U.S. charges ex-DEA agent with laundering millions in drug funds

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities arrested a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent on Friday on charges he conspired with Colombian drug traffickers to steal millions of dollars the U.S. government had seized from suspected dealers.

In an indictment unsealed Friday, prosecutors said Jose Irizarry had been “enriching himself by secretly using his position and his special access to information.” He used the money, they said, to fund a lavish lifestyle of expensive homes and cars and a $30,000 Tiffany ring.

Federal prosecutors said Irizarry used his position with the drug agency to launder money with the help of what they described as a “Colombia-based drug trafficking and money laundering organization” that he was ostensibly investigating. Prosecutors also charged his wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry.

FBI agents arrested Irizarry and his wife Friday in Puerto Rico. They are charged with 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy and identity theft.

Prosecutors alleged that Irizarry, once a decorated agent, took advantage of a particularly sensitive type of undercover DEA investigation, in which agents pose as money launderers, collecting cash from drug dealers and funneling it through undercover bank accounts. They said Irizarry secretly diverted that money instead to accounts he and other conspirators controlled.

In late 2013, prosecutors said, Irizarry helped collect nearly $1.1 million from suspected drug dealers that was deposited into undercover DEA bank accounts. Irizarry then had more than half of that money wired to accounts controlled by one of his associates.

Two years later, Irizarry helped collect more than 1 million euros in “bulk cash” from traffickers in the Netherlands, then had $141,000 wired to a car dealer for himself and the head of the Colombian trafficking group.

Irizarry and the unnamed conspirators used the money to “purchase jewelry, luxury vehicles, a home, and to make cash gifts to friends and family,” according to the indictment.

Irizarry resigned from the DEA in 2018. A lawyer assigned to represent Irizarry, Jose L. Novas-Debien, could not immediately be reached for comment.

His arrest is the latest black eye for the DEA. Last week, another former agent was sentenced to prison for helping traffickers smuggle thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York.

Reporting by Brad Heath; Editing by Andy Sullivan and Tom Brown