Then López came up with a more ingenious solution. He paid a Cali furniture maker to create replicas of airline seats with hollow centers. López would send a message to his contacts in Miami: Flight 110, Row 26, Seats A, B, and C. When the plane landed at Miami International Airport (MIA), they'd swap the cushions and remove the coke.

"Eventually we sent almost entire planes full," he says, laughing. "What would have happened if it crashed? Everyone would pull out their seats to float and find them full of cocaine."

In the mid 1990s, López and his compadres noticed that one cargo jet was free of police checks: the flight carrying U.S. diplomatic mail. So he took photos of the embassy's mail crates and had a friend make replicas. After the embassy loaded its jet, López's source sneaked aboard and swapped in his duplicates, which were packed with cocaine. The real mail, meanwhile, went on another plane. When both jets arrived in Miami, López's guys swapped the cartons and removed the drugs.

Lopez wrote his best-selling memoir while imprisoned in Miami's Federal Detention Center.
Mauricio Velez
Lopez wrote his best-selling memoir while imprisoned in Miami's Federal Detention Center.

"It was really easy," he says. "We never got caught. We shipped drugs like that for two years, until Orlando Henao found out. Then he called us in and said, 'Are you out of your mind?' "

Fernando Henao's older brother, Orlando the magico, threatened López: "It's you, so I'm not going to kill you. This time."

Still, for years life was good for López and his friends. The soccer-pitch shootout in the jungle near Tulua — which happened in 1992 — was an isolated burst of violence in a normally peaceful smuggling career.

In 1995, López read in the newspaper that his old sweetheart, Maria, had won a local contest to represent Cali in the Miss Colombia pageant. He stared slack-jawed at the newspaper photo.

"He started calling me nonstop then," Maria remembers, laughing. "I couldn't get rid of him."

Maria had long before given up on López. But when they met again, he seemed different. "He had grown up," she says. "Or at least I thought he had."

After the contest (which Maria didn't win), she moved in with López on his farm outside Cali. A month later, in May 1996, they were married. No one shot up the wedding, but otherwise the soap opera El Cartel isn't far off the mark. Dozens of drug traders danced the night away at Andrés's countryside home. A few days later, Maria found out she was pregnant.

The joyful news was quickly marred by Cali's disintegrating cartel. The previous summer, Colombian police had nabbed the two brothers who ran it — Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez-Orejuela.

The ensuing power struggle exploded violently in May, weeks after Andrés and Maria's wedding. Fifteen gunmen stormed a ritzy Cali restaurant called Rio D'enero, where jefe Miguel's son — 30-year-old William Rodríguez — was eating lunch. They showered more than 50 rounds on his table, killing six people and wounding the drug prince.

After the assassination attempt, Orlando Henao ordered López back to the farm. More than 200 heavily armed fighters were assembled there, listening to an array of radios and satellite phones.

Maria, still pregnant with their first child, hid inside. López begged her to leave Cali, but she'd survived a bad car accident a few months earlier and refused. "I told him I'd rather die here than on the road," she said.

"What the hell am I doing here?" López asked himself, staring at the army massed around his house. "I'm in a goddamn war."

Andrés López studied the federal agents with unsmiling faces, the prosecutors in gray suits, and the DEA officers in shiny field jackets. The air was stale inside the fluorescent-lit interrogation room in the DEA's Doral office. The silence hung heavy.

"Do you mean how much drugs have I personally moved to the United States? Or how much drugs has my organization moved?" he asked, glancing at his lawyer, Roberto Cardeñas.

David Weinstein, a savvy prosecutor with two decades of experience jailing Miami drug dealers, shrugged. "How much have you moved?" he asked.

This time, López didn't hesitate. "Much more than 50,000 kilos," he said.

Stunned silence followed. López had just admitted to smuggling more than 50 tons of coke. With that simple admission, he established his credentials as a major player, became a certified snitch, and sealed his exit from the drug trade.

"I told Andrés at the beginning: If you come in here and lie to them, you just hang yourself immediately," Cardeñas says. "Andrés is very smart, so he didn't beat around the bush."

His journey to the DEA wasn't easy — and it came at a great personal cost.

After the assassination attempt on William Rodríguez, tension spiked in Cali. A faction led in part by Orlando Henao — López's childhood guide into the cocaine kingdom — split to form a new organization: Norte del Valle Cartel, so named because its members worked in valleys north of Cali.

The gang set new standards for bloody conflict. "They were incredibly, sadistically violent," says Bruce Bagley, chair of the international studies department of University of Miami, who taught in Cali at the time. "They would chop people up while they were still alive with electric saws, and then toss the body parts in the Cauca River."

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