Nation & World

Convicted U.S. informant escapes life term for role in huge Colombian coke ring

Henry De Jesus Lopez Londono, convicted this year of a drug-trafficking conspiracy in Miami federal court, is shown in 2012 during his arrest in Argentina.
Henry De Jesus Lopez Londono, convicted this year of a drug-trafficking conspiracy in Miami federal court, is shown in 2012 during his arrest in Argentina.

In the end, a convicted Colombian drug lord who spied on Latin America's underworld for the feds caught a slight break as a Miami judge Monday gave him 31 years in prison instead of life.

Henry De Jesus Lopez Londoño, who once headed one of Colombia's cartels before going undercover to inform on Mexican kingpin "El Chapo" and other major traffickers, has already been in custody since his arrest in 2012. So, with credit for that period and future gain time in prison, the 48-year-old Medellin native has 20 years left to serve.

Lopez Londoño received some leeway from U.S. District Judge Donald Graham. He said the amount of cocaine smuggling alleged in the conspiracy — some 60,000 kilos between 2007 and 2012 — was "staggering," but he also questioned the prosecutors' claims that the defendant ordered numerous killings and therefore deserved a life sentence.

Also significant, Graham doubted prosecutors' assertions that Lopez Londoño provided nothing of value as a confidential informant to federal investigators, citing the testimony of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who said he was "very helpful."

"In any other case with this amount of cocaine, a life sentence would be appropriate," Graham said. "But this case is unique."

Lopez Londoño began secretly working in 2010 as a confidential informant for ICE but was charged two years later in Miami with conspiring to distribute loads of cocaine and eventually extradited to the United States. At his lengthy trial earlier this year, Lopez Londoño testified that he felt “absolutely betrayed” when he was indicted and arrested in Argentina.

At the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Robert Emery continued to hammer away at Lopez Londoño's public authority defense, in which he claimed to have committed no wrongdoing because he was merely infiltrating criminal groups such as the powerful Urabeños at the direction of federal investigators. Emery said ICE "never authorized the defendant to send out any loads of cocaine or commit any violence" and that he "was two-timing the United States."

Emery, who prosecuted the case with Michael Nadler, said the judge should fine Lopez Londoño $10 million for his ill-gotten gains, which the judge refused to do for lack of evidence showing how much the defendant personally profited from the cocaine-distribution ring.

Lopez Londoño's defense attorneys, Arturo and Ramon Hernandez, devoted their efforts to avoiding a life sentence for their client. They argued that under the extradition agreement between the United States and Argentina, no life sentence could be imposed. They sought punishment in the 20-year range.

Although the father-and-son legal team plans to appeal Lopez Londoño's conviction on the single conspiracy charge, they expressed relief that he did not receive a life sentence.

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 direction 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.

The defense team also accused federal agents of betraying their client and covering it up by destroying BlackBerry mobile phone messages and emails of their correspondence, as Lopez Londoño spied on 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.