A once prized U.S. informant, Colombian found guilty of cocaine-smuggling conspiracy
When the former boss of a Colombian paramilitary group became a narco spy for the U.S. government, he knew his life was in danger but hoped the risk would come with a shot at freedom.
And so Henry De Jesus Lopez Londoño began secretly working in 2010 as a confidential informant for federal agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The high-wire cooperation deal, however, would not last: Lopez Londoño was charged two years later in Miami with conspiring to distribute loads of cocaine and eventually extradited to the United States — portrayed by prosecutors as a violent drug lord.
Lopez Londoño testified at his trafficking trial in Miami federal court that he felt “absolutely betrayed” when he was indicted and arrested in 2012. “When I decided to take that step and infiltrate [Colombian drug organizations], my allegiance was to the United States government and my family,” he said, as the 12-person jury took in his words last week.
On Wednesday, after the five-week trial and almost three days of deliberations, the jurors did not sympathize with Lopez Londoño’s defense. They found the 47-year-old Colombian, known as “Mi Sangre” (My Blood), guilty of the conspiracy charge. The sole conviction carries up to life in prison. His sentencing hearing is set for May 30.
Lopez Londoño’s case offered a rare view of how U.S. agents turned a suspected major drug trafficker into a spy but then cut him off and distanced themselves from him, including destroying critical electronic correspondence with the informant that would have revealed his dangerous tasks in the perennial war on drugs.
In Miami, which still maintains a reputation as the capital of the cocaine cowboy from the 1980s, the informant’s prosecution is unusual because normally such government insiders are protected or get sweetheart prison deals — not a trial.
To fight the conspiracy charge, Lopez Londoño’s attorneys deployed a public authority defense, exposing him as a U.S. government informant who was acting under the authority of ICE agents. The attorneys argued that he was not breaking the law while he communicated with them on drug-smuggling deals after their first meeting in the fall of 2009.
“He was authorized to negotiate and obtain these kinds of deals to provide intelligence to his handlers” at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, attorney Ramon Hernandez said during closing arguments on Monday. He called the prosecution’s cased against Lopez Londoño a “trial by smear.”
“The government stabbed my client in the back,” his father, attorney Arturo Hernandez, told jurors during his closing argument. “Only you can take that knife out.”
Prosecutor Robert Emery said the U.S. government “had high hopes for this defendant,” but that was before he went from being a “cooperator to a target” of an international drug-trafficking investigation. “Just for being a confidential informant one time does not give him a pass for his crimes,” he said.
Emery, who handled the case with prosecutor Michael Nadler, called Lopez Londoño a “drug trafficker who was double dealing. … If anyone should have a knife in his back, it’s Uncle Sam.”
He said that Lopez Londoño was involved in moving tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States between 2006 and 2012 and ordered assassinations, kidnappings and extortion. He said the defendant was never authorized by federal agents to commit any of those crimes in his undercover role. He also downplayed Lopez Londoño’s work as an informant, saying it lasted only several months and that he continued his criminal activities while providing nothing of value.
Several convicted co-conspirators in his case and others testified against Lopez Londoño, who was once a leader of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing Colombian paramilitary and drug-trafficking group that disbanded more than a decade ago.
The Hernandez defense team not only accused those cooperating witnesses of lying on the witness stand to obtain reduced prison sentences, but noted the prosecution had no hard evidence of their client’s involvement in any cocaine shipments to the United States.
The defense also accused federal agents of betraying his client and covering it up by destroying electronic evidence of their relationship as he spied on South America’s underworld — including Colombian cocaine syndicates such as the Urabeños, Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s organization, and members of the al-Qaida terrorist network in South America.
At trial, the Hernandezes said that federal agents destroyed five BlackBerry mobile phones that they used to communicate with him through text messages, as well as email correspondence. The attorneys said the evidence would have shown that Lopez Londoño was taking directions from his handlers so he could infiltrate criminal groups to provide them with intelligence. Prosecutors admitted that the BlackBerry messages were destroyed by ICE agents when they switched to smart phones in 2012, but insisted there was no email correspondence with ICE. Prosecutors also insisted that the Drug Enforcement Administration, whose agents also interacted with Lopez Londoño, never corresponded with him by BlackBerry or emails.
But the defendant’s lawyers — in an effort to have the case dismissed before trial after a plea deal was rejected by the presiding judge, Donald Graham —said an ICE agent gave the informant a business card with both his official and personal email addresses, including a private password, “Panchito.” The agent, Frank Burrola, gave the business card to Lopez Londoño when they met in Cartagena in 2009.
Lopez Lodoño, whose code name was “Assis,” kept a few of the email messages from Burrola.
In closing arguments, his defense team highlighted one of the federal agent’s emails that showed he was giving “authority” to the informant to gather evidence on the Urabeños gang and other Colombian traffickers. “Do whatever you have to do. Just get the job done!” Burrola wrote in one email kept by the defendant.
Another ICE agent, Stephen Monks, told Lopez Londoño in a BlackBerry message: “You’re doing your job well. I’m happy with your work. Continue the same.”
But in the end, the Miami federal jurors rejected the one-time informant’s public authority defense. His attorneys, the Hernandezes, said they were “obviously disappointed with the outcome” and would pursue an appeal.