By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Trevor Bach
By Kyle Munzenrieder
López contends he wasn't directly tied to the violence, a claim echoed by federal prosecutors who later used him as a witness. He was a logistics guy, charged with getting the coke where it needed to go. But that doesn't mean he wasn't a target. "They knew how close I was to the top guys," he says. "They knew if they killed me, it would be a direct affront to those guys."
So in 1997, López, his wife, and his son, Juan Sebastian, who had been born the previous October, moved to Miami. They lived first in Kendall and then in Miramar. Later that year, the couple had a second son.
Life wasn't good in the Magic City. Andrés would leave home to meet his drug-smuggling contacts at 9 a.m. and return at 11 p.m. He'd skip town every weekend. Maria sensed he was unfaithful. She was right. And he had an explosive temper.
"He'd yell, 'I bought you this house, I bought you this car,' " Maria says. "I'd say, 'I don't care. I don't care. I'd go live under a bridge with you if you were there for me.' "
In 1999, Maria moved back to Cali with their sons. Friends from Miami called frequently to tell her about Andrés's mistresses. Finally, in 2000, she had had enough. They divorced.
Back in Colombia, Norte del Valle Cartel had erupted into civil war after Orlando Henao was arrested and then executed with six shots to the head. Another prisoner had smuggled in a .38 handgun.
Then in May 2000, word reached López the DEA was closing in. A government informant had asked López to ship 150 kilos of cocaine to Los Angeles. When López agreed on tape, the feds had all the ammunition they needed. They indicted him that July in Miami federal court.
Told by a U.S. friend the gig was up, López fled to a condo in Cancún to mull his options. His sister Beatrice, who then worked as a lawyer in New York, asked attorney Roberto Cardeñas to go to Mexico to meet with him.
The pair dined at an upscale restaurant and talked. Cardeñas laid out the options: López could either run forever or surrender. "Andrés struck me as a very smart, very analytical guy," Cardeñas says. "There's not a violent bone in his body, and to survive in these gangs without violence requires real street smarts."
After meeting with the DEA about the surrender, Cardeñas flew back to Cancún and accompanied his client to Miami. The night before, they stayed up until sunrise at a seaside bar, talking things through. "He was really scared," Cardeñas says.
On July 28, 2000, López and Cardeñas landed at MIA. Half a dozen federal agents were waiting. After that initial meeting in a Doral interrogation room, when López admitted how much coke he'd shipped to the United States, Weinstein and his crew realized they'd landed a valuable source.
They spent a week debriefing him while he lived under 24-hour guard at a Doral hotel. Then they struck a deal — they'd put off López's court date as long as he kept talking. López was allowed to live in relative freedom, and soon found himself helping a parade of prosecutors.
"He'd worked his way from the ground up inside the cartels and he knew a lot of the top people, so he had important organizational information," says Weinstein, who left the government in 2009 for a private practice.
In January 2002, López pleaded guilty to a felony count of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. Prosecutors delayed his sentencing. But López hadn't beaten the system.
That summer, without telling prosecutors, he tried to fly to Cancún with a girlfriend. He was detained at the Miami airport and tossed in immigration jail. He spent three months behind bars. "That finally got it through to him, I think," Cardeñas says. "He was still very immature and naive."
Then in April 2002, he was blindsided by a term of almost 11 years. Maria, his ex-wife, wept loudly when the judge read the verdict. "They made him give me his watch and other things," she says. "We were in total shock."
But López kept talking, and prosecutors agreed to delay his prison term while he helped seal their biggest case yet. In 2004 they charged ten top members of Norte del Valle Cartel with the same statutes used to put away big-time mobsters such as the Gambino crime family. The defendants read like a who's who list of cartel capos: Orlando's brother Arcangel Henao, "Don Diego" Montoya, Wilber "Jabon" Varela.
Thanks in part to López's help, the case was successful. The prison terms handed out to the drug barons crushed the group. "It was the most important case in dismantling the cartel," says Viola, the ICE agent.
López couldn't avoid his own sentence forever, though. In February 2006, with the case against Norte del Valle Cartel finished, López reported to a federal prison in Pennsylvania. (He was soon transferred back to Miami's downtown Federal Detention Center.)