Andres Lopez exposes the Colombian cartels
Picture this: Dozens of drug smugglers dance and drink outside a colonial-era farmhouse in a leafy countryside near Cali, Colombia. A salsa band provides the soundtrack for a bustling wedding party. "Mama always said, 'Mouse and cheese are friends,' " go the lyrics, in Spanish. "Don't trust anybody, because when you least expect it, they'll stab you in the back."
The groom, whose name is Martín, is a top lieutenant in charge of smuggling coke to Miami. He grabs his new wife, Sofia, a Miss Colombia finalist dressed in a flowing white dress. They laugh and cut into a towering red-and-white cake.
Suddenly, a man with a flowing mustache bursts through the crowd, a cell phone clutched to his chest. "Muchachos!" he yells over the din. "The stuff made it to New York!"
The crowd erupts. Martín hugs the mustached messenger and dances ecstatically with his wife.
Then, abruptly, horror ripples through his lean, stubbled face. "No!" someone screams.
A half-dozen gunmen in tracksuits and camouflage pants leap a wall, and rounds pop from their semiautomatic weapons. A vase explodes. Guests flip the carefully appointed tables, littering the ground with lace doilies and floral centerpieces. Men clutch their chests, crumble, and die. Martín and his bride lunge into the house.
Now picture this: During a sweltering fall night, a top cartel lieutenant named Andrés López tosses his friend Fernando Henao a soccer ball and walks off the pitch. As usual, the drug smugglers have blown off steam with a soccer game — this time in Tulua, a jungle city not far from Cali.
Suddenly shots explode. One of Andrés's friends — a cocaine cartel veteran nicknamed Chucho Queso — falls to the ground screaming, grabbing his bleeding chest in agony. Fernando, Andrés, and a half-dozen others sprint from the field toward the jungle canopy. Bullets thwack into the turf, spitting grass and mud into the air. A screaming pack of men with automatic weapons runs past the goal firing wildly.
Ducking behind a bush, Andrés and Fernando each pull out a gun and blast a dozen shots toward the attackers. Rounds ricochet off trees. Someone screams. Then the shooting stops as suddenly as it began. Andrés peers over a bush and sees the gunmen hauling away one of their men — dead or unconscious. The friends run.
One scene is fiction, the other fact. The wedding shootout was portrayed in the 2008 hit Colombian narco-drama El Cartel. The jungle shootout is from the real-life story of drug snitch Andrés López. In fact, López's true story, which has never been told by the English-language press, of love, betrayal, and redemption in cocaine central is every bit as dramatic as the hit TV series it inspired.
López really did start working in the labs of Cali drug lords when he was just 14 years old. And he rose through the ranks until he was shipping tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine through Miami every year. Then he made the agonizing choice to save himself from the Drug Enforcement Administration by turning on his friends and leaving the only life he'd ever known. For the U.S. government, he became the most important informant in the war to bring down Norte del Valle Cartel, a vicious gang that has moved more than a million pounds of cocaine to the U.S.
Now, three years after leaving Miami's Federal Detention Center, López is once again famous and wealthy. He's become the Mario Puzo of Colombia's drug trade with a best-selling memoir — El Cartel de los Sapos (Cartel of the Toads). Sapo is also Colombian slang for snitch.
Depicted in books, drug lords who once terrorized Colombia have become objects of fascination in Latin America. Pablo Escobar, for instance, has become a kind of popular myth in books such as News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel García Márquez. There are dozens of other examples.
But even as López rakes in cash, friends and family worry the remnants of Norte del Valle Cartel will try to take revenge. "He was a key informant in the biggest case against Norte del Valle leaders," says Romedio Viola, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent who worked with López. "And it's extraordinary what he's accomplished since then. But I wish he would get himself some protection. I've told him that over and over again."
For several months in 1984, late-night cab passengers in a quiet Cali neighborhood were treated to a bizarre sight: A battered yellow and black cab was piloted by a driver barely taller than the steering wheel with a wide-brim hat sagging over his eyes.
"Are you even old enough to drive?" customers would ask before the cabbie cut them off by growling, "Where to?" Usually, the boy had no idea how to get there. So he'd growl some more, asking for directions.
The driver was 13-year-old Andrés López. The taxi belonged to his abuela, who'd be asleep in the small home they shared. He'd take the car without her permission. "I was stealing her car because I wanted to work, not to joyride or something," López says today, doubling over with laughter as he tells the story.
Even at such a young age, López combined a keen business sense, a fiery entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to break all the rules to make a buck. The same traits would lead him into the drug trade less than a year later. It would also help him rise quickly to the top.
López was born June 15, 1971, in Cali, Colombia's third largest city and a transit hub for all kinds of goods, legal and not, traveling everywhere from the Andes to the Pacific. When he was just a few months old, his father took off to the United States to look for work and ended up in a New York factory making pop-tops for deodorant sticks.
Nine years later, López's mother followed her husband. She sneaked over the border into Texas and eventually found work at the same factory. Andrés's older brother, Juan Carlos, had also left Cali, and his sister Beatrice was studying at a Colombian university.
So young Andrés was alone with his grandmother. "We weren't poor or hungry," he says. "My parents sent us money all the time. They bought my abuela the cab."
When she caught Andrés taking the car out at night, she demanded he enroll in a local military school. "They sent all the worst kids there," he says.
On his first day, Andrés asked to share a desk with a handsome, wealthy kid named Fernando Henao, who wore the nicest clothes in school and arrived every day with a different chauffeur.
Andrés was fascinated. Where did all the money come from? He and Fernando, an irrepressible jokester, became fast friends. Eventually the rich classmate told Andrés the truth: His older brother, Orlando, was a magico. "I thought he was actually a really successful magician," López says. "I didn't find out for months that it was slang for a drug dealer."
One day, Fernando asked if Andrés wanted to meet the brother. Soon, both boys, still age 14, agreed to work in Orlando's cocina, an illicit shop where he combined coca leaves with lethal chemicals to make cocaine. López was quickly hooked. Driving his grandmother's cab, López made 400 or 500 pesos (less than a couple U.S. bucks) during a good night. With the same number of hours in the cocina, he earned 10,000 pesos.
He'd already shown a talent for entrepreneurship. As a teenager, Andrés reinvested his profits in taxis, and before he was old enough to drive, he owned 18 cabs and managed a complex web of drivers. "I thought the taxi industry was the real way to make money," he says, laughing again.
Why did López care so much about cash? "I always had this idea that I could bring our family back together if I made enough," he says. "My parents could move back to Colombia; my abuela wouldn't have to keep driving that cab."
So by the time López was 16 years old, he and Fernando Henao had opened their own cocina — with Orlando's blessing — and recruited 15 classmates from the military academy to help. Within six months, they were churning out several kilos per month.
At work, the teenagers joked, partied, and sampled their wares. López was a wiry kid who never grew above five feet six inches. He had trouble hauling the huge vats of dangerous chemicals used to turn coca leaves into a drug. One day, a buddy watched him struggle, laughed, and nicknamed him Florecita — a delicate little flower. It stuck.
That same year, López was out one night with friends at a fruit stand in Cali's Centro Comercial when he spotted a girl grabbing a mango. She had the high cheekbones, light skin, and Renaissance curves of a traditional Cali beauty. She spoke with intelligence and poise. As she drove off, López demanded her name from the owner. "Maria del Socorro," was the answer. López offered 100 pesos for an introduction.
The next day they met at the fruit stand, and Maria was quickly wowed by the fast-talking teen with cash to burn. "He was a real Casanova. He was talking and making eyes, and I was all, 'Ohhhh,' " remembers Maria, whose sharp features and sculpted figure haven't faded with age.
A few months later, Maria met Andrés at Feria de Cali — a huge, drunken carnival of salsa music and horse parades at Christmastime. He handed her a shot of aguardiente and ordered: "Drink up!"
By the end of the night the young lovers were arm in arm, watching fireworks in the warm December night. Andrés López was young, rich, and in love.
By the early 1990s, López had become one of the most daring smugglers in Cali. When Colombian forces in 1993 killed Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the Medellín cartel, Cali drug runners became increasingly important. At first, López sent drugs in suitcases to Miami, where crooked baggage handlers unloaded them. "Half the luggage that flew out of Cali those days didn't belong to passengers," López says. "You'd get to Miami and go, 'Where is my bag?' We bumped them all off to ship our cocaine."
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.
"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."
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.)
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.
"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.
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."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.