Christian Rodriguez was simply 21 years previous in early 2008 when he boarded a tiny personal airplane on the outskirts of Culiacán, Mexico, and flew about half an hour to brief, hidden airstrip within the mountainous badlands of Sinaloa.
A university dropout from Colómbia working to get his cyber-security startup off the bottom, Rodriguez had caught the eye of a serious potential shopper, the chief of a world import-export enterprise who hoped Rodriguez might assist him arrange an encrypted messaging system with which he might talk together with his staff.
Flying above the Sierra Madre, Rodriguez stated he was fearful, apprehensive that the little aircraft was unsafe. That feeling that was magnified when, after touchdown at a brief, clandestine airstrip, he was greeted by a celebration of males in army garb armed with lengthy rifles who loaded him onto an all-terrain car and drove him up a mountain to a small home, the place his shoppers have been awaiting his arrival.
Inside, he was launched to the lads he was there to satisfy: Alex Cifuentes, a Colombian drug trafficker, and his socio, or associate, a stout man whose identify and popularity Rodriguez already knew.
“It was Chapo Guzmán,” Rodriguez recalled.
Talking in Brooklyn federal courtroom on Wednesday, Rodriguez, now 32, minimize an unassuming determine, his barely pudgy body filling out a navy blue go well with. However this younger pc whiz, who says he went on to spend a lot of his early twenties because the lead IT man for the Sinaloa Cartel, is liable for the most important publicly recognized trove of onerous proof towards alleged cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in accordance with courtroom testimony from Rodriguez and an FBI agent who oversaw his cooperation with the feds.
On Tuesday, for the primary time, prosecutors revealed that the federal government is in possession of a whole lot of recorded telephone calls and intercepted textual content messages through which high-ranking members of the Sinaloa Cartel, together with Guzmán, spoke freely concerning the day-to-day operations of their sprawling drug empire, together with bribery of Mexican officers, violent clashes with rival traffickers and uncooperative cops, and on-the-ground particulars of the cartel’s distribution community in america.
In beautiful testimony from Rodriguez, the star witness revealed that Guzmán’s paranoia was so nice that in 2009 El Chapo hoped to put in spy ware in each web cafe in Culiacán, to watch what individuals may be saying about him.
Enterprise wasn’t the one factor Guzmán mentioned on what he thought was a safe community. Because of the spy ware Rodriguez put in on telephones that Guzmán gave out to these near him, the FBI intercepted a collection of messages between El Chapo and his spouse, Emma Coronel Aispuro, which prosecutors introduced in courtroom on Wednesday. That led to a clumsy second when Coronel, who has been current at almost every single day of the trial, sat stone-faced in courtroom as prosecutors launched intimate texts between the 2, in addition to messages Guzmán allegedly despatched to different ladies. In a single intimate trade, Coronel — who referred to Guzmán, 30 years her senior, as “Daddy,” or “Don Joaquín” — advised 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 one other, El Chapo joked about giving an assault rifle to one among their twin daughters, who was six months previous on the time.
The messages additionally present how Guzmán allegedly used ladies, a few of them lovers, as intermediaries, directing big shipments of medicine by giving orders by means of his paramours. In a collection of texts exchanged with a lady named Agustina Cabanillas Acosta, whom he referred to repeatedly as “love,” Guzman was capable of set phrases with associates whose territories straddled the globe.
The federal government’s declare that the person on the tapes is Guzmán is predicated on testimony from FBI Particular Agent Steve Marston, who advised jurors that he in contrast the alleged voice of El Chapo to 2 recordings which might be indisputably the person himself: a Might 2018 telephone name between Guzmán — then in federal lockup in Manhattan — and a sister, together with the notorious interview Guzmán recorded in October 2015 in response to questions from actor Sean Penn, revealed by Rolling Stone shortly after Guzmán’s recapture in early 2016.
Earlier than brokers had these recordings, nevertheless, they recognized his voice on calls because of context clues within the recordings, corresponding to references to Guzmán — whose voice Marston described as excessive, nasal, and “sing-songy” — as “boss,” or “the man,” or “Señor.”
In cross-examination on Wednesday morning, protection lawyer Jeffrey Lichtman did his greatest to forged doubt on the recordings, arguing that at the very least a few of the calls sounded distinctly totally different from the jail name and the so-called “Rolling Stone Interview.” For one factor, he identified, the prosecution had not carried out a scientific voice-analysis comparability of the recordings, a possible oversight to which he expressed dismay.
“Did you run out of money?” he quipped.
With a number of notable exceptions — such because the Chicago-born narco twins who recorded Guzmán discussing heroin shipments — a lot of the proof introduced towards El Chapo has come within the type of private testimony from a parade of former high-ranking traffickers trying to commerce their cooperation for an opportunity to keep away from ending their days in a federal jail cell. A few of these witnesses spoke about occasions that passed off many years in the past; a few of them have been recalling a time through which additionally they occurred to be consuming extreme quantities of cocaine and alcohol; and El Chapo’s protection staff has labored exhausting to make the jury doubt the phrases of those confessed killers and drug smugglers.
However within the audio captured because of the cooperation of Rodriguez, the voice stated to be that of El Chapo may be heard clearly, taking an lively position in a violent, worldwide drug conspiracy. If Guzmán is certainly the sing-songy falsetto barking out orders and asking for updates from subordinates, the tapes and textual content messages might do greater than another proof offered to date, because the trial enters its third month, to point out jurors the extent at which El Chapo allegedly managed minute particulars of the enterprise.
Christian Rodriguez made his preliminary foray into the world of narco cyber safety because of an introduction to the Cifuentes household, a clan of high-level drug smugglers from Colómbia who labored intently with the Sinaloa Cartel to ship cocaine from ports in South America, allegedly by way of Guzmán’s routes in Mexico, and on to america.
After assembly with a number of Cifuentes siblings, Rodriguez stated he agreed to arrange an end-to-end encrypted messaging system during which one consumer with a part of an encryption key would ship a message to an meant recipient, who would wish the opposite a part of the important thing to unlock the message. The safety of the system, which was routed by means of a server arrange by Rodriguez, allowed the Cifuentes group to speak shortly, with out worry of prying eyes, and earlier than lengthy Rodriguez stated he had arrange about 100 particular person extensions for the household and their associates.
It was such successful that Jorge Cifuentes — a drug runner-turned green-energy scammer whom shut readers of the Chapo trial will keep in mind from his personal testimony towards Guzmán in December — needed to introduce Rodriguez to his brother Alex, who was embedded on the time with the Sinaloa Cartel within the Sierra Madre.
So Rodriguez flew to Culiacán, Mexico, after which to El Chapo’s hideout, the place he defined how the system labored and gave an indication to Alex Cifuentez, Guzmán, and a few technicians in Guzmán’s make use of, he informed jurors. Ever the useful IT man, Rodriguez even ready a chart to assist clarify the system to the older males.
Rodriguez recalled that Guzmán was impressed with the demonstration at that first assembly, however requested if it will be potential to do comparable encryption with telephone calls. Guzmán, in response to Rodriguez, most popular speaking to writing. So at El Chapo’s behest, Rodriguez stated he headed out of the mountains and set about bringing the cartel’s communications into the Twenty-First Century, a process for which Guzmán gave Rodriguez $100,000 in money, he stated.
Because it turned out, El Chapo wasn’t solely involved with preserving his communications safe from prying feds: he additionally needed to some prying of his personal, based on Rodriguez. Shortly after Rodriguez acquired Sinaloa’s encrypted community up and operating, he acquired a name from Guzmán, who was involved in spying on individuals near him. As soon as once more Rodriguez flew to Chapo’s mountain hideout to elucidate a adware system referred to as FlexiSPY, which might permit Guzmán to learn GPS location, name logs and textual content messages on telephones with the software program put in, Rodriguez stated. This system additionally allowed Guzmán to remotely activate the microphone on any gadget on which he put in FlexiSPY.
Guzmán was hooked. After asking Rodriguez to put in the adware on an preliminary 10 telephones, he continued to request extra bugged units, ultimately handing out about 50 tapped telephones and computer systems to subordinates and lovers alike, poring over the surveillance stories. It started to occupy a lot of Guzmán’s time that he was ultimately calling Rodriguez a number of occasions a day to ask him questions concerning the system.
Utilizing his means to remote-activate the microphone on a “special phone,” he would typically name somebody, converse with them, after which change on their telephone’s mic simply to listen to what they needed to say about him when he wasn’t listening, Rodriguez advised jurors.
“He called me all the time to ask about the spy software,” Rodriguez stated. “
The spying started to take up a lot of el Chapo’s time, Rodriguez stated, that he delegated his snooping to an affiliate, who Guzmán ordered to learn over the spy studies and maintain him up to date on something of curiosity.
Guzmán shelled out about $1 million simply to arrange the system, and paid his younger IT savant a complete of $500,000 for his hassle. And the job was certainly hassle. Rodriguez stated he was continually fielding calls from Guzmán or considered one of his associates, and would fly as much as Sinaloa about as soon as each month and a half to do upkeep and go over issues with Guzmán. It was throughout one in every of these visits that Rodriguez and his cartel bosses had an in depth name that underscored simply how in over his head Rodriguez had gotten himself.
In 2009, Chapo summoned Rodriguez to his hideout within the mountains with an enormous request: El Chapo needed Rodriguez to arrange his adware on each web cafe in Culiacán, hoping to have a spy community on the complete metropolis that might make the KGB blush. Rodriguez informed jurors that it might doubtless have been attainable to take action, however earlier than they might end the dialogue, Guzmán obtained an pressing telephone name: the military was coming for him.
Guzmán, Alex Cifuentes, El Gordo and a safety element instantly made a run for it, with a terrified Rodriguez in tow, and spent the subsequent three days hoofing it by way of the mountains, with the military in scorching pursuit. One of many safety guys was strapped with a “very large weapon,” which, he was advised, was able to capturing down a helicopter.
“How were you feeling?” prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg requested Rodriguez in courtroom on Thursday.
“Very scared,” he replied.
As for Chapo’s demeanor in the course of the dramatic escape?
“He was always very calm, sure, tranquil,” Rodriguez stated.
After that brush with potential seize, Rodriguez returned to Colombia, and stated he by no means met with Guzmán once more, though he continued to work for the cartel remotely.
Trusting his alleged conversations about unlawful actions to Rodriguez’ encrypted community probably allowed Guzmán to make offers extra nimbly, and maintain a extra lively watch over the cartel’s actions in the course of the years that he was hiding away within the mountains of Sinaloa. However his use of the system, and his belief in Rodriguez, might develop into his undoing.
On February third, 2011, FBI brokers lured Rodriguez, then 23, to a lodge in Manhattan, the place he met with an spy posing as a Russian mobster trying to pay for his providers, in response to Agent Marston, who oversaw the operation. As soon as that they had proof of Rodriguez’ key position in main drug trafficking, the feds pounced, cornering Rodriguez in Bogotá, Colombia, and confronting him with their information of his misdeeds.
At first, Rodriguez stated he informed brokers that he solely labored for the Cifuentes household, as he was scared of being related with such a infamous drug lord as El Chapo. However the brokers knew he was mendacity, and earlier than lengthy, he got here clear and agreed to cooperate. Within the blink of an eye fixed, the FBI had flipped the person who held the keys to all the safe communication community of the world’s largest narco operation.
Between April of 2011 and January of 2012, FBI brokers harvested greater than 800 calls, together with greater than 100 calls that includes Guzmán, Marston advised jurors. In a single telephone name dated April ninth, 2011, with a henchman named Orso Iván Gastélum Cruz, AKA Cholo Ivan, Guzmán may be heard discussing an issue with native cops on the cartel’s payroll who haven’t been maintaining their finish of the discount, enraging Cholo Ivan and prompting him to “beat up” the soiled cops, to which Guzmán urged warning.
“Don’t be so harsh, fucking Cholo, cabrón,” Guzmán advised 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 summertime of 2011, Guzmán appeared to cease utilizing the system, and the quantity of calls took a nosedive, Marston stated. However because the yr wore on, Rodriguez started to get nervous, fearful that his bosses have been starting to suspect him of cooperating with the feds. His worst fears have been confirmed later in 2011, when he heard a bonechilling dialog: in a recorded telephone name between Alex Cifuentes and Cifuentes’ mom, Rodriguez listened in horror as Cifuentes informed his mother that the cartel had “100 percent confirmed” that Rodriguez had turn into a double agent. He instantly fled to america, the place he was later joined by his household.
Nonetheless, he wasn’t accomplished simply but. In February of 2012, the FBI requested Rodriguez to fly right down to Mexico in order that he might work “in real time” to assist Mexican authorities find Guzmán. That cooperation resulted in a raid on a house in Los Cabos, in Baja California, during which Guzmán simply narrowly prevented seize.
The work took its toll on Rodriguez. In 2013, when he was lastly again in the USA, he stated he suffered a nervous breakdown, and needed to be checked right into a hospital, the place docs administered electroconvulsive remedy. To this present day, he stated, he’s on medicine for stress and sees a therapist.
Someway, regardless of his lively position working for the cartel, Rodriguez was by no means charged with a criminal offense. As an alternative, he was given greater than $400,000 in compensation and bills in change for his proactive cooperation, and he’s now underneath the safety of the federal authorities. At trial, courtroom sketch artists have been barred from rendering his likeness in any means that would determine him to anybody who is perhaps trying to do him hurt for his position within the downfall of el Chapo.