and luxury cars. To finance his lifestyle – which came to include a BMW, two Land Rovers and three houses – Irizarry embezzled millions of dollars in government funds.
In what prosecutors called a “shocking breach of the public’s trust”, Irizarry, 48, also laundered money with members of a Colombian drug cartel who were supposed to be his sworn foes.
The explosive revelation that one of its former rising stars spent years as a kind of cartel double agent has been deeply embarrassing to the DEA, and that and other scandals afflicting the agency show no signs of abating.
Last year, DEA agent Chad Scott was sentenced to 13 years in prison for falsifying government records, perjury and stealing money from suspects during investigative work. Earlier this year, another agent, Nathan Koen, was convicted of accepting bribes from a drug trafficker, and a third, John Costanzo Jr, was charged with accepting bribes in exchange for leaking confidential information to defense lawyers.
In interviews with the Associated Press, Irizarry, who recently began a 12-year prison sentence, has claimed that corruption is endemic in the powerful US drug agency, which has 92 foreign offices, about 4,600 special agents and a budget of more than $3bn.
“You can’t win an unwinnable war,” Irizarry told the Associated Press. The “DEA knows this and the agents know this”. There is “so much dope leaving Colombia. And there’s so much money. We know we’re not making a difference.”
He added: “The drug war is a game” – a “very fun game that we were playing”.
“When my client joined the DEA he was schooled in how to be corrupt, he was schooled in how to break the law,” Irizarry’s attorney, María Domínguez, argued during his trial.
Some fellow agents describe Irizarry’s claims as unfounded allegations by a fabulist trying to distract from his own admitted wrongdoing. A DEA spokesperson called Irizarry “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.”
As an agent, Irizarry had access to thousands or millions of dollars in DEA funds as well as drug proceeds that the agency had seized or was investigating. Even worse, “his fingerprints are all over dozens of arrests and indictments,” David S Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, told the Associated Press in 2020.
Irizarry, who was born in Puerto Rico and is bilingual, began his law enforcement career as a federal air marshal and an agent with the US border patrol. He was hired as a DEA special agent in 2009.
According to the Associated Press, Irizarry was hired despite a history of bankruptcy – with debts of almost half a million dollars – and a polygraph test he took during the screening process that indicated signs of deception.
Irizarry began his DEA career working out of Miami. He worked undercover and was eventually transferred to Cartagena, Colombia.
At some point, investigators and prosecutors said, Irizarry began collaborating with one of his most prized informants, the Venezuelan American Gustavo Yabrudi, to develop a money-laundering operation involving drug-world associates. They made a lot of money, fast, and Irizarry did not go to great pains to conceal his consumption habits or general recklessness.
A consummate hedonist renowned among fellow DEA agents for his extravagant tastes and fondness for sensuous and sensual pleasures, Irizarry organized parties on yachts with sex workers. The DEA was struck by scandal in 2015 when reports emerged that similar “sex parties” involving its agents were occurring in Colombia. The DEA’s then chief, Michele Leonhart, resigned in the wake of the scandal.
Irizarry claimed to the Associated Press that dozens of other agents joined in with his debauchery, and that they deliberately tailored drug operations so that they could visit party hotspots, international soccer matches and Amsterdam’s red-light district. He said that agents referred to their frat house escapades as “Team America” and that it spanned multiple continents.
“We had free access to do whatever we wanted,” Irizarry told the Associated Press. “We would generate money pick-ups in places we wanted to go. And once we got there it was about drinking and girls.”
He added: “The indictment paints a picture of me [as] the corrupt agent that did this entire scheme. But it doesn’t talk about the rest of DEA. I wasn’t the mastermind.”
In 2017, after his boss became suspicious and recalled him from Colombia to Washington DC, Irizarry resigned. In 2020, after investigators closed in, he pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges, including bank fraud and embezzling drug money.
An alleged money-launderer served as godfather to his children. Irizarry’s wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, is a relative of Diego Marin, a man many narcotics officials consider one of the biggest money-laundering suspects in Colombia.
Investigators with the US Department of Justice have been quietly questioning many of Irizarry’s former colleagues, the Associated Press reports, and last year the department’s Office of the Inspector General released a report asserting a dangerous shortage of oversight and accountability in the DEA.