When a U.S. law enforcement agent met for the first time with his new informant in Colombia in the fall of 2009, he gave him a business card.
It contained not only the official email address of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agent Francisco Burrola but also his personal one, along with the agent’s private password, “Panchito.”
The meeting in Cartagena was the start of a textbook undercover relationship between the ICE agent and Henry De Jesus Lopez Londoño, a former leader of a paramilitary organization once embroiled in Colombia's dangerous drug trade. Lopez Londoño says he became the agent’s insider as he started reporting on South America’s underworld, exchanging more than 50 emails on his private address — firstname.lastname@example.org — including initial instructions on criminal targets.
Now, the 46-year-old Lopez Londoño contends he has been betrayed by the U.S. government that adopted him as an informant — and not only because he’s in custody in Miami facing trial on a drug-smuggling conspiracy indictment next month. Federal prosecutors and the ICE agent, Burrola, claim the defendant never corresponded by email with him or any other federal agent.
“These emails would have contained the most important communications between the parties, given that ... the scope of the defendant’s authorization [as a U.S. informant] would have been set forth at the beginning,” defense attorneys Arturo and Ramon Hernandez wrote in a motion filed Wednesday to dismiss the indictment.
To prove federal authorities wrong — that they destroyed email correspondence between the ICE agent and his informant — attorneys for Lopez Londoño have disclosed in court the business card that the agent gave to him in 2009 with his personal email address.
When Lopez Londoño was arrested in Argentina in 2012 in connection with the Miami case, authorities seized the agent’s business card from his wallet. But the card was obtained by his defense lawyers before he was extradited to Miami last year — and the defendant kept it as proof of his undercover relationship with the ICE agent.
Attorneys for Lopez Londoño also disclosed a recent polygraph test taken by their client that shows he answered a series of questions about the email exchange with a “99.42 percent probability for truthfulness,” according to a court filing.
With trial only weeks away, the defense lawyers want a federal magistrate judge to hold a hearing on Lopez Londoño’s bid to have the Miami indictment dismissed. The defendant claims U.S. investigators wrongfully destroyed “exculpatory” emails as well as Blackberry text messages exchanged with the ICE agent and others — correspondence that would show he was only following their directions, not committing crimes on his own. This is the crux of Lopez Londoño’s “public authority defense.”
“They destroyed the emails to protect their indictment,” the defense lawyers wrote in their dismissal motion, accusing the feds of withholding evidence that could clear their client. “They destroyed the Blackberrys to protect their indictment. They tried to cover it up to protect their indictment.”
In previous court filings, prosecutors insisted that no federal agents ever communicated by email with Lopez Londoño — not even his main handler, Burrola, who formalized his relationship with the informant during their first meeting in Cartagena in November 2009.
Prosecutors acknowledged that ICE agents communicated with Lopez Londoño by Blackberry messages, but the correspondence was lost when the feds replaced their mobile devices with iPhones in 2012. Prosecutors also claimed that Drug Enforcement Administration agents never communicated with him that way, only in person.
The defense attorneys renewed their dismissal motion after a federal judge on Tuesday refused to accept a plea agreement struck between them and the U.S. attorney’s office that would have sent Lopez Londoño to prison for about 17 years. The drug-conspiracy charge carries a maximum penalty of life.
U.S. District Judge Donald Graham said he could not accept the plea deal because prosecutors described Lopez Londoño as a kingpin who imported hundreds of kilos of cocaine into the United States and was involved in drug-related murders in Colombia.
“For those reasons, I don’t see how I can accept this plea agreement,” Graham told both sides in Miami federal court. “I can only think of a few exceptions [to not accepting plea deals] over my 26 years on the bench. But this particular case is quite alarming.”
Lopez Londoño, aka “Mi Sangre” (My Blood), who was extradited to Miami last year, will face trial by himself on the conspiracy charge of importing more than five kilos of cocaine into the United States. Lopez Londoño, a one-time leader of a Colombian paramilitary group called the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), was initially charged with a half-dozen others on the single conspiracy charge spanning 2006 to 2012. That period includes the years he was working as a U.S. undercover informant with the code name “Assis.”
Defense attorneys for Lopez Londoño asserted the missing emails and text messages would reveal that federal agents authorized him to infiltrate dangerous criminal organizations with specific assignments — and that he wasn’t committing crimes on his own. His lawyers claimed he was an “undercover asset” for three federal investigative agencies from the fall of 2008 until the end of 2011, before his arrest the following year in Argentina.
Among the illicit groups that the defendant said he was asked to penetrate: a drug cartel headed by one-time Mexican fugitive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, members of the al-Qaida terrorist network in Colombia and the Russian mob’s ties to the Venezuelan military.