Sinaloa Cartel’s IT Guy Testifies in ‘El Chapo’ Trial

Alleged Sinoloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, wearing a blue shirt and black hat, was pictured here in government evidence holding a golden AK-47 rifle.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – In 2010, Colombian tech prodigy and Sinaloa Cartel IT guy Christian Rodriguez showed up to a meeting in Manhattan with someone he thought was a Russian organized crime figure. The guy wanted to hire Rodriguez, only in his mid-20s at the time, to encrypt his communications. Nothing new; he’d been asked to do this before. 

A year later in Bogota, however, Rodriguez discovered it had all been a sting operation. The FBI quickly flipped Rodriguez, and he began to hack the encrypted communications network he himself had built for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, leading to some of the most astonishing and intimate testimony yet in the Brooklyn drug trafficking trial of alleged cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. 

Rodriguez, now 32, told jurors this week that Guzman had him install private spyware on the phones of his wife, mistresses and 50 of his close associates. His own alleged spy network now weaponized against him, Guzman, 61, and his 29-year-old wife Emma Coronel, heard their intimate nuptial text messages read aloud, in a sort of surreal monotone, in open court Wednesday by FBI Special Agent Steven Marston. 

They also heard Guzman’s text exchanges with reported mistresses, Lucero Sanchez Lopez and Agustina Cabanillas Acosta, the latter of whom appeared to double as a partner in crime, called him “gorgeous” and wrote that she loved him. Guzman appears to have bankrolled plastic surgery for both Coronel and Cabanillas, according to the messages. 

Coronel appeared in court both Wednesday and Thursday, greeting reporters with a “muy bien” and a smile Thursday. 

Calling each other “love” and “darling” in the texts from 2011 and 2012, the speakers reported to be Guzman and his wife cooed over their young daughters and discussed plastic surgery, guns, construction of a new house and perhaps most dramatically, Guzman’s narrow escape from a Los Cabos mansion raid in February 2012. At one point, Guzman asks Coronel to put her father on the phone so they can discuss business. The father, Inés Coronel Barreras is a convicted Mexican drug lord. It’s a damning exchange.

“Don’t use radios,” the person marked “J” (reportedly for “Joaquin Guzman”) writes, warning that the Border Patrol spies on radios. “ … Just black [BlackBerries], otherwise don’t send even one kilo because everything will drop.” 

After the Los Cabos raid, Guzman writes to Coronel that he needs her to buy him some clothes – “sweats, underwear, five shirts, shampoo, after shave … Because I had to rush out at 3:00 in the afternoon, love.” He explains he was able to “jump out” but left “equipment” behind and several others were detained. 

“Oh, love, that’s horrible,” Coronel responds. Later, when asking what size pants to buy him, she jokes, “You slim or chubby now, love?” She asks if he needs anything else.

“Black mustache dye,” he writes. 

Rodriguez, who has not been charged with a crime and has never served a day in prison, first took the witness stand Wednesday afternoon in a suit and tie and remained there through Thursday afternoon. Court artists were directed not to draw his face.  

In his testimony Wednesday and Thursday, the compact, soft-spoken Rodriguez, 32, told the jury that Guzman had paid him a total of approximately $500,000 to build a sophisticated communications network on private servers so Sinaloa Cartel members could talk without fear of being intercepted. 

When the FBI busted Rodriguez in 2011, he said he agreed to cooperate. The government allowed him to keep the half-million he’d earned working for Guzman, and in addition paid him $480,000 for his expenses and technology services – which he later neglected to pay taxes on, he admitted Thursday. In 2013, he had a nervous breakdown from the stress of being a double agent and received electroconvulsive therapy, he said.  

“I gave them access to Chapo Guzman’s server,” Rodriguez said Thursday. “I gave them the usernames and passwords.” He installed a recorder to capture encrypted calls then downloaded to his personal computer the ones Guzman took part in and emailed the files to the FBI. 

Rodriguez gave the agency access to FlexiSPY, through which they could access the GPS location, BlackBerry messages, text messages with Coronel and the others and call logs. 

Rodriguez, kind of a freelance techie, also worked for Colombia’s Cifuentes trafficking family, allies of the Sinaloa Cartel. Alex Cifuentes took the stand late Thursday; Jorge Cifuentes testified in December. 

On cross-examination Thursday, defense attorney A. Eduardo Balarezo attacked Rodriguez’s character, saying he could have manipulated the data he dumped to the FBI and besides, Guzman wasn’t well-educated anyway, so preferred to make phone calls over reading and writing text messages.

“You’re very tech-savvy, correct?” Balarezo asked Rodriguez. “You know how to use computers for good, you know how to use computers for bad, correct?” 

Correct, Rodriguez said. 

“And for whatever reason, you’ve chosen to use them mostly for bad.” 

Rodriguez agreed.

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