A federal judge on Tuesday rejected a plea agreement that would have sent a high-profile Colombian defendant who worked as a U.S. informant to prison for about 17 years on a drug-smuggling charge that carried up to life behind bars.
U.S. District Judge Donald Graham said he could not accept the plea deal struck between the U.S. attorney’s office and defense attorneys for Henry De Jesus Lopez Londoño because prosecutors described him 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.”
The judge’s denial means Lopez Londoño, aka “Mi Sangre” (My Blood), who was extradited to Miami last year, will face trial at the end of October on the conspiracy charge of importing more than five kilos of cocaine into the United States. Both sides, who were negotiating the plea agreement since August, are expected to ask the judge to continue the trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Emery told the judge that he heard his “concerns loud and clear,” but stressed that he and the defense team took a “snapshot” of the government’s case and agreed that the deal was fair.
Defense attorney Arturo Hernandez said the agreement was the “culmination of litigation for many years,” arguing it was in the “best interests” of his client and the government.
But the judge wouldn’t budge, saying “this is an agreement that I don’t feel comfortable accepting.”
Before the deal was unveiled, Lopez Londoño’s defense team asserted that he did nothing illegal because he was acting as a confidential informant for major U.S. law enforcement agencies during the period of the indictment. Among the smorgasbord of 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.
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 drug-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.”
In an effort to pressure prosecutors into a deal, Lopez Londoño accused U.S. law enforcement agencies of destroying Blackberry messages and withholding emails that he claimed would show he was working for them as an informant in the federal government’s battles against South America’s underworld, according to court papers filed in August.
Defense attorneys for Lopez Londoño asserted the missing text messages and emails 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, Arturo and Ramon Hernandez, 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.
Prosecutors countered that the agents’ text messages to and from the informant were lost because their Blackberry phones were replaced and could not be found. They also said there were no emails exchanged between the agents and informant.