Suspended Miami ICE agent faces extortion trial

ICE Special Agent Juan Felipe Martinez enters the Miami Federal Court on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014
ICE Special Agent Juan Felipe Martinez enters the Miami Federal Court on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014 EL NUEVO HERALD

Juan F. Martinez was a “corrupt” federal agent who pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from informants while extorting a Colombian business and drug traffickers with the power of his badge, a prosecutor told Miami jurors Wednesday.

Martinez, a suspended Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, knew nothing about the suspicious payoffs that swirled around him and that his informants were the real criminals, a defense attorney countered during opening statements of his client’s federal extortion trial.

“What the prosecutor said isn’t true,” attorney Martin Raskin told the 12 jurors.

Martinez, 48, faces up to 20 years in prison if he is convicted of an extortion conspiracy charge or related offenses in a 12-count indictment filed last December. His trial is expected to last three weeks before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga.

Martinez, who joined ICE in 2001 before being suspended without pay a decade later, has investigated Colombian cartels, paramilitary groups and other drug traffickers.

The charges allege that Martinez used his official ICE position to extort more than $2 million from a Colombian company, some of its employees and drug traffickers in exchange for purported law-enforcement protection and immigration benefits between 2009 and 2011, according to prosecutors Michael Nadler and Karen Gilbert.

Martinez, a one-time Miami police officer, 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 more than $100,000 in alleged cash bribes — courtesy of the Colombian company that they were shaking down, prosecutors said.

Unbeknownst 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, according to sources familiar with the probe.

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

“That is the day that the house of cards built by the defendant with lies and deceit began to crumble,” Nadler told jurors during opening statements.

But Raskin, the defense attorney, said the payoff was not what it appeared to be. “The money was given to Agent Martinez to hold over night because Miguel [the informant] was afraid to hold the money in his hotel room over night,” he said.

The informant later pleaded guilty to bribing the veteran ICE agent, served 1 ½ years in prison and was deported to his native Colombia. But Aguirre-Pinzon won’t be testifying at Martinez’s trial.

Martinez and Aguirre-Pinzon told executives of a construction company outside Bogota that if they paid them off, he could keep the business and its employees off a federal list of companies suspected of drug trafficking, terrorist activity or other illegal activities. The list is real and the U.S. government can use it to freeze assets and revoke employee visas. But, prosecutors said, the company wasn’t actually being targeted.

“It is the kiss of death,” Nadler, the prosecutor, said. “If you pay us, we can make sure your company is never put on that list.”

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.

Of that total, Aguirre-Pinzon, the ICE agent's informant, allegedly gave $109,000 to Martinez during their meeting at Bayside Marketplace in March 2011.

In addition to that alleged shakedown, Martinez is charged with receiving $150,000 in cash bribes from another person first identified as “C.A.G.” who received unspecified federal benefits, the indictment said.

C.A.G. was later identified in court papers as Camilo Andres Gomez, a longtime federal informant from Colombia who 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 Colombian drug cartel investigated by the ICE agent, if he didn’t pay up, Nadler said, adding that “the defendant started asking for things.” Gomez gave the ICE agent various gifts, including airplane tickets, cognac, a diamond ring, a wristwatch and a rifle with a scope.

Nadler said the Martinez family’s bank account swelled with unexplained deposits that exceeded his and wife’s salary, spending the extra money on their home and travel.

Martinez’s attorney, Raskin, countered that Gomez was a “criminal” and “liar” who was paid about $500,000 over the previous five years by the DEA, ICE and other federal agencies for his informant work.

Raskin and fellow defense attorney Silvia Piñera-Vazquez sought unsuccessfully to have Gomez thrown out as a government witness. They claimed prosecutors withheld damaging information about his criminal past until late in the pre-trial phase of exchanging evidence.