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How the FBI got into El Chapo’s encrypted communication network

In February 2010, an undercover FBI agent met with the target of a sensitive investigation: Christian Rodriguez, an IT specialist who had recently developed a remarkable product: an encrypted communication network for the Mexican drug lord El Chapo and his Colombian partners.

The two sat down in a hotel in Manhattan and posing as a gangster, the undercover agent told the cartel’s IT guy that he, too, needed to make phone calls without law enforcement being able to listen.

So began a secret operation that w/in a year allowed the FBI to crack El Chapo’s covert communication system and ultimately capture up to 200 phone calls of the kingpin talking to his associates. The FBI agent who led this operation testified about it today at Chapo’s trial.

The crucial turn in the probe was flipping Christian who helped the FBI infiltrate the system. It was hi-tech cloak & dagger stuff. Christian had initially put his servers in Canada but in 2011 he moved them to the Netherlands. During the move he gave the FBI the encryption keys.

Working w/the Dutch the FBI was able to get nearly all of Chapo’s calls for months w/in a day of him making them. The agent on the stand, Stephen Marston, was able to ID Chapo’s voice by comparing it to other Chapo recordings, including his famous Rolling Stone interview.

The jury has already heard some of these calls w/o knowing where they came from. Last month, prosecutors played one in which Chapo could be heard negotiating a 6-ton coke deal w/a representative from the FARC Colombian guerrilla group. …

More calls were played today including two in which the kingpin was referred to as “Chapo” and “Joaquin.” There may be more damaging calls coming, but in terms of sheer quantity this FBI op seems pretty huge, on par w/other famous wiretaps like the John Gotti Ravenite tapes.

It was Jorge Cifuentes, a Colombian coke supplier, who first introduced Christian to Chapo, promising that IT guy could offer totally secure comms for the cartel. Christian’s system used VOIP, or internet phone service, and was accessible only by those w/in the network.

Chapo could access the network via wifi in his hideout in the Sinaloa mountains. Jorge and much of his sprawling drug trafficking family was on the network too. They too had many of their calls intercepted. We’ll learn about the secret operation and the calls after lunch.