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FBI's Incredible Reveal: It Flipped El Chapo's IT Guy

It all started in a Manhattan hotel in 2010
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 9, 2019 11:47 AM CST

(Newser) – In trying to make its case against Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as El Chapo, US prosecutors have over the last two months offered up the kind of evidence you'd expect, like witness testimony, records of drug deals, and surveillance photos. On Tuesday came a dramatic reveal: that they also had evidence obtained though what the New York Times calls "high-tech cloak-and-dagger methods." The FBI had flipped the Mexican drug lord's IT guy and managed to access 800 phone calls, as many as 200 of which featured Guzman speaking freely about executions, corrupt cops, and drug shipments. How they did it, and what they learned:

  • The start of the operation dates to February 2010, when an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian mobster met with Cristian Rodriguez at a Manhattan hotel. He asked if Rodriguez, a Colombia-based computer tech, could build him an encrypted voice-over-Internet-protocol system to make phone calls like the one he made for Guzman. That conversation was recorded, and they used it to get Rodriguez to flip, reports CNN.

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  • The Times reports Rodriguez handed over the encryption keys to the system Guzman used in 2011. Telling his bosses a security upgrade was required, he moved the network's four servers from Canada to the Netherlands, where the FBI had a good working relationship. The calls were logged on the servers there, and authorities could gain access to them.
  • FBI special agent Steven Marston testified Tuesday on how the agency identified Guzman on the calls, which Reuters reports were intercepted from April 2011 to January 2012: They used the distinctly high pitch of his voice, which Marston said had a "kind of a sing-songy nature" and "nasally undertone." CNN reports the FBI had two pieces of confirmed audio to compare the recordings to: a May 2018 phone call Guzman placed from prison in NYC, and video from Sean Penn's interview with him.
  • In one from that first month, Guzman is heard saying, "Don't be chasing cops. They’re the ones who help." Vice has a transcript of another lengthy call here. In it, he tells a man the AP describes as "notorious cartel security chief" Orso Ivan Gastelum to take it easier on some police, who he had recently beat up. "Well, you taught us to be a wolf, acting like a wolf, I'm remembering," Gastelum says.
  • Intercepted calls had been played in court prior to Tuesday, just without explanation of how they were obtained. But Vice reported in mid-December that Jorge Cifuentes, "the patriarch of a prolific Colombian drug family" who cooperated with US authorities and testified against Guzman, named Rodriguez in court as the one to blame. He suggested, however, not that Rodriguez had flipped, but that he had been "irresponsible" and made goofs.
  • As for how the system worked, CNN likens it to an office phone system. Everyone except Guzman had a three-digit "extension number" that could be dialed to reach them. Guzman's calls were simply labeled in the system as number "unknown."
  • The AP reports that on Wednesday, text messages Guzman exchanged with his wife while he was on the run in 2012 were presented in court; these were obtained thanks to Rodriguez's cooperation. In the messages, they discuss their twin girls, Guzman's escape, and his need for dye for his mustache. More here.
(Ex-cartel honcho flips on El Chapo—and his own father.)

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