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Former D.E.A. Agent Charged With Laundering Colombian Drug Money

Jose Ismael Irizarry was sent to Cartagena to investigate money laundering by Colombia’s notoriously violent drug cartels. But instead of using his stable of confidential informants to bring down the gangs, the authorities said, Mr. Irizarry worked with a Colombian drug trafficker to launder money seized from undercover drug operations and used the cash to buy a Tiffany diamond ring, a $135,000 Land Rover and a home in Cartagena.

On Friday, Mr. Irizarry, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who had worked in Miami, Cartagena and Washington until he resigned in 2018, was arrested along with his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, near their home in San Juan, P.R.

Mr. Irizarry, 46, was charged with conspiracy to launder money, honest services wire fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, conspiracy to commit identity theft and aggravated identity theft. Ms. Gomez-Irizarry, 36, was charged with conspiracy to launder money.

Both were released on bond and are due back in court on Wednesday. José Luis Novas-Debién, a lawyer for the couple, did not immediately respond to messages on Saturday.

A 19-count indictment, filed this week in federal court, said Mr. Irizarry “engaged in a corrupt scheme” while he was meant to be investigating money laundering by drug-trafficking organizations. The indictment accused Mr. Irizarry of “enriching himself by secretly using his position and his special access to information to divert drug proceeds from D.E.A. control to the control of himself and his co-conspirators.”

One of those co-conspirators was the leader of a Colombian drug-trafficking organization who became godfather to Mr. Irizarry’s children, according to federal prosecutors in Tampa, Fla.

A second co-conspirator was identified in the indictment as a public official in Colombia, who prosecutors said had used drug money to buy a $329,000 Lamborghini Huracán Spyder from a Miami car dealership.

Mr. Irizarry’s indictment could make it more difficult for American law enforcement officials to earn the trust of informants in the shadowy and dangerous world of drug trafficking, according to the authorities.

In Colombia, where cartels rule by force, cooperating with law enforcement could be a death sentence. But as traffickers and cartels have increasingly turned to encrypted forms of communication, informants remain vital to federal investigators, according to Kevin M. Lally, a former chief of the narcotics and money-laundering division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

In an interview on Saturday, Mr. Lally described the accusations against Mr. Irizarry as the “sort of corruption that tears at the fabric of the agency itself, because the only way you can make these cases is to have informants.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration referred a request for comment to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.

The indictment described a sprawling scheme in which Mr. Irizarry filed false reports on investigations, prompting a ripple effect that caused his colleagues at the Drug Enforcement Administration to falsely document the details of wire transfers, unwittingly concealing the source of drug profits that he controlled.

Ms. Gomez-Irizarry was accused of running a shell company out of the couple’s home in Miramar, Fla., that had no employees and sold no goods but was used to take in and distribute the money her husband collected, the indictment said.

After large sums of cash were seized from undercover operations, Mr. Irizarry would direct agency employees to transfer the money to bank accounts controlled by others involved in his operation, according to the indictment.

Mr. Irizarry was accused of laundering the money at the same time he was in federal bankruptcy proceedings that resulted in his debts being wiped away in 2016, prosecutors said.

This month, Fernando Gomez, another former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in a conspiracy to help drug traffickers in Puerto Rico evade law enforcement. And in 2015, the head of the agency, Michele M. Leonhart, left the position amid outrage over her handling of reports that agents in Colombia had participated in sex parties with prostitutes paid for by drug cartels.

Leonardo E. Concepcion, a lawyer for one of Mr. Irizarry’s onetime informants, Gustavo Yabrudi, said his client had hoped his former handler would be charged. Mr. Yabrudi was recently given a 46-month sentence for his role in a money-laundering scheme.

Now, “the people who were the string-pullers in the conspiracy will face the consequences,” Mr. Concepcion said. “Other people are going to have to answer for their actions.”

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