José Irizarry says they called themselves “Team America” – a group of jet-setting, high-living federal agents and prosecutors who were supposed to be fighting the war on drugs.
But the former Drug Enforcement Administration star says they all knew that war was unwinnable. So, they were going to milk it for all it was worth.
“DEA is a game. The drug war is a game … It was a very fun game that we were playing,” Irizarry said.
The 48-year-old Irizarry pleaded guilty in September 2020 to 19 criminal counts, including bank fraud and diverting millions in drug proceeds.
For years, the Department of Justice portrayed the San Juan, Puerto Rico, native as a rogue agent. But Irizarry says the problems go much deeper.
“They kind of painted me in this picture of, that I’m this mastermind of what we were doing and … I wasn’t the mastermind,” he said.
In fact, the DOJ has begun questioning as many as two-dozen current and former agents and prosecutors who Irizarry claims either participated in or turned a blind eye to his abuses.
Former federal prosecutor Bonnie Klapper is not involved in this case but says the system allowed this to happen.
“Nobody was minding the house. No one was checking to see. There were no controls,” Klapper said.
The case revolves around a fact that most Americans aren’t aware of: The federal government launders tens of millions of dollars a year on behalf of the world’s most violent drug cartels.
“You launder $100,000 and you can figure out who dropped off the money. You work that person higher up into the organization. You find out who the traffickers are. You do bank subpoenas. You find out where the money is going,” Klapper said. “So, the goal was to generate targets, seizures and prosecutions.”
But Irizarry says it became more of a private slush fund for him and his friends.
He has implicated a list of former colleagues in Miami, accusing them of lining their pockets and falsifying records to pay for parties and overseas jaunts.
“It was mostly about drinking and girls,” he said. “And then we sprinkled in a couple of work things in there … It was more of a party first, work second type of deal.”
He says it paid for parties with prostitutes on a yacht in Cartagena, Colombia; lap dances at this now-shuttered Dominican strip joint; dinner at this swanky Madrid restaurant and tickets to a Real Madrid soccer match; even jewelry from the famed luxury boutique Tiffany’s.
The former air marshal and Border Patrol agent claims as many as 90 percent of his group’s work trips were “bogus.”
“A typical trip, would, we would justify going or we would make up either an interview or a coordination meeting, and we determined where we wanted to travel … We would make it wherever we kind of wanted to go,” Irizarry.
And he says no one complained, because “Team America” was racking up numbers.
“We knew the game. We know DEA is about stats. So, our cases brought them stats … And it got very good press. … Everybody was happy all, all, all the way around,” Irizarry said.
Klapper worked on such “pick-up” operations with other agencies during her time at DOJ.
“Those agents were meticulous,” Klapper said. “We would consult before every pickup, and we had goals. For every dollar we laundered, we had to seize two. If not, we shut the operation down. Meaning if we had to launder $1 million, we better have seized $2 million.”
She says alarm bells should have been clanging over at DEA.
“It’s almost like it became a ball rolling downhill. Launder more money, seize more money, launder more money, take more trips to Europe. Take nice trips all over the world and seize more money,” Klapper said.
At least three current and former federal prosecutors accused by Irizarry have faced questioning in the ongoing probe.
The Justice Department declined to comment. In a statement to AP, DEA said Irizarry was a criminal who violated his oath and the people’s trust. The agency says it has strengthened discipline and hiring policies to ensure DEA’s integrity and effectiveness.
An Inspector General’s report slammed the agency for failing to properly oversee these stings. The audit found the DEA hadn’t submitted annual reports to Congress about the undercover operations since at least 2006.
Anne Milgram, the DEA’s new administrator, has ordered an outside review of the agency’s foreign operations, which is ongoing.
Earlier this year, Irizarry agreed to speak with the AP in Puerto Rico before saying goodbye to family. He says the whole war on drugs is flawed.
“The only way we can do our job is to have informants,” he said. “And the only good informants are the ones that play both sides. And we all know this.”
In January, Irizarry reported to the Federal Correctional Institution, Miami, to begin serving a 12-year sentence.
He says the job turned him into someone he wasn’t.
“I should have been stronger and I wasn’t … I knew it was right from wrong and I and I chose wrong many times, and that’s why I’m here.”