As audiences have devoured his stories, López's bank accounts have swelled with legal profits. He earned a $400,000 advance from Caracol for the series. Last year, he purchased a $1.5 million condo on the Miami waterfront.

In January, López released El Cartel de los Sapos 2. The book tells the story of "Don Diego" Montoya's ascent to lead Norte del Valle Cartel and illuminates ties between right-wing paramilitaries and the Mafia. It's been atop the Colombian charts since its release.

There's a cost to all this public success, though, says Cardeñas, the lawyer. Even he has received death threats, including one serious enough that federal agents warned him about it. López "can never go back to Colombia" because of his writing, Cardeñas adds.

There's still disagreement about what actually motivated López to leave the cartel life. Weinstein, the federal prosecutor, points out that López really had no choice but to abandon his cocaine career. "We had enough evidence to put him away for the rest of his life," he says. "Was he a bad person? Well, he wasn't violent. But he moved hundreds of kilos of cocaine here and that affected a lot of lives."

López says he's done with drugs. He's still close to his ex-wife — who remarried and still lives in Miami — and his two kids, who are both in middle school now. He's writing every day, working on a documentary about government informants, and exploring an English translation of his books.

"I can't really be extremely happy knowing that for 15 years, I wasn't a really good person. I did things that tore me from my family," he says. "But I'm trying, through my writing, to make up for the past."

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