After his extradition to the US from Mexico, drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera pleaded not guilty to a 17-count indictment.
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NEW YORK – Cristian Rodríguez was an electronics system engineering student at a college in Colombia roughly a decade ago when he dropped out to follow his dream of building his own business.
Specializing in cybersecurity, the now 32-year-old businessman soon found work as the in-house internet technology guru to two organizations with a more than passing interest in secrecy: Major drug trafficking cartels in Mexico and Colombia.
Rodríguez recounted his experience in Brooklyn federal court on Wednesday, telling jurors how he installed electronic systems that enabled accused Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to run his alleged drug trafficking empire while spying on his associates, family, and others.
“It was like his toy,” Rodriguez testified through a Spanish interpreter. He said Guzmán called him repeatedly seeking additional spying applications.
The system was designed to block investigators from intercepting the activities of Guzmán and other members of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. And it worked – until Rodríguez himself breached the security protocols, betraying Guzmán and agreeing to testify against him.
Rodríguez represents the most significant prosecution witness to date in the roughly two-month trial that could land Guzmán a life term in federal prison for running one of the world’s most notorious drug trafficking networks. The operation allegedly raked in billions of dollars by smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs into the United States.
U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan, wary of the cartel’s reputation for murder and brutality, barred courtroom sketch artists from depicting Rodríguez’s face in their drawings.
The results of the cartel tech geek’s expertise and betrayal were made clear to jurors through testimony earlier Wednesday by FBI Special Agent Stephen Marston, who discussed secretly intercepted text messages.
One showed Guzmán as a proud father in 2012, referring to one of his then-six-month-old twin daughters as a budding assault-weapon-bearing member of the family drug business.
“Our Kiki is fearless,” Guzmán texted his wife, Emma Coronel Espino, according to prosecutors. “I’m going to give her an AK47 so she can hang with me.”
Prosecutors said another message showed Guzmán ordering cartel associates to avoid using two-way radios when smuggling a load of cocaine into the United States around 2012.
“The border patrol listens to everything,” he warned, according to prosecutors.
Instead, prosecutors said, Guzmán advised using “just black,” a reference to Blackberry phones and their reputation for security.
A third excerpt showed what prosecutors said was Guzmán’s anxiety as he texted his wife about his narrow escape from Mexican authorities who raided a house in Los Cabos in February 2012.
“I saw them pounding on the door next door, and I was able to jump out,” Guzmán texted, according to prosecutors. He asked his wife to send him new jeans, sweat suits, shaving gear and other supplies.
Jurors appeared to listen carefully to the allegedly in-his-own-words texts, which were among the few items of first-hand evidence against Guzmán that federal prosecutors have presented at the trial so far.
The alleged drug lord’s nickname means “shorty” in Spanish, a reference to his roughly 5-foot-6-inch stature.
Rodríguez, too, appeared to be of slightly below-average height as he entered the Brooklyn courtroom and began providing potentially trial-shaking testimony.
He told jurors he initially worked for the Cifuentes organization, a family of Colombian cocaine smugglers. He installed a private electronic server that enabled members of their operation to communicate via encrypted instant messages.
Rodríguez said Alex Cifuentes, happy with the result, asked him to meet a drug-trafficking associate in Mexico: Guzmán.
Rodríguez said he went to Culiacán, where he boarded a small plane that took off from a clandestine runway and flew him to a mountain landing strip. From there, an all-terrain vehicle carried him up the mountain to a remote camp.
There, Rodríguez said, Guzmán, Cifuentes and others awaited, clad in military-style uniforms and brandishing large weapons.
Asked by a federal prosecutor how he felt, Rodríguez said: “Well, somewhat frightened.”
But not so scared that he fumbled his sales presentation.
He first advised installing an internet cable connection in Culiacan that would then shift to wireless as the signal went up the mountain to the camp. Guzmán liked the idea, Rodríguez said, but also wanted a system that would provide encrypted communication via cell phones.
“He didn’t like to write on the computer,” the witness testified. “He preferred to talk.”
From that beginning, Rodríguez said, he built a network that enabled Guzmán and other cartel members to communicate in secrecy, even from regular cell phones (which were adapted to work with the system).
Rodríguez said Guzmán paid him roughly $100,000 in cash for the initial network. But the accused drug lord wanted more, the witness testified: The secret installation of spy software specifically for him.
Rodríguez said he complied, installing software that logged the call history and locations of encrypted cell phones for roughly 100 members of Guzmán’s organization and associates.
Next, Rodríguez said, Guzmán asked for an application that would enable him to turn on the microphones of other cell phones on the network. The accused drug lord wanted the ability to eavesdrop on his associates so he could hear what they said about him, Rodríguez said.
So delighted was Guzmán with the outcome, Rodríguez said, that he asked him how long it would take to install a similar application on the home computer of a woman friend.
“About three minutes,” Rodríguez replied.
And for three minutes, the witness said, Guzmán distracted the woman while he completed the installation.
Rodríguez is scheduled to continue his testimony on Thursday, describing a fateful 2010 meeting that led him to switch teams and become a federal informant.
Marston said Rodríguez’s assistance proved so valuable that FBI agents considered nominating hime for a multi-million dollar government reward.
That idea was discarded. But Rodríguez has never been charged as a co-conspirator with either the Mexican or the Colombian cartel, Marston said.
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