by Jim Mustian and Joshua Goodman, ABC News
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — José Irizarry accepts that he’s known as the most corrupt agent in U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration history, admitting he “became another man” in conspiring with Colombian cartels to build a lavish lifestyle of expensive sports cars, Tiffany jewels and paramours around the world.
But as he used his final hours of freedom to tell his story to The Associated Press, Irizarry says he won’t go down for this alone, accusing some long-trusted DEA colleagues of joining him in skimming millions of dollars from drug money laundering stings to fund a decade’s worth of luxury overseas travel, fine dining, top seats at sporting events and frat house-style debauchery.
The way Irizarry tells it, dozens of other federal agents, prosecutors, informants and in some cases cartel smugglers themselves were all in on the three-continent joyride known as “Team America” that chose cities for money laundering pick-ups mostly for party purposes or to coincide with Real Madrid soccer or Rafael Nadal tennis matches. That included stops along the way in VIP rooms of Caribbean strip joints, Amsterdam’s red-light district and aboard a Colombian yacht that launched with plenty of booze and more than a dozen prostitutes.
“We had free access to do whatever we wanted,” the 48-year-old Irizarry told the AP in a series of interviews before beginning a 12-year federal prison 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 said, in a crushing realization among DEA agents around the world that there’s nothing they can do to make a dent in the drug war anyway. Only nominal concern was given to actually building cases or stemming a record flow of illegal cocaine and opioids into the United States that has driven more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths a year.
“You can’t win an unwinnable war. DEA knows this and the agents know this,” Irizarry said. “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 attempt to reduce his sentence, came in days of contrite, bitter, sometimes tearful interviews with the AP in the historic quarter of his native San Juan. It was much the same account he gave the FBI in lengthy debriefings and sealed court papers obtained by the AP after he pleaded guilty in 2020 to 19 corruption counts, including money laundering and bank fraud.
But after years of portraying Irizarry as a rogue agent who acted alone, U.S. Justice Department investigators have in recent months begun closely following his confessional roadmap, questioning as many as two-dozen current and former DEA agents and prosecutors accused by Irizarry of turning a blind eye to his flagrant abuses and sometimes joining in.
With little fanfare, the inquiry has focused on a jet-setting former partner of Irizarry and several other trusted DEA colleagues assigned to international money laundering. And at least three current and former federal prosecutors have faced questioning about Irizarry’s raucous parties, including one still in a senior role in Miami, another who appeared on TV’s “The Bachelorette” and a former Ohio prosecutor who was confirmed to serve as the U.S. attorney in Cleveland this year before abruptly backing out for unspecified family reasons.
The expanding investigation comes as the nation’s premier narcotics law enforcement agency has been rattled by repeated misconduct scandals in its 4,600-agent ranks, from one who took bribes from traffickers to another accused of leaking confidential information to law enforcement targets. But by far the biggest black eye is Irizarry, whose wholesale betrayal of the badge is at the heart of an ongoing external review of the DEA’s sprawling foreign operations in 69 countries.
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