The feds didn't forget his help, though. His lawyers won a reduction in his sentence based on his snitching. In March 2006, a judge cut his sentence to 20 months.

It still wasn't easy to bear. The cocky young coke-runner had to forfeit millions in cash and his freedom. Even though they were divorced, Maria helped him weather the storm. "We don't love each other like a man and a woman, but platonically we still do love each other," Maria says. "I am his guardian angel and vice versa."

After a few weeks in prison, López called Maria. "I should have run. I never should have turned myself in," he said.

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.

"Andrés, if you run, it's forever. You'll never see your sons again," Maria replied. "This isn't forever. This is a few years, and then you're free, you've paid your debts. Then maybe, if you're lucky, you can figure out what to do with the rest of your life."

López arrives in a new Range Rover for a recent interview at a Brickell breakfast joint. He is inconspicuously clad in a T-shirt, gym shorts, and a plain, blue baseball cap. Though friends regularly caution López he should consider hiring bodyguards, he casually strolls in alone.

He says he doesn't spend any time worrying about his security.

"I'm not thinking, Oh, such and such from my past is going to come and get me. I'm at peace with my own self," he says, digging into a huge plate of corned beef, fried eggs, bacon, and pancakes. "I'm relaxed. I don't look to the past at what things have happened. I'm trying to live my life as a regular person."

Besides, he says, "everyone I write about is either dead or in jail." (Fernando Henao, his best friend in the cartels, was sentenced to 19 years in prison in the U.S. District Court of Southern New York in 2005. He pleaded guilty, but López was prepared to testify against him.)

López's comfortable new life was far from a certainty when he walked out of the downtown federal prison four years ago. He was broke, unemployed, and forever severed from his life as a top-flight coke dealer. But he hadn't spent his jail time idly.

For 14 months in federal custody, López hoarded his scant daily allotment of paper and spent nearly every waking moment writing. He described his early entrance into the drug cartels, who got whacked, and who was a snitch. He named names. "I had all these ghosts and demons in my mind," he says. "This was the only way to free them."

He had plenty of problems to work through in jail. For the first time since he was 13 years old and driving a stolen cab, he wasn't in charge. The worst moment, he says, was explaining to his two sons — then nine and ten years old — why he was behind bars. As they munched on Honey Buns and soda in a visitors room, Andrés explained: "I was bad, and so now I have to stay here for a while and wear this uniform."

López's writing sustained him through the months of tedium until his release in March 2007. Maria and his sons picked him up. He was ecstatic — but still unsure what to do with himself.

So he called Julio Sanchez Cristo, a radio host who broadcasts from Colombia's W Radio. Cristo put him in touch with a book firm. In 2008, months after his release from the federal prison, the book he'd scribbled behind bars was published in Colombia and Mexico.

In the unadorned language of an airport potboiler, El Cartel de los Sapos tells the true story of the rise and fall of Norte del Valle Cartel and Andrés's personal journey from cocaine cocinero to drug baron to snitch. The book has "everything: sex, power, drugs, money. Everything," recalls Viola, the ICE agent.

But López's lawyer, Cardeñas, wasn't sanguine when it was released. "I told him, 'Andrés, bro, you're signing your own death warrant with this.' "

The book spent most of 2008 as the number one seller in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and several other countries. In all, the volume sold more than 150,000 copies officially — a figure that translates to millions of copies in the streets considering the black market for books in the region.

"As a history of the cartel, I think it's really good," says Viola. "It's really well researched."

On June 4, 2008, Caracol Television debuted El Cartel, a show based on the book. The series tells the same basic tale of Andrés's rise and fall through the cartel. It's cast in the lurid tones of a telenovela, packed with over-the-top shouting matches, fistfights, and shootouts. Andrés's character, Martin, is played by Manolo Cardona, a heartthrob star with chiseled cheeks.

The show was a huge hit, earning some of the highest ratings in Colombian history. DVDs are now sold in 50 countries, and there's a waitlist to check them out at Miami-Dade Public Library. A sequel (made without López's support) has kept viewers hooked, and a full-length Spanish-language film is due out later this year starring Cardona and Tom Sizemore as a DEA agent.

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