José Irizarry Is the World’s ‘Most Corrupt’ DEA Agent, but He Wants the World To Know He Didn’t Act Alone
After being arrested in February 2020 in connection with a major money laundering scheme within the DEA, disgraced agent José Irizarry — who has been labeled as the “most corrupt” person in the entire agency — is blowing the whistle on any and every agent and government official who aided, abetted, or conspired in his crimes.
The intercontinental operation known as “Team America” created space for agents, prosecutors, informants, and members of the cartel to collaborate on money laundering schemes that would allow those involved to travel to the approved locations and use the money for parties, liquor, prostitutes, or, in some cases, to use on Real Madrid football games and Rafael Nadal tennis matches.
Irizarry will be serving a 12-year federal prison sentence for his crimes, but not before speaking with journalists and investigators about the co-conspirators that made them possible. The agent says the crimes were a result of a collective acknowledgment of the DEA’s ineffectiveness at fighting international drug trafficking.
“You can’t win an unwinnable war. DEA knows this and the agents know this,” Irizarry said to the AP. “There’s 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. … It was a very fun game that we were playing.”
Despite attempts to paint Irizarry as a “bad apple” within the agency, his lengthy confessions have forced investigators to follow up with more than 20 agents about their potential involvement with Irizarry’s laundry list of international crimes, including a senior official in Miami, and a recently-appointed US Attorney in Cleveland named Marisa Darden who withdrew from the position for “family reasons” soon after accepting the job.
Irizarry isn’t the only agent who’s been brought up on charges in recent memory, but he is definitely the most notable, with investigations spanning nearly 70 nations. However, Irizarry has no problem naming names now that he’s facing more than a decade behind bars. “The indictment paints a picture of me, the corrupt agent that did this entire scheme. But it doesn’t talk about the rest of DEA. I wasn’t the mastermind,” he said.
After sentencing Irizarry in 2021, a federal judge from Tampa named Charlene Honeywell conceded that she believes Irizarry’s claims that he did not act alone. “This has to stop,” she said, acknowledging that Irizarry was “the one who got caught but it is apparent to this court that there are others.”
The DEA, however, has no interest in even entertaining these claims. In an official statement, a spokesperson said, “José Irizarry is 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 a result of his confessions, investigators have turned to agents like George Zoumberos, who accompanied Irizarry on overseas trips to conduct money laundering investigations. Irizarry explained that he and Zoumberos had access to funds set aside for the investigations that were then used on personal purchases and unauthorized or unnecessary trips abroad by attributing the money spent and trips taken to people who did not exist.
Although Zoumberos was arrested after being accused of sexual assault in 2018 before resigning in 2019 after pleading the Fifth when summoned to testify before a federal grand jury.
Investigators have even taken Zoumberos’ brother Michael into custody in an attempt to coerce the agent’s family member into offering useful testimony. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but I’m not going to talk about my brother,” Michael said. “I’m basically being held as a political prisoner of the FBI. They want to coerce me into cooperating.”
The attorney representing both of the Zoumberos brothers, Raymond Mansolillo, has accused the FBI of conducting a “fishing expedition” to secure more indictments, saying, “Everybody they connect to José is extraneous to his thefts. They’re looking to find a crime to fit this case as opposed to a crime that actually took place. But no matter what happens they’re going to charge somebody with something because they don’t want to come out of all of this after five years and have only charged José.”
Another major focus within the investigation is the DEA’s practice of setting up shell corporations to covertly launder money for cartels, something that has been justified by operations like White Wash, which resulted in over 100 arrests and $100 million in seized cartel money as well as a ton of cocaine.
However, the DEA has been criticized for not closely monitoring the money that is seized and for allowing some money to remain with the cartels, permitting them to continue their operations. A 2020 report from the Justice Department Inspector General showed that the DEA had not filed annual reports with Congress about what are known as Attorney General Exempted Operations since at least 2006.
“In the vast majority of these operations, nobody is watching,” said former New York federal prosecutor Bonnie Klapper. “In the Irizarry operation, nobody cared how much money they were laundering. Nobody cared that they weren’t making any cases. Nobody was minding the house. There were no controls.”
Another former federal prosecutor named Rob Feitel added, “The other agents aren’t stupid. They knew there were no controls and a lot of them could have done what Irizarry did. The line that separates Irizarry from the others is he did it with both hands and he did it over and over and over. He didn’t just test the waters, he took a full bath in it.”
Before long, Irizarry was wiring large amounts of DEA money, that was obtained by falsified reports, through international accounts opened by him and his various associates. Even some of the DEA’s informants became involved in the debauchery, putting up money of their own to fund the various escapades.
Irizarry began spending the money recklessly, including a $30,000 Tiffany diamond ring, sports cars, and a 6-figure home in Cartagena, Colombia. “I was very good at what I did but I became somebody I wasn’t. … I became a different man,” he said. “I got caught up in the lifestyle. I got caught up with the informants and partying.” Irizarry estimates that about 90% of the work trips he took were “bogus.”
“José’s problem is that he took things to the point of stupidity and trashed the party for everyone else,” said one defense attorney who had traveled with a number of agents including Irizarry. “But there’s no doubt he didn’t act alone.”
As of time of publication, no other agents have been arrested in connection with Irizarry’s crimes. Some of his colleagues have elected to resign, but Irizarry is confident he won’t be the only one to go down. “I’ve told them everything I know,” he said. “All they have to do is dig.”
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