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.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink