BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — The star witness in a U.S. investigation of a once-standout Drug Enforcement Administration agent was sentenced Wednesday to nearly four years in prison after implicating his longtime handler in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering conspiracy with the very Colombian cartel criminals he was supposed to be fighting.
The 46-month sentence for Gustavo Yabrudi was handed down after a hearing in which a judge in Tampa, Florida, opted to keep secret the location of the DEA informant's confinement out of concerns for his safety.
Since his arrest last year, Yabrudi has met more than six times with federal agents investigating his DEA handler, José Irizarry. Law enforcement officials believe Irizarry played a leading role in a conspiracy to launder more than $7 million in illicit drug proceeds, though no charges against him have been announced since he resigned after he was recalled from Colombia to Washington in 2017.
Irizarry had been a model agent, winning praise from his supervisors, and while an agent in Miami was entrusted with an undercover money laundering operation using front companies, shell bank accounts and couriers.
The case is one of the biggest black eyes in the history of the DEA, an agency that has seen repeated scandals in recent years, and one that officials fear could have compromised undercover operations in the U.S. and South America.
The DEA did not comment on the status of the case.
Yabrudi's sentencing shed no new light on the Irizarry investigation. The case against Yabrudi referred only to an unnamed "co-conspirator 3" — a suspect who is Irizarry, according to five current and former law enforcement officials.
But the hearing did offer new details on Yabrudi's service as a longtime DEA informant.
His defense attorney, Leonardo Concepcion, acknowledged in court papers that Yabrudi's "moral compass failed him." But he described Yabrudi as "a small cog in a large machine" who was "led astray by the very agent that initially recruited him."
"When we see these gray area arrangements being approved by DEA agents, we can begin to understand how it was possible for Yabrudi to have failed to clearly identify what was acceptable and what was not," Concepcion wrote in a court filing. "Someone who uses their badge and gun as a shield to conduct illegal activity is not someone who takes kindly to subordinates deifying them."
In pleading guilty, Yabrudi admitted to opening a bank account with Irizarry where they directed deposits from a growing network of criminal contacts looking to repatriate drug proceeds to Colombia. The funds were sometimes used to purchase electronics, textiles and other goods exported to Colombia for resale in pesos, which were used to pay drug traffickers.
The conspiracy not only allegedly enriched Irizarry, who hosted raucous yacht parties with bikini-clad prostitutes, but is believed to have benefited one of South America's top money launderers, who is close to Irizarry's Colombian wife, said the five officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the federal investigation.
Yabrudi acknowledged withdrawing cash from the account and said he made payments to Irizarry.
Prosecutors wrote in court filings that "none of these deposits, nor the use of the funds that followed, were officially sanctioned DEA operations."
They credited Yabrudi with "substantially" assisting the government in gathering evidence in the case and "implicating other persons involved in the scheme."
Irizarry's whereabouts are unknown and it was not possible to contact him for comment. Barry Wax and Chad Van Horn, two Miami lawyers who have represented Irizarry in unrelated matters in the past, did not respond to a request for comment.
Yabrudi was instructed to surrender Sept. 27. But the court's decision to keep the location of his imprisonment sealed in part reflected his attorney's argument that Yabrudi "will live the rest of his life looking over his shoulder as a result of the cooperation in this case and due to the public knowledge" that he was a DEA informant. Prior to sentencing, Yabrudi's family in Venezuela "received funeral wreaths at their home threatening Yabrudi's life," his attorney said.
Concepcion said he was satisfied with the court's ruling.
"Going forward, we hope that the other members of this conspiracy soon have to answer for their part in what occurred, especially those who abused their power and position," he told AP.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman reported this story from Bogota and AP writer Jim Mustian reported from New York.