An FBI agent on Tuesday described the cloak-and-dagger undercover operation that penetrated Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s encrypted phone network at his Brooklyn federal court trial as prosecutors played never before heard recordings of the accused cocaine kingpin talking to lackeys, customers and sicarios.
Jurors in the two-month-old trial also saw a video of Guzmán dressed in his trademark baseball cap strutting around a man tied to a pole during an interrogation, and heard the alleged drug lord try to calm one of his enforcers in the midst of fighting with police and another network over a Mexican town.
“Once you have him tied up and such, we’ll check it out to make sure so we don’t execute innocent people,” Guzmán told his sicario, Spanish for hitman, a henchman identified as “Cholo Iván,” in one of the calls.
“You taught us to be a wolf, acting like a wolf,” Cholo Iván answered his boss. “I’m remembering, and that is how I like to do it.”
Guzmán, 58, the legendary accused head of the Sinaloa cartel who twice escaped Mexican prisons, was extradited to the United States in 2017 and has been on trial since November on charges that he used violence and corruption to control a drug empire that smuggled $14 billion in cocaine into the United States over 25 years.
Nine informants have appeared so far at a trial expected to extend into February, and some of their testimony has included selective recorded calls with Guzmán. But more than a dozen recordings from 2011 played Tuesday provided jurors their most extended exposure to his high-octave voice as he conducted business.
FBI cybercrime agent Stephen Marston said the recordings stemmed from a probe of Cristian Rodríguez, a baby-faced Colombian tech expert who built an encrypted voice-over-internet communication system for one of the cartel’s Colombian drug suppliers that was adopted by Guzmán and stymied FBI experts.
Eventually, Marston said, undercover agents met Rodríguez in a New York hotel room, posing as mobsters interested in buying encryption products. But in 2011, still unable to crack his codes, Marston said, they persuaded him to “proactively cooperate” at a clandestine meeting in Colombia.
“Without the insider access, we were not going to get in,” he said.
Rodríguez persuaded his employers to move the network’s server from Canada to the Netherlands — which put it in a jurisdiction willing to grant warrants to seize the calls, gave Rodríguez access to create new encryption keys that he could share with the FBI, and allowed him to insert software that would automatically copy all calls and move them to an FBI-controlled server.
Marston said in 2011 and early 2012, authorities milked the network for intelligence from about 1,500 calls — including 100 to 200 involving Guzmán, identified by internal references to “Chapo” or “Joaquín,” for comparison with his distinctive voice on known samples like a Rolling Stone interview and the interrogation video posted on YouTube.
“In general,” the agent said, “it has a higher pitch, has kind of a sing songy nature, and I pick up kind of a nasally undertone."
In excerpts played in court — Spanish, with English transcripts — prosecutors focused on passages showing Guzmán’s leadership role, giving orders and inspiring deference, with honorifics like “señor” or “sir,” which is an element of the charge that he ran a continuing criminal enterprise.
While the government offered no context, the passages also provided glimpses of the daily business dealings of an accused drug lord.
In a talk with an unidentified female about building a warehouse near the border, for example, Guzmán worried about why workers didn’t hide a hole for a tunnel during a raid — “They should have covered it, man” — and how to use a front company to make payments for workers that can’t be linked to him.
“If I pay the masons and then they raid the warehouse, are they going to say where they got the money from?” he wondered.
In a conversation with another woman seeking drugs to sell in the United States, Guzmán said he had no cocaine available at the moment — just “ice,” or methamphetamines. “Once cocaine comes in . . . we’ll make arrangements,” he advised. “Get them for ice, because that’s what I have over there right now.”
And Cholo, the sicario, had to be warned to not unnecessarily pick fights with police, who regularly took sides in Mexican drug wars, according to testimony. “Don’t be chasing the cops, they are the ones who help,” he said. “Leave them alone . . . reprimand them. Don’t beat them any more.”
Testimony at the trial resumes on Wednesday.