Broward County

ICE agent acquitted of extortion charges in Miami

ACQUITTED:  ICE Special Agent Juan Felipe Martinez.
ACQUITTED: ICE Special Agent Juan Felipe Martinez. EL NUEVO HERALD

Juan F. Martinez, a U.S. agent accused of using his badge to extort millions of dollars in Colombia’s underworld of drug trafficking, hugged his lawyers and burst into tears Wednesday when a jury found him not guilty of a dozen criminal charges in Miami federal court.

His wife, Gabriela, sitting a couple of rows behind him, closed her eyes and then cried as the acquittal verdicts were read in court.

Martinez, who was indicted a year ago and suspended as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in 2011, broke down emotionally because of the strain of being on trial, his lawyers said outside the courthouse.

“He stood up to the federal government and made them prove their case,” said defense attorney Silvia Piñera-Vazquez, who rejoiced over Martinez’s acquittals with co-counsel, Jane and Martin Raskin. “They never proved he received any money.”

Jurors, who began deliberations Tuesday morning, were reluctant to talk after their verdicts outside the courthouse, but one suggested there was a “lack of evidence.” Another said, “We applied the law,” without elaboration.

Earlier, inside the courtroom, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga questioned one of the juror’s about her vote, after the 12-person panel was polled, because she seemed unclear about her decision following the five-week trial. “In the end, we all agreed, but it was difficult,” she told the judge.

That’s because the investigation was historic in nature — built on circumstantial evidence, bank records, gift receipts and shady cooperating witnesses with narco-trafficking backgrounds in Colombia.

A 12-count indictment charged Martinez with using his official ICE position to extort about $2million from a Colombian company and some of its employees, as well as $300,000 in cash and gifts from drug traffickers in exchange for purported law-enforcement protection and immigration benefits between 2009 and 2011.

If he had been convicted, Martinez, who joined ICE in 2001 after working as a Miami police officer, would have faced up to 20 years in prison. But now the 48-year-old is a free man and could return to his position as an ICE agent, said his lawyers, who said he “loved his job.”

Martinez became the target of a federal criminal investigation after undercover agents spotted him during a March 29, 2011, meeting with a Colombian drug-trafficking informant at the touristy Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami.

The informant gave Martinez a bag stuffed with $109,000 in alleged cash bribes — courtesy of the Colombian company, Gerencia, that prosecutors charged they had been shaking down.

Unbeknown to Martinez, Drug Enforcement Administration agents stumbled onto Martinez that March day because they had been investigating his informant, Jose Miguel Aguirre-Pinzon, whom they saw make the alleged cash delivery at Bayside.

Martinez was later stopped by DEA agents on his way back to ICE’s office in Miami. DEA agents found the alleged payoff stashed inside Martinez’s car.

But Martinez’s defense attorneys said the payoff was not what it appeared to be. “The money was given to Agent Martinez to hold overnight because Miguel (the informant) was afraid to hold the money in his hotel room overnight,” defense attorney Martin Raskin argued earlier in the trial.

However, ICE agent Rey Rodriguez, who questioned Martinez after the delivery at Bayside, testified that he offered no plausible explanation for why he had the money.

The informant later pleaded guilty to bribing the veteran ICE agent, served 11/2 years in prison and was deported to his native Colombia. But Aguirre-Pinzon did not testify at Martinez’s trial because the U.S. government has no subpoena power in Colombia, prosecutor Karen Gilbert told jurors.

Aguirre-Pinzon told executives of Gerencia, a construction company outside Bogotá, that if they paid them off, Martinez could keep the business and its employees off the federal list of targeted U.S. companies — “the kiss of death,” prosecutor Michael Nadler said. Some of them testified at trial.

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, prosecutors claimed.

Of that total, Aguirre-Pinzon, the ICE agent’s informant, allegedly gave $182,000 to Martinez at a New York meeting in 2010 and an additional $109,000 to Martinez at Bayside Marketplace in 2011, the prosecutors said in closing arguments Monday. DEA agents seized the latter money.

In addition to that alleged shakedown, Martinez was charged with receiving $150,000 in cash bribes and gifts from Camilo Andres Gomez, a longtime federal informant from Colombia, prosecutors said. He received permanent residency in the United States despite an alleged criminal history of drug trafficking, money laundering and other offenses.

Martinez threatened to deport Gomez, a former member of a Colombian drug cartel investigated by the ICE agent, if he didn’t pay up, according to his testimony at trial. Gomez gave the ICE agent various gifts, including airplane tickets, cognac, a diamond ring, a wristwatch and a rifle with a scope, he testified.

Martinez was also accused of extorting a major Colombian drug trafficker, Gilberto Garavito Ayala, who was extradited to the United States and convicted of cocaine smuggling charges.

Garavito’s lawyer, Susy Ribero-Ayala, obtained parole benefits from Martinez so that her client’s Colombian lawyer, girlfriend and young daughter could visit him at the federal detention center in Miami — in exchange for $100,000, prosecutors argued.

Garavito, who was mainly represented by defense attorneys Ruben Oliva and Jay White, testified that Ribero-Ayala was hired solely to get the parole benefits from Martinez. She was close to him and received client referrals through the agent’s informant, Gomez, according to his testimony.

“Everything in this case involves the defendant getting money, no matter what the scheme is,” Gilbert, the prosecutor, told the jurors on Monday.

But the jurors didn’t see it that way.