An exclusive interview with the man known as the DEA’s most corrupt agent yielded a dogged investigation into claims he didn’t act alone.
"The drug war is a game,” José Irizarry told two AP reporters during his final moments of freedom. “It was a very fun game that we were playing.”
Irizarry’s decision to spend some of his last few hours before beginning a 12-year federal prison sentence with two AP reporters in early 2022 was a moment years in the making that yielded a bombshell bacchanal of a story itself months in the making.
Four years ago, just before starting at The Associated Press, New York-based investigative reporter Jim Mustian received a tip about a DEA investigation into one of the agency’s own agents in Colombia. That spiraled into a string of AP scoops by Mustian and Miami-based Latin America correspondent Joshua Goodman on DEA corruption in Latin America, including an exclusive on the arrest of that agent. Irizarry had been accused of conspiring with Colombian drug cartels to divert millions from DEA money laundering stings in what prosecutors called one of the worst betrayals in DEA history.
For the next two years, Mustian and Goodman worked to get Irizarry’s side of the story. And what a story it was: the millions skimmed from the stings funded a decade’s worth of luxury travel, fine dining and frat house-style debauchery in which Irizarry said other long-trusted DEA colleagues were full participants. Along for the three-continent joyride Irizarry described were other federal agents, prosecutors, informants and cartel smugglers who enjoyed party boats, sporting events, strip clubs and sex workers amid a growing sense of ennui about an “unwinnable” drug war.
Mustian and Goodman interviewed dozens of people and reviewed thousands of documents to corroborate Irizarry’s claims. The resulting story was jampacked with takeaways that could have each been seismic stories on their own: Justice Department investigators who had previously regarded Irizarry as a rogue agent had started taking his story seriously, questioning at least two dozen current and former DEA agents and federal prosecutors. At least three current and former federal prosecutors have been questioned about attending Irizarry’s raucous parties. They included a former “Bachelorette” contestant who also appeared on “Bachelor in Paradise” as well as a woman who had been nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate to be the first Black U.S. attorney in northern Ohio before abruptly withdrawing. And the brother of Irizarry’s partner has been jailed on a rare civil contempt charge since March as investigators sought to get him to testify.
The all-formats, unmatchable package – featuring video produced by Allen Breed, photos by freelancer Carlos Giusti and a carefully cropped version of a tongue-wagging Irizarry at play – racked up nearly 430,000 pageviews and a near-perfect engagement score on APNews, in addition to scoring prominent placement in national media outlets like The Washington Post, CBS and NPR. Social media posts curated by digital producer Sophia Eppolito attracted a sizable audience, with 410,000 views alone for a single video Twitter post. The story also resonated in its Spanish translation, scoring front pages on websites and newspapers across Latin America. Univision’s nightly newscast dedicated three minutes on a segment, replete with an interview with Goodman and a brief chyron that said it all: Revelaciones Explosivas.
For a deeply reported and compelling investigation of cinematic proportions, Mustian and Goodman earn AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner honors.