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Meet IT Whiz Kid Who Took Down El Chapo

Christian Rodriguez was only 21 when he started working for the Sinaloa Cartel — and the trove of audio he helped the FBI collect could send the alleged drug trafficker to prison for life

November 13, 2018 - New York, United States - A view of a photographic reproduction of a drawing by Jane Rosenberg that shows Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman (R), US Assistant Attorney General Adam Fels (L) and justice Brian Cogan (C) during the first session of his trial before the Brooklyn South District Court, in New York, United States, 13 November 2018. Guzman faces a possible life sentence on drug trafficking charges that will be decided by 12 members of a jury. (Credit Image: © Jane Rosenberg/EFE via ZUMA Press)

Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman has been on trial in Brooklyn Federal Court since November.

© Jane Rosenberg/EFE/ZUMA

Christian Rodriguez was just 21 years old in early 2008 when he boarded a tiny private airplane on the outskirts of Culiacán, Mexico, and flew about half an hour to short, hidden airstrip in the mountainous badlands of Sinaloa.

A college dropout from Colómbia working to get his cyber-security startup off the ground, Rodriguez had caught the attention of a major potential client, the leader of an international import-export business who was hoping Rodriguez could help him set up an encrypted messaging system with which he could communicate with his workers.

Flying above the Sierra Madre, Rodriguez said he was fearful, worried that the little plane was unsafe. That feeling that was magnified when, after landing at a short, clandestine airstrip, he was greeted by a party of men in military garb armed with long rifles who loaded him onto an all-terrain vehicle and drove him up a mountain to a small house, where his clients were awaiting his arrival.

A pixelated photo of Christian Rodriguez.

A pixelated photo of Christian Rodriguez.

Inside, he was introduced to the men he was there to meet: Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian drug trafficker, and his socio, or partner, a stout man whose name and reputation Rodriguez already knew.

“It was Chapo Guzmán,” Rodriguez recalled.

Speaking in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday, Rodriguez, now 32, cut an unassuming figure, his slightly pudgy frame filling out a navy blue suit. But this young computer whiz, who says he went on to spend much of his early twenties as the lead IT guy for the Sinaloa Cartel, is responsible for the largest publicly known trove of hard evidence against alleged cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, according to court testimony from Rodriguez and an FBI agent who oversaw his cooperation with the feds.

On Tuesday, for the first time, prosecutors revealed that the government is in possession of hundreds of recorded phone calls and intercepted text messages in which high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel, including Guzmán, spoke freely about the day-to-day operations of their sprawling drug empire, including bribery of Mexican officials, violent clashes with rival traffickers and uncooperative cops, and on-the-ground details of the cartel’s distribution network in the United States.

In stunning testimony from Rodriguez, the star witness revealed that Guzmán’s paranoia was so great that in 2009 El Chapo hoped to install spyware in every internet cafe in Culiacán, to monitor what people might be saying about him.

Business wasn’t the only thing Guzmán discussed on what he thought was a secure network. Thanks to the spyware Rodriguez installed on phones that Guzmán gave out to those close to him, the FBI intercepted a series of messages between El Chapo and his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, which prosecutors presented in court on Wednesday. That led to an awkward moment when Coronel, who has been present at nearly every day of the trial, sat stone-faced in court as prosecutors introduced intimate texts between the two, as well as messages Guzmán allegedly sent to other women. In one intimate exchange, Coronel — who referred to Guzmán, 30 years her senior, as “Daddy,” or “Don Joaquín” — told her husband that “maybe it’s best for Mommy to make [her enchiladas] for you. After all, it was her enchiladas that made you fall in love with her.”

In another, El Chapo joked about giving an assault rifle to one of their twin daughters, who was six months old at the time.

The messages also show how Guzmán allegedly used women, some of them lovers, as intermediaries, directing huge shipments of drugs by giving orders through his paramours. In a series of texts exchanged with a woman named Agustina Cabanillas Acosta, whom he referred to repeatedly as “love,” Guzman was able to set terms with associates whose territories straddled the globe.

el chapo phone diagram

The government’s claim that the man on the tapes is Guzmán is based on testimony from FBI Special Agent Steve Marston, who told jurors that he compared the alleged voice of El Chapo to two recordings that are indisputably the man himself: a May 2018 phone call between Guzmán — then in federal lockup in Manhattan — and a sister, along with the infamous interview Guzmán recorded in October 2015 in response to questions from actor Sean Penn, published by Rolling Stone shortly after Guzmán’s recapture in early 2016.

Before agents had those recordings, however, they identified his voice on calls thanks to context clues in the recordings, such as references to Guzmán — whose voice Marston described as high, nasal, and “sing-songy” — as “boss,” or “the man,” or “Señor.

In cross-examination on Wednesday morning, defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman did his best to cast doubt on the recordings, arguing that at least some of the calls sounded distinctly different from the prison call and the so-called “Rolling Stone Interview.” For one thing, he pointed out, the prosecution had not conducted a scientific voice-analysis comparison of the recordings, a potential oversight to which he expressed dismay.

“Did you run out of money?” he quipped.

With several notable exceptions — such as the Chicago-born narco twins who recorded Guzmán discussing heroin shipments — much of the evidence presented against El Chapo has come in the form of personal testimony from a parade of former high-ranking traffickers looking to trade their cooperation for a chance to avoid ending their days in a federal prison cell. Some of those witnesses spoke about events that took place decades ago; some of them were recalling a time in which they also happened to be consuming excessive amounts of cocaine and alcohol; and El Chapo’s defense team has worked hard to make the jury doubt the words of these confessed killers and drug smugglers.

But in the audio captured thanks to the cooperation of Rodriguez, the voice said to be that of El Chapo can be heard clearly, taking an active role in a violent, international drug conspiracy. If Guzmán is indeed the sing-songy falsetto barking out orders and asking for updates from subordinates, the tapes and text messages could do more than any other evidence provided thus far, as the trial enters its third month, to show jurors the level at which El Chapo allegedly managed minute details of the business.

 

Christian Rodriguez made his initial foray into the world of narco cyber security thanks to an introduction to the Cifuentes family, a clan of high-level drug smugglers from Colómbia who worked closely with the Sinaloa Cartel to ship cocaine from ports in South America, allegedly through Guzmán’s routes in Mexico, and on to the United States.

After meeting with several Cifuentes siblings, Rodriguez said he agreed to set up an end-to-end encrypted messaging system in which one user with part of an encryption key would send a message to an intended recipient, who would need the other part of the key to unlock the message. The security of the system, which was routed through a server set up by Rodriguez, allowed the Cifuentes organization to communicate quickly, without fear of prying eyes, and before long Rodriguez said he had set up about 100 individual extensions for the family and their associates.

It was such a hit that Jorge Cifuentes — a drug runner-turned green-energy scammer whom close readers of the Chapo trial will remember from his own testimony against Guzmán in December — wanted to introduce Rodriguez to his brother Alex, who was embedded at the time with the Sinaloa Cartel in the Sierra Madre.

So Rodriguez flew to Culiacán, Mexico, and then to El Chapo’s hideout, where he explained how the system worked and gave a demonstration to Alex Cifuentez, Guzmán, and some technicians in Guzmán’s employ, he told jurors. Ever the helpful IT guy, Rodriguez even prepared a chart to help explain the system to the older men.

el chapo communication chart

Rodriguez recalled that Guzmán was impressed with the demonstration at that first meeting, but asked if it would be possible to do similar encryption with phone calls. Guzmán, according to Rodriguez, preferred talking to writing. So at El Chapo’s behest, Rodriguez said he headed out of the mountains and set about bringing the cartel’s communications into the Twenty-First Century, a task for which Guzmán gave Rodriguez $100,000 in cash, he said.

As it turned out, El Chapo wasn’t only concerned with keeping his communications secure from prying feds: he also wanted to some prying of his own, according to Rodriguez. Shortly after Rodriguez got Sinaloa’s encrypted network up and running, he received a call from Guzmán, who was interested in spying on people close to him. Once again Rodriguez flew to Chapo’s mountain hideout to explain a spyware system called FlexiSPY, which would allow Guzmán to read GPS location, call logs and text messages on phones with the software installed, Rodriguez said. The program also allowed Guzmán to remotely activate the microphone on any device on which he installed FlexiSPY.

Guzmán was hooked. After asking Rodriguez to install the spyware on an initial 10 phones, he continued to request more bugged devices, eventually handing out about 50 tapped phones and computers to subordinates and lovers alike, poring over the surveillance reports. It began to occupy so much of Guzmán’s time that he was eventually calling Rodriguez several times a day to ask him questions about the system.

Using his ability to remote-activate the microphone on a “special phone,” he would sometimes call someone, speak with them, and then switch on their phone’s mic just to hear what they had to say about him when he wasn’t listening, Rodriguez told jurors.

“He called me all the time to ask about the spy software,” Rodriguez said. “

The spying began to take up so much of el Chapo’s time, Rodriguez said, that he delegated his snooping to an associate, who Guzmán ordered to read over the spy reports and keep him updated on anything of interest.

Guzmán shelled out about $1 million just to set up the system, and paid his young IT savant a total of $500,000 for his trouble. And the job was indeed trouble. Rodriguez said he was constantly fielding calls from Guzmán or one of his associates, and would fly up to Sinaloa about once every month and a half to do maintenance and go over things with Guzmán. It was during one of these visits that Rodriguez and his cartel bosses had a close call that underscored just how in over his head Rodriguez had gotten himself.

In 2009, Chapo summoned Rodriguez to his hideout in the mountains with a big request: El Chapo wanted Rodriguez to set up his spyware on every internet cafe in Culiacán, hoping to have a spy network on the entire city that would make the KGB blush. Rodriguez told jurors that it would likely have been possible to do so, but before they could finish the discussion, Guzmán got an urgent phone call: the army was coming for him.

Guzmán, Alex Cifuentes, El Gordo and a security detail immediately made a run for it, with a terrified Rodriguez in tow, and spent the next three days hoofing it through the mountains, with the army in hot pursuit. One of the security guys was strapped with a “very large weapon,” which, he was told, was capable of shooting down a helicopter.

“How were you feeling?” prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg asked Rodriguez in court on Thursday.

“Very scared,” he replied.

As for Chapo’s demeanor during the dramatic escape?

“He was always very calm, sure, tranquil,” Rodriguez said.

After that brush with potential capture, Rodriguez returned to Colombia, and said he never met with Guzmán again, although he continued to work for the cartel remotely.

 

Trusting his alleged conversations about illegal activities to Rodriguez’ encrypted network likely allowed Guzmán to make deals more nimbly, and keep a more active watch over the cartel’s activities during the years that he was hiding away in the mountains of Sinaloa. But his use of the system, and his trust in Rodriguez, could turn out to be his undoing.

On February 3rd, 2011, FBI agents lured Rodriguez, then 23, to a hotel in Manhattan, where he met with an undercover agent posing as a Russian mobster looking to pay for his services, according to Agent Marston, who oversaw the operation. Once they had evidence of Rodriguez’ key role in major drug trafficking, the feds pounced, cornering Rodriguez in Bogotá, Colombia, and confronting him with their knowledge of his misdeeds.

At first, Rodriguez said he told agents that he only worked for the Cifuentes family, as he was terrified of being connected with such a notorious drug lord as El Chapo. But the agents knew he was lying, and before long, he came clean and agreed to cooperate. In the blink of an eye, the FBI had flipped the man who held the keys to the entire secure communication network of the world’s largest narco operation.

Between April of 2011 and January of 2012, FBI agents harvested more than 800 calls, including more than 100 calls featuring Guzmán, Marston told jurors. In one phone call dated April 9th, 2011, with a henchman named Orso Iván Gastélum Cruz, AKA Cholo Ivan, Guzmán can be heard discussing a problem with local cops on the cartel’s payroll who have not been keeping up their end of the bargain, enraging Cholo Ivan and prompting him to “beat up” the dirty cops, to which Guzmán urged caution.

“Don’t be so harsh, fucking Cholo, cabrón,” Guzmán told his seething sicario. “Take it easy with the police.”

“Well, you taught us to be like a wolf,” Cholo answered. “That is what I like to do.”

In the summer of 2011, Guzmán appeared to stop using the system, and the volume of calls took a nosedive, Marston said. But as the year wore on, Rodriguez began to get nervous, worried that his bosses were beginning to suspect him of cooperating with the feds. His worst fears were confirmed later in 2011, when he heard a bonechilling conversation: in a recorded phone call between Alex Cifuentes and Cifuentes’ mother, Rodriguez listened in horror as Cifuentes told his mom that the cartel had “100 percent confirmed” that Rodriguez had become a double agent. He immediately fled to the United States, where he was later joined by his family.

Still, he wasn’t done just yet. In February of 2012, the FBI asked Rodriguez to fly down to Mexico so that he could work “in real time” to help Mexican authorities locate Guzmán. That cooperation resulted in a raid on a home in Los Cabos, in Baja California, in which Guzmán just narrowly avoided capture.

The work took its toll on Rodriguez. In 2013, when he was finally back in the United States, he said he suffered a nervous breakdown, and had to be checked into a hospital, where doctors administered electroconvulsive therapy. To this day, he said, he’s on medication for stress and sees a therapist.

Somehow, despite his active role working for the cartel, Rodriguez was never charged with a crime. Instead, he was given more than $400,000 in compensation and expenses in exchange for his proactive cooperation, and he’s now under the protection of the federal government. At trial, courtroom sketch artists were barred from rendering his likeness in any way that could identify him to anyone who might be looking to do him harm for his role in the downfall of el Chapo.

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