On a spring day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Juan Felipe Martinez met a Colombian drug-trafficking informant at the touristy Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami.
He gave Martinez a bag stuffed with more than $100,000 in alleged cash bribes —courtesy of a Colombian company that they were shaking down, authorities say.
Martinez would soon be stopped in Miami by federal agents who found the alleged payoff stashed inside his car.
Unbeknownst to Martinez, the agents stumbled onto him in late March 2011 because they had been investigating his informant, Jose Miguel Aguirre-Pinzon, whom they saw make the alleged cash delivery at Bayside, according to sources familiar with the probe.
The informant later pleaded guilty to bribing the veteran ICE agent, served one and a half years in prison and was deported to his native Colombia. Martinez, 48, now faces a potentially harsher prison sentence — up to 20 years — if he is convicted of the extortion conspiracy charge or related offenses in a 12-count indictment filed in December.
The charges allege that Martinez used his official ICE position to extort more than $2 million from the unidentified Colombian company, some of its employees and other people in exchange for purported law-enforcement protection and immigration benefits, according to federal prosecutor Karen Gilbert.
Martinez, a former city of Miami police officer who joined ICE in 2001, has investigated Colombian cartels, paramilitary groups and other drug traffickers. Now suspended without pay, Martinez was granted a $250,000 bond last week and is scheduled for arraignment Jan. 21 in Miami federal court.
His attorneys, Martin Raskin and Silvia Pinera-Vazquez, plan to enter a not guilty plea and pursue his defense to trial. “We’re going to challenge every paragraph in that indictment,” Pinera-Vazquez said Monday.
Martinez is the latest ICE member to be arrested and indicted in a South Florida federal court. In 2012, a federal judge sentenced the former head of ICE in Miami, Anthony Mangione, to almost six years in prison after he pleaded guilty to child pornography charges.
In a statement, the Miami office of ICE said it could not comment on the Martinez case because it was still being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security-Office of Inspector General.
“ICE takes accusations of misconduct very seriously,” the statement said. “As public servants working for a law enforcement agency, every employee at ICE is held to the highest standard of professional and ethical conduct.”
According to the federal grand jury indictment, Martinez and other unidentified accomplices in 2010 contacted officials of a construction company in the city of Pereira, about 200 miles west of Bogota. Among the alleged co-conspirators: the ICE agent’s confidential informant, Aguirre-Pinzon.
Martinez and his associates misled the Colombian company and five employees to believe that they were under investigation for illegal activity, the indictment said. The ICE agent and the accomplices “falsely” told the employees, who were identified only by their initials, that the U.S. Treasury Department was about to add their company and names to a list known as Specially Designated Nationals (SDN).
The list, managed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), is used by the Treasury Department to freeze bank accounts of designated persons or businesses if they are suspected of drug-trafficking or other illegal dealings. The individuals on the list also can have their visas or other immigration documents revoked.
In their alleged racket, Martinez and his associates offered to use the agent’s official ICE position to “block or prevent” the Colombian company and employees from being placed on the SDN list if they “provided a large payment of money to members of the conspiracy,” according to the indictment.
Martinez and his associates met with certain Colombian employees at Miami International Airport and in their country to assure them of the purported protection, including providing fabricated official documents “indicating that they were no longer the targets of an investigation,” the indictment said.
In total, the Colombian company and certain employees paid $1.9 million to Martinez, the informant and others, using wire transfers to send the money, Gilbert said at his bond hearing last week.
Of that total, Aguirre-Pinzon, the ICE agent’s informant, allegedly gave $109,000 to Martinez during their meeting at Bayside Marketplace on March 29, 2011, according to sources familiar with the probe. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had the informant under surveillance, in a probe unrelated to the looming bribery investigation of Martinez.
Later that year, Aguirre-Pinzon, who was represented by Miami attorney Rick Diaz, pleaded guilty to paying that one alleged bribe to the ICE agent. Martinez was identified as a “public official,” not by name, in Aguirre-Pinzon’s case. The informant is not mentioned in any way in the agent’s current case.
In addition to that alleged shakedown, Martinez is charged with receiving $150,000 in cash bribes from another person identified as “C.A.G.” who received unspecified federal benefits, the indictment said. The individual also allegedly gave the ICE agent various gifts, including airplane tickets, liquor, a diamond ring, a wristwatch, and a rifle with a scope.
Also, Martinez is accused of accepting $10,000 from three Colombians seeking visas to enter the United States, in exchange for falsely describing them on an official form as “witnesses/cooperators in support of an ongoing narcotic investigation,” according to the indictment.
And, the ICE agent is charged with taking another $6,000 bribe from a person seeking entry into the United States who was falsely described as “the dependent of a witness” testifying against “high-ranking members of a drug-trafficking organization” charged in this country.
Martinez is further accused of falsifying official documents while selling the U.S. parole benefits to Colombians and others who did not qualify for them.
Normally, federal authorities grant short-term parole benefits to endangered family members of drug traffickers and government witnesses who are helping the Justice Department on criminal investigations.