Even at such a young age, López combined a keen business sense, a fiery entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to break all the rules to make a buck. The same traits would lead him into the drug trade less than a year later. It would also help him rise quickly to the top.

López was born June 15, 1971, in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city and a transit hub for all kinds of goods, legal and not, traveling everywhere from the Andes to the Pacific. When he was just a few months old, his father took off to the United States to look for work and ended up in a New York factory making pop-tops for deodorant sticks.

Nine years later, López's mother followed her husband. She sneaked over the border into Texas and eventually found work at the same factory. Andrés' older brother, Juan Carlos, had already left Cali, and his sister Beatrice was studying at a Colombian university.

López wrote his best-selling memoir while imprisoned in Miami's Federal Detention Center.
Mauricio Velez
López wrote his best-selling memoir while imprisoned in Miami's Federal Detention Center.

So young Andrés was alone with his grandmother. "We weren't poor or hungry," he says. "My parents sent us money all the time. They bought my abuela the cab."

When she caught Andrés taking the car out at night, she demanded he enroll in a local military school. "They sent all the worst kids there," he says.

On his first day, Andrés asked to share a desk with a handsome, wealthy kid named Fernando Henao, who wore the nicest clothes in school and arrived every day with a different chauffeur.

Andrés was fascinated. Where did all the money come from? He and Fernando, an irrepressible jokester, became fast friends. Eventually the rich classmate told Andrés the truth: His older brother, Orlando, was a magico. "I thought he was actually a really successful magician," López says. "I didn't find out for months that it was slang for a drug dealer."

One day, Fernando asked if Andrés wanted to meet the brother. Soon, both boys, still 14, agreed to work in Orlando's cocina, an illicit shop where he combined coca leaves with lethal chemicals to make cocaine. López was quickly hooked. Driving his grandmother's cab, López made 400 or 500 pesos (less than a couple of U.S. bucks) during a good night. With the same number of hours in the cocina, he earned 10,000 pesos.

He'd already shown a talent for entrepreneurship. As a teenager, Andrés reinvested his profits in taxis, and before he was old enough to drive, he owned 18 cabs and managed a complex web of drivers. "I thought the taxi industry was the real way to make money," he says, laughing again.

Why did López care so much about cash? "I always had this idea that I could bring our family back together if I made enough," he says. "My parents could move back to Colombia; my abuela wouldn't have to keep driving that cab."

So by the time López was 16, he and Fernando Henao had opened their own cocina — with Orlando's blessing — and recruited 15 classmates from the military academy to help. Within six months, they were churning out several kilos per month.

At work, the teenagers joked, partied, and sampled their wares. López was a wiry kid who never grew above five feet, six inches. He had trouble hauling the huge vats of dangerous chemicals used to turn coca leaves into a drug. One day, a buddy watched him struggle, laughed, and nicknamed him "Florecita" — a delicate little flower. It stuck.

That same year, López was out one night with friends at a fruit stand in Cali's Centro Comercial when he spotted a girl grabbing a mango. She had the high cheekbones, light skin, and Renaissance curves of a traditional Cali beauty. She spoke with intelligence and poise. As she drove off, López demanded her name from the owner. "Maria del Socorro," was the answer. López offered 100 pesos for an introduction.

The next day, they met at the fruit stand, and Maria was quickly wowed by the fast-talking teen with cash to burn. "He was a real Casanova. He was talking and making eyes, and I was all, 'Ohhhh,' " remembers Maria, whose sharp features and sculpted figure haven't faded with age.

A few months later, Maria met Andrés at Feria de Cali — a huge, drunken carnival of salsa music and horse parades at Christmastime. He handed her a shot of aguardiente and ordered: "Drink up!"

By the end of the night, the young lovers were arm in arm, watching fireworks in the warm December night. Andrés López was young, rich, and in love.

By the early 1990s, López had become one of the most daring smugglers in Cali. When Colombian forces in 1993 killed Pablo Escobar, kingpin of the Medellín cartel, Cali drug runners became increasingly important. At first, López sent drugs in suitcases to Miami, where crooked baggage handlers unloaded them. "Half the luggage that flew out of Cali those days didn't belong to passengers," López says. "You'd get to Miami and go, 'Where is my bag?' We bumped them all off to ship our cocaine."

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