When Andrés López López stepped out of a Miami jail in March 2004 after serving 20 months for drug trafficking, he had a manuscript in hand. The man who had joined the Cali, Colombia branch of the infamous Cartel del Norte del Valle at age 15 and gradually risen through the gang's ranks until he found himself hobnobbing with the international drug elite. In 2001, as internal disputes wracked the Cartel, he had turned himself in to Colombian authorities, who extradited him to the U.S.. Much of that time behind bars was spent hunched over pieces of paper, composing a novel which would channel the surreal brutality of his former life and eventually lift him into a new existence.

"I always read," López y López told the Latin Times. "I always had in the back of my mind that one day I might write a book."  Prison, he says, was the impetus.  In there, the voice of conscience spoke up.  He walked out with what El Pais would describe as a "300-page exorcism": "El cartel de los sapos" ("The Snitch Cartel") -- a work of fiction narrated by a cartel member by the name of Andrés López y López, who describes a series of events quite similar to those the author had witnessed or taken part in in real life. 

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The former cartel member only just been released from jail when Caracol TV, a Colombian television network which airs in Miami, contacted him. They arranged an interview; a director at publishing house Editorial Planeta happened to catch it; weeks later, the ex-cartel member was sitting in the publishing house's offices, inking out details on a book deal.  "El cartel de los sapos" became a bestseller, spawning an eponymous telenovela for which López y López also wrote the scripts.  Now, after publishing two more novels based on his life with the cartel - "Las Fantásticas" ("The Fantastic Ones") and "El Cartel de Los Sapos 2" - and working on scripts for a bevy of related television series like "El Cartel" and "Las Muñecas de la Mafia" ("Mafia Dolls"), he's coming out with his fourth book, "El señor de los cielos" ("The Lord of the Skies"). 

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The latest work is inspired by the life of one of Mexico's most powerful drug lords, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juárez cartel, who built his empire shipping huge loads of drugs from Colombia to Mexico on board both private and commercial airlines.  López y López says he met Carrillo Fuentes on two separate occasions - once in Mexico City, once in Colombia - at meetings uniting the Cartel del Norte del Valle with its international affiliates.  But the prima materia for López's novel had to be dredged up later.  "[Carrillo Fuentes and I] shook hands, exchanged a few words, that was it."

The Juárez cartel leader died in 1997 a hunted man.  Beleaguered by the DEA, which considered him the top prize of Mexico's drug bosses, Carrillo Fuentes had turned to a plastic surgeon for help.  He checked into a Mexico City hospital and never left, victim of a botched operation or of an assassination plot, depending on who you ask.  López's new novel gets its life from the enigmatic circumstances of that death and the clamor of conspiracy theories which arose even after the DEA confirmed the death.

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In cartel dramas, says the author, "there's action, drama, jealousy, power, disappointment: all those elements put together make drug-trafficker stories powerful and winning products...viewers are tired of hearing stories about imposible loves, because real life isn't like that." 

In the case of Colombia, he says, the public's "strange attraction" to stories about the gangs which ravaged their country is only human:

"We're becoming one of the most mature Latin American societies but we need to hear about things that are happening in our country.  It's important for our society to know what really happened [during the years of the cartels' dominance] so that we can go forward, so we can understand ourselves.  They have to be understood so that society can grow stronger."

"The Lord of the Skies" is available now (in Spanish as "El Señor de los Cielos") in bookstores across the United States.