The Feds Cracked El Chapo's Encrypted Comms Network By Flipping His System Admin

Department of Homeland Security personnel guarding the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in New York during the El Chapo trial on Nov. 5, 2018. (Photo: Mark Lennihan, AP)

With signs that the New York trial of notorious Mexican drug lord and alleged mass murderer Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is entering its end phase, prosecutors on Tuesday played copies of what they said were audio recordings of Guzmán the FBI obtained “after they infiltrated his encrypted messaging system” with the help of Colombian and former cartel systems engineer Cristian Rodriguez, Reuters reported.

As has been previously reported by Vice, Colombian drug lord Jorge Cifuentes testified that Rodriguez had forgot to renew a licence key critical to the communications network of Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel in September 2010, forcing cartel leaders to temporarily rely on conventional cell phones. Cifuentes told the court he considered Rodriguez “an irresponsible person” who had compromised their security, with a terse phone call played by prosecutors showing Cifuentes warned the subordinate he was in “charge of the system always working.”

But on Tuesday it was revealed that the FBI had lured Rodriguez into a meeting with an agent posing as a potential customer much earlier, in February 2010, according to a report in the New York Times. Later, they flipped Rodriguez, having him transfer servers from Canada to the Netherlands in a move masked as an upgrade. During that process, Rodriguez slipped investigators the network’s encryption keys.

The communications system ran over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), with only cartel members able to access it. Getting through its encryption gave authorities access to roughly 1,500 of Guzmán’s and other cartel members’ calls from April 2011 to January 2012, the Times wrote, with FBI agents able to identify ones placed by the drug lord by “comparing the high-pitched, nasal voice on the calls with other recordings of the kingpin, including a video interview he gave to Rolling Stone in October 2015.”

Reuters wrote that one of the calls involved a discussion between Guzmán and an associate where he cautioned against working with police:

... FBI special agent Steven Marston testified the 61-year-old was easily identifiable by his higher-pitched voice, which had “kind of a sing-songy nature to it” and a “nasally undertone.”

The phone call excerpts that wafted through the Brooklyn courtroom on Tuesday included discussions of dealings with local officials, including one where Guzmán appears to admonish an associate to be careful dealing with police.

“Well, you taught us to be a wolf, acting like a wolf,” the associate replied.

Other parts of the calls Times reporter Alan Feuer detailed on Twitter included recordings of Guzmán discussing how a subordinate could avoid murdering “innocent people,” ordering around an allegedly bribed Federal Ministerial Police commander, and referring to other government officials under his influence including an unknown “governor.” (Feuer added that Rodriguez is expected to testify at the trial, with court docs describing a witness matching his description who suffered “a nervous breakdown” from stress.)

Per Rolling Stone, a convicted drug and weapons smuggler named Edgar Ivan Galván also testified on Tuesday, saying that he worked with Sinaloa cartel member Antonio “Jaguar” Marrufo. Galván, who is serving a 24-year federal prison sentence in the U.S. on drug-trafficking conspiracy and weapons conspiracy charges, testified that Marrufo was a psychotic killer who took him to visit a house where the cartel murdered kidnapped enemies and ordered him to kill two men. (Galván claimed “Jaguar” called him to notify he had murdered the first himself, while he managed to avoid killing the latter, though Reuters noted he has previously admitted to lying to police.)

As Reuters wrote, mountains of other evidence has been introduced so far in the trial, including testimony from former Guzmán cronies “about multi-ton drug shipments, deadly wars between rival drug lords, and corruption by Mexican public officials.” However, the recordings presented Tuesday are some of the most damning evidence prosecutors have yet introduced. The Times wrote that the FBI infiltration of the communications system is “one of the most extensive wiretaps of a criminal defendant since the Mafia boss John Gotti was secretly recorded in the Ravenite Social Club.”

Amid the accounts of corruption, murder, and drug smuggling, Vice News’ Keegan Hamilton wrote on Twitter, there was a brief moment of levity when lights in the courtroom went out. When the electricity returned, someone shouted “He’s gone!”, referring to Guzmán’s habit of escaping from prison.

“Everybody laughed, except maybe the U.S. Marshals,” Hamilton wrote.

[Reuters/New York Times/Rolling Stone]

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