Agents in drug war must walk a ‘fine line.’ In Florida, more than a few have crossed it

Ever since the United States declared a war on drugs during the Nixon presidency, the federal agency charged with leading the battle — the Drug Enforcement Administration — has been dogged by scandals, more than a few of them with Florida connections.

For agents on the front lines, the temptation to cash in on all the dirty money is almost an occupational hazard.

Jose Ismael Irizarry, 48, a former star in the agency’s Miami office, began a 12-year prison sentence in January after pleading guilty to various charges involving a long-running scheme to siphon more than $9 million from undercover drug-trafficking investigations into bank accounts controlled by him and his co-conspirators — including the leader of a Colombian cocaine-smuggling syndicate who became godfather to Irizarry’s children, prosecutors say. His wife, Nathalia Gomez-Irizarry, pleaded guilty to a single money-laundering conspiracy charge, was sentenced to probation and ordered to forfeit a Tiffany diamond ring.

But Irizarry, in interviews with The Associated Press about his illicit undercover activities for the DEA, claims he didn’t act alone while working for the agency’s Miami and Cartagena, Colombia, offices from 2009 to 2017 before his resignation the following year. The AP found that the federal probe of Irizarry’s exploits has exposed cozy relationships between DEA agents and informants along with loose controls over undercover money-laundering operations.

An investigation led by the FBI continues to dig deeper into the Irizarry case for possible wrongdoing by others, including former colleagues and traffickers. Meanwhile, the DEA says it has strengthened disciplinary policies for serious misconduct and hiring practices involving polygraph tests, while also tightening controls over the use of funds in undercover drug-trafficking operations. The agency is also completing an independent review of its foreign operations, focusing on South America.

A DEA spokesperson said in a statement provided to the Miami Herald that Irizarry is a “criminal who violated his oath as a law enforcement officer and violated the trust of the American people.” Since that scandal and other problems, the DEA said it has adopted reforms “to further strengthen our discipline and hiring policies to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of our essential work.”

Irizarry may be the worst DEA agent accused of crossing the line over the agency’s 50-year history. But there have been a string of agents implicated in the misuse of drug profits during undercover operations or while consorting with narco-traffickers, including, in one infamous example, joining in sex parties in Colombia.

Retired federal prosecutor Dick Gregorie, who took down infamous Medellin and Cali cartel bosses and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega during his storied career in Miami, said there is an inherent challenge for the agency. It operates a “large overseas contingent” where agents are given wide latitude to cultivate drug-trafficking informants without vigilant oversight.

Federal prosecutor Dick Gregorie holds a picture of Gen. Manuel Noriega and Noriega’s hat at the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Federal prosecutor Dick Gregorie holds a picture of Gen. Manuel Noriega and Noriega’s hat at the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“When you’re dealing with that kind of business overseas, you’re taking away some of the local controls from the traditional Washington, D.C., rules and regulations,” Gregorie told the Miami Herald. “The risk is, the [agents] are operating pretty much on their own with no control over them whatsoever. They’re walking a very fine line and working in a world that’s very nefarious.

Read More: He caught the world’s worst drug traffickers. Now Dick Gregorie is ready to hang it up.

“Most of them toe the line, but they have to put up with those who don’t,” Gregorie added. “They know it [bad behavior] goes on and they don’t participate in it, but if they need something from an agent dealing with an informant, they close their eyes. You cannot make a big case without an informant.”

Privately, a few former DEA agents who declined to be identified defended the agency, saying that the vast majority of field agents view their jobs as public service, play by the rules and are dedicated to stopping the flow of drugs into the United States. But they said they’ve been sickened by the revelations in the Irizarry case and by the lack of controls over his handling of informants and bank accounts in undercover money-laundering operations.

Money corrupts and there’s a lot of it

Irizarry’s case — along with several others this year alone — reflects the corrupting power of the massive amount of money that continually circulates in the drug underworld.

In May, two of Irizarry’s former colleagues in the DEA’s Miami office — a current agent and a retired agent — surrendered on corruption charges involving the payment of thousands of dollars in bribes for confidential investigative information about drug-trafficking suspects. The charges are unrelated to Irizarry’s fraud and money-laundering case.

The two defendants, who have pleaded not guilty and were released on bail, were charged by federal prosecutors in New York because of conflict-of-interest issues in South Florida.

Manuel Recio, 53, retired from the DEA in 2018 and had worked as an assistant special agent in charge of the Miami office along with other offices over 20 years. He was currently working as an investigative consultant in South Florida, where the alleged criminal conspiracy took place. John Costanzo Jr., 47, was most recently working at DEA headquarters in the Washington, D.C., area and had previously worked as a supervisor in the agency’s Miami office, authorities said.

Upon his retirement in November 2018, Recio began operating a Miami private investigative service, Global Legal Consulting LLC, that catered to South Florida defense attorneys and also helped them recruit clients. According to an indictment, Recio agreed to bribe Costanzo, who was a DEA supervisor in Miami, in exchange for his providing the private investigator with confidential information about narcotics investigations through November 2019.

Costanzo gave Recio information about sealed indictments and secret investigations, including the identities of suspects and the anticipated timing of their arrests, the indictment says.

Costanzo also shared intelligence from the Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System, a DEA database that contains information about targets under investigation, the indictment charges. Recio allegedly paid Costanzo tens of thousands of dollars for this information, which in turn Recio used to help recruit new clients for two unidentified defense attorneys in Miami. They are described as “Attorney-1” and “Attorney-2” in the indictment.

The defendants’ attorneys said they plan to fight the charges at trial; Costanzo’s New York lawyer Marc Mucasey said “the theory of this case is misguided and he will be vindicated.”

Also this year, a former DEA agent in Florida who admitted to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from a drug trafficker was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.

Nathan Koen, who had transferred from Jacksonville to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2016, pleaded guilty to a bribery charge last year. He admitted taking the bribes in exchange for providing sensitive information that allowed the drug trafficker to avoid detection by law enforcement and run his organization.

The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
The MV Manzanares with a Panamanian flag was seized by Haitian authorities after it was found to be carrying loads of cocaine and heroin in 2015. It is pictured here at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

‘Sugar boat’ scandal in Haiti

Last year, the DEA suffered another black eye when a U.S. special counsel found its office in Haiti mishandled a major investigation into a Colombian ship loaded with hundreds of kilos of cocaine and heroin, including assisting and paying Haitian officials to destroy some of the drug evidence.

How the DEA let one of Haiti’s biggest drug busts slip through its fingers

The DEA’s botched procedures were highlighted by the Office of Special Counsel in a letter to President Joe Biden in which the drug agency’s own findings and report on the 2015 narcotics-trafficking case involving the MV Manzanares ship were found to be “unreasonable.”

“[S]ince the U.S. government expends resources for the DEA to operate in Haiti, it is incumbent on the agency to be as effective as possible in its mission to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs into the United States,” wrote Special Counsel Henry Kerner, who was tasked with assessing the allegations of wrongdoing by two former DEA agents who had been stationed in Haiti.

Kerner criticized the agency’s claim that because it has a “limited role” in promoting seaport security, “it is not accountable for the effectiveness of its work in Haiti,” calling that assertion “not reasonable.” He also said the DEA “does not adequately explain its destruction of drugs in the Manzanares investigation” and that the agency “failed to explain why there was a significant delay in severing ties with a corrupt Haitian official.”

Not only did the DEA assist the Haiti National Police in destroying some of the drug evidence and pay them $1,500 for costs, but most of the cocaine and heroin smuggled on the ship into a private seaport near Port-au-Prince went missing. The 700 to 800 kilos of cocaine and 300 kilos of heroin — hidden among bags of sugar in the hull of the ship — had an estimated U.S. street value of $100 million, authorities said.

Perhaps most significant, because of the DEA’s mishandling of the Manzanares case, federal prosecutors in Miami were able to bring criminal charges only against a low-level stevedore who was implicated in the narcotics probe. The stevedore cooperated with federal prosecutors, received a lenient one-year prison sentence and then was granted asylum in the United States after establishing a fear of persecution in his homeland.

Cartel ‘sex parties’

There have been other systemic problems with DEA agents working in foreign countries. In 2015, a Justice Department inspector general’s report slammed DEA agents for participating in “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by Colombian cartels. That prompted the suspension of several agents and the retirement of Michele Leonhart, the DEA’s administrator at the time.

The federal watchdog faulted the DEA over allegations that agents attended sex parties with prostitutes on government-leased property while stationed overseas. The parties were allegedly arranged over the course of several years by a foreign officer, who also alleged that several agents were provided with money, expensive gifts and weapons.

Seven agents ultimately admitted attending parties with prostitutes. The DEA issued suspensions ranging from two days to 10 days, and one agent was cleared of wrongdoing, according to The Associated Press.

But the allegations against Irizarry — skimming millions from money-laundering sting operations — deeply tarnished the DEA because it revealed that he and possibly other agents were breaking the law to get rich and live like narco-traffickers.

Every year, the DEA launders tens of millions of dollars on behalf of the world’s most violent drug cartels through shell companies, a tactic touted in long-running overseas investigations such as Operation White Wash that resulted in more than 100 arrests and the seizure of more than $100 million and a ton of cocaine.

But the DEA has also faced harsh criticism for allowing huge amounts of money in the operations to go unseized, enabling cartels to continue plying their trade, and for failing to tightly monitor and track the stings, making it difficult to evaluate results.

A 2020 Justice Department Inspector General’s report faulted the DEA for failing since at least 2006 to file annual reports to Congress about these stings, known as Attorney General Exempted Operations. That rebuke, coupled with the embarrassment brought on by Irizarry’s confession, prompted DEA Administrator Anne Milgram to order an outside review of the agency’s foreign operations, which is ongoing.

Fashion photographer and ex-government informant Baruch Vega in a 2014 file photo..
Fashion photographer and ex-government informant Baruch Vega in a 2014 file photo..

The double life of a Miami Beach informant

In a similar vein, one of the DEA’s biggest scandals came to light in South Florida more than two decades ago when a smooth-talking Miami Beach fashion photographer was discovered to be living a double life as an informant for the agency.

Baruch Jairo Vega made tens of millions of dollars as a go-between with cartel leaders by arranging the surrender of scores of Colombian cocaine traffickers for a fee in exchange for shorter prison sentences.

“I brought in 114 individuals — the biggest. The biggest. Nobody else was doing it,” Vega told ABC News’ “Primetime.”

But his alleged extortion racket, involving payoffs and parties in Panama, implicated two DEA agents who supervised him, leading to the loss of their jobs and the end of his gig as a flamboyant federal informant.

Baruch’s downfall was sealed after defense attorneys for Medellin Cartel boss Fabio Ochoa Vasquez alleged Ochoa was indicted after rejecting a $30 million shakedown offer from Vega in exchange for turning himself in and cooperating with prosecutors in Miami.

Ochoa, who helped transform cocaine smuggling into a tightly run, billion-dollar business in the 1980s, stirred up a heap of controversy in federal law enforcement with his allegations against Vega.

“This program shocks the conscience of the court,” Ochoa’s defense attorney, Roy Black, said in a court hearing. “There is no doubt there was a conspiracy to obstruct justice. The question is, how far did this conspiracy go and how much was the government responsible?”

In the end, however, Ochoa was unable to get his drug-trafficking case dismissed, and he was convicted at trial and sent to prison for 30 years.

“In this world of narco-trafficking and what it did to this country, the defendant is one of four or five people who literally changed the world as we knew it,” lead Miami federal prosecutor Ed Ryan said after Ochoa’s sentencing in 2003.

The following year, Vega, who lived in a Miami Beach penthouse, was sentenced to four months in prison for failing to report some of his income and turned over $1.5 million to the feds. It was a sweetheart deal that prosecutors had to make after recognizing that the DEA had kept him on such a loose leash that they couldn’t pursue charging him with money laundering and obstruction of justice.