‘El Chapo’ tech guru testifies on spyware, fleeing from the law and flipping on drug lord
The trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has featured chilling details of brutal cartel warfare and dizzying revelations about the inner workings of the multibillion-dollar Sinaloa network’s dealings. But perhaps the most surreal tale to emerge is that of Guzman’s I.T. guy, Christian Rodriguez, who took the witness stand for a second day Thursday.
In 2008, at the age of 21, the Colombian tech wiz testified, he was recruited by one of Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking clans, the Cifuentes family, to create a secure communications system. That led to a fateful meeting high in the mountains of Sinaloa with the family’s partner: El Chapo.
Obsessed with Rodriguez’ ability to quickly encrypt and install spyware on phones and computers, Guzman was soon talking to him nearly every day, the tech guru testified in federal court through an interpreter. They mostly talked about Guzman’s favorite “toy”: spyware Rodriguez installed on the phones of 50 people in Guzman’s inner circle, including his wife and mistress. Guzman, so taken with surveilling those around him, requested that Rodriguez use FlexiSpy software — something the FBI was later able to tap into with his help, much to Guzman’s detriment. When Guzman wanted spyware installed on a computer, he told Rodriguez to “make it special.”
Baby-faced and soft-spoken, Rodriguez, now 32, has provided the government with some of the case’s most riveting evidence against Guzman. On Thursday, Rodriguez looked straight ahead as he testified, dressed in a dark-gray suit, light shirt and dark tie. Guzman looked at him intently but Rodriguez did not return the gaze. Courtroom evidence photos of the college dropout were pixelated to avoid his image being made public. Courtroom artists were ordered not to draw his face.
According to Rodriguez, Guzman was so enamored with checking on the calls, emails, texts and locations of those around him that he ordered an employee to provide daily reports from the spyware data — accessible from Guzman’s computer.
The employee listened to the calls through headphones, and “El Chapo told him to say, if asked, that he was listening to music,” Rodriguez testified.
He said the man described Guzman’s listening habit to him as: “El señor needs his fix.”
His most beloved feature of the spyware: the ability to tap into the microphones on cellphones. That allowed him to have a conversation with someone on the secure system Rodriguez set up, then covertly listen to the person via their own phone’s microphone, to see if they were talking about him, Rodriguez testified.
Guzman’s mania with spying was on full display at a 2009 meeting with Rodriguez in the cartel leader’s Sinaloa hideout. Rodriguez, who would take a small airplane from a clandestine airstrip to the mountain home protected by armed men in military gear, testified that his former boss wanted to install spyware in “every internet cafe in Sinaloa.”
But as the men were discussing the mundane details of using a USB device, Guzman received a warning call. “The army was coming, trying to capture Chapo,” Rodriguez testified.
Without breaking a sweat, Guzman said they had to flee.
“He was very calm,” Rodriguez said.
“How were you feeling?” asked prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg.
“I was very scared,” Rodriguez replied.
Guzman and his security detail took off, traveling through the mountains for three days.
One of the men had “a very large weapon,” Rodriguez said. “Someone told me it could knock out a helicopter.”
They’d stop to sleep in houses along their mountain route, but they’d hear helicopters buzzing overhead.
The experience was so agonizing, Rodriguez decided to never visit Guzman again. “I was very frightened,” he said.
But Rodriguez, who said he earned more than $300,000 from his cartel tech work, continued to train some of Guzman’s workers on the finer tech points and communicated with them remotely from his home in Colombia.
In 2011, Rodriguez had another harrowing meeting — this time with the FBI. The agents approached him in Bogota. “They told me they knew I worked for Chapo and I was in serious trouble,” he said. He lied at first, too frightened to admit he worked for the notorious El Chapo, he said. But he soon decided to cooperate under an agreement in which he would not be charged with a crime, could eventually relocate to the United States, and would be paid $480,000, which included his expenses and relocation fees.
Rodriguez gave the FBI access to Guzman’s server, which the agency had unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate for two years. He also created software so calls on the server would be secretly recorded.
But he soon overheard a call in which a cartel lieutenant said “it had been confirmed 100%” that Rodriguez had flipped.
Scared for his life, Rodriguez moved to the U.S. — but kept working for the FBI.
His next task: locating Jorge Cifuentes, a cartel higher-up. Rodriguez developed a system that let him remotely install a stealth GPS location device on Cifuentes’ phone, he said. Cifuentes was later arrested, and has already testified in Guzman’s trial.
Rodriguez’s informant life, however, was taking a toll on him. He told jurors that in 2013 he had two nervous breakdowns.
“I had too much stress on me,” he said. “I went to the hospital to get some help.”
He received electroconvulsive therapy and continues to take medications and receive therapy.
On cross-examination, Guzman’s attorneys sought to attack Rodriguez’s character. Rodriguez initially hadn’t paid taxes on the money he received from the government. Defense attorney Eduardo Balarezo also intimated that Rodriguez was so stressed and had a breakdown due to his personal life: His real double life, according to Balarezo, was having children with two different women, unbeknownst to one of the partners.
Plagianos is a special correspondent.
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