Crime

Miami federal jury to decide fate of ICE agent accused of extorting millions

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

About $150,000 in “unexplained” income was deposited into the bank account of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Juan F. Martinez in 2010.

His wife, testifying at his federal corruption trial, said she didn't know where all the money came from — though she remembered how the Coral Gables couple spent much of it: on a Porsche Panamera, HD televisions, driveway pavers, fine liquor, international travel and AMEX credit card debt.

During closing arguments Monday, a federal prosecutor said Martinez received that cash from an informant who collaborated with him to threaten a Colombian company with being put on a U.S. list of drug traffickers and terrorists for no apparent reason.

“This is the money that the defendant got from his illegal criminal conspiracies,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Karen Gilbert argued. “He sold his badge, he sold his position, for his own benefit.”

Not true, countered Martinez's defense attorney, Silvia Piñera-Vazquez, saying the “government got it wrong” and that the ICE agent was duped by his own informant.

“He loved his job,” she declared. “He was part of Team America.”

The 12-person jury began deliberations Tuesday in the extortion trial of Martinez, a 10-year ICE veteran and former Miami police officer who was suspended from his federal job in 2011 after the same informant gave him a bag stuffed with $109,000 cash at the Bayside Marketplace.

A 12-count indictment charges Martinez with using his official ICE position to extort about $2 million from the 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 convicted, Martinez, 48, faces up to 20 years in prison.

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 the bag with the alleged cash bribes —courtesy of the Colombian company, Gerencia, 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.

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 over night because Miguel [the informant] was afraid to hold the money in his hotel room over night,” 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 1 ½ 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, Gilbert told jurors.

Martinez and 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,” said prosecutor Michael Nadler.

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 $182,000 to Martinez at a New York meeting in 2010 and an additional $109,000 to Martinez at Bayside Marketplace in 2011. DEA agents seized the latter money.

In addition to that alleged shakedown, Martinez is charged with receiving $150,000 in cash bribes gifts from Camilo Andres Gomez, a longtime federal informant from Colombia. 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. Gomez gave the ICE agent various gifts, including airplane tickets, cognac, a diamond ring, a wristwatch and a rifle with a scope.

Martinez is also accused of extorting a major Colombia 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.

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. “If it involves the defendant and Susy Ribero-Ayala, it’s criminal.”

Ribero-Ayala, a former state prosecutor, has been identified as an “unindicted co-conspirator” during Martinez’s trial.

In a prior statement, her defense attorney, Sam Rabin, said: “We categorically deny that she has done anything illegal, unethical or improper,” Rabin said in a statement. “To further support our position, she submitted to a polygraph examination and passed with flying colors.”

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