The Old Man and The Seizures
A key informant and good police work produce the biggest case yet against the Cali drug cartel
George Lopez couldn't help himself. He was 68 and his health wasn't good. But he still had a thing for the ladies. And he missed his family. As a flame lures an old moth, the ladies and the family drew Lopez back to Miami. He knew the city was trouble; in June 1993 he had fled, panicked, when federal agents began following him. But a year later, Lopez was back--and this time the flame burned the old man: On a sweltering Friday evening in July 1994, U.S. marshals arrested Lopez. For him, it was the beginning of the end. For America's long and depressing war against illegal drugs, the arrest of Lopez was the beginning of one of the most ambitious federal attacks on one of the world's most sophisticated and profitable criminal enterprises.
For Edward Kacerosky, Lopez was a prize catch. A veteran U.S. Customs Service agent, Kacerosky had spent more than three years investigating the Cali cocaine cartel. Some people said the Colombian cartel was responsible for more than 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States. Kacerosky wasn't sure about the numbers, but he knew Cali was far and away the biggest cocaine-smuggling organization in the world. He also knew that George Lopez, the funny little old man with an eye for the ladies, was its most important employee in the United States.
At 8 on the morning after Lopez's arrest, Kacerosky called on the old man in his gloomy cell at Miami's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Lopez was not surprised."Ed, I know exactly who you are," Lopez told the customs agent. "You've got me. I don't have much time [left to live]. But I want to save whatever I have left." With those words, Lopez signaled his willingness to cooperate with Kacerosky--and to provide the most detailed accounting yet of the Cali cartel's operations in the United States.
Top man. Lopez had a lot to tell. In the early 1980s, he ran the cartel's smuggling and distribution operations in Los Angeles. From 1986 to 1990, he was Cali's top man in Miami. A man named Harold Ackerman took over from Lopez in 1990, but after federal agents arrested Ackerman in April 1992, Lopez came back. Ackerman was convicted on a raft of federal charges in 1993 and decided to tell Kacerosky what he knew about the Cali cartel.
Lopez's decision to do the same thing a year later enabled Kacerosky and federal prosecutors to put together an indictment, returned last week, that charges 59 people with operating a $2 billion cocaine distribution enterprise since 1983. Federal prosecutors also charged six lawyers in the case, including three former federal prosecutors, one of whom served as the top official in the Justice Department's Office of International Affairs, which oversaw investigations of the Cali cartel.
The charges against the lawyers, three of whom have pleaded guilty to criminal charges, have captured most of the attention. But Justice Department officials say the real significance of the case is its blunderbuss attack on the Cali cartel. In addition to Lopez and Ackerman, government officials say, investigators have approximately a dozen other sources who provided detailed information about their dealings with the Cali cartel's middle managers and a half-dozen sources who told of their contacts with the cartel's top leaders.