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'El Chapo' communications expert testifies he suffered nervous breakdown

A Colombian security expert who betrayed Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera and opened his encrypted phone system and spyware to the FBI testified in federal court Thursday that he was so jolted by the experience he later had a breakdown and needed electroshock therapy.

Christian Rodriguez, 32, said in Guzman’s Brooklyn cocaine smuggling trial that he found out he had been exposed when he overheard Colombian cocaine suppliers who worked with the alleged Mexican drug lord say they were “100 percent sure” he was a turncoat and immediately fled to the United States in terror.

He continued to work with the FBI, he testified, until the pressure — complicated by the fact that he had two separate families, one secret from the other — became too much. “I had a nervous breakdown,” he told jurors. “I had too much stress on me. I went to the hospital to get some help.”

Rodriguez, who installed secure systems and spyware for Guzman in 2008 before becoming a double agent in 2011, said he got “electro convulsive therapy” twice — “Electricity is pushed in your brain to control the breakdown” — but insisted his long-term memory of his work for Guzman was not affected.

Guzman, 58, was extradited to the United States in 2017 to face charges that as leader of the Sinaloa cartel he ran a drug empire that smuggled $14 billion of cocaine as well as heroin and marijuana into the United States over 25 years, using violence and extensive corruption of Mexican law enforcement to make vast profits.

The trial began in November. Rodriguez — so at-risk that pictures of his face released to the public have been obscured and courtroom artists are allowed to only put a circle where his head would be — was the 10th former associate to testify as a cooperating witness in a powerful case assembled by prosecutors.

The evidence was once expected to last as long as four months, but U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan and prosecutors signaled on Thursday that the government is likely to wrap up its case by Jan. 23. It is unclear how many witnesses Guzman may call.

Rodriguez worked both for Guzman and for the Cifuentes family, Colombian siblings who were major cocaine suppliers. He said in his second day of testimony that he became an informant due to the threat of a U.S. indictment and the lure of a possible $5 million reward for the oldest Cifuentes brother, Jorge.

His betrayal produced a gold mine of intelligence that dealt a critical blow to the cartel by giving agents access to both an encrypted internet-based phone system Guzman and top aides used and also exposing a spyware program Guzman secretly put on the phones of his close associates, wife, and female friends.

This week, prosecutors exploited the security breaches to play a series of incriminating phone calls from 2011 and display texts to jurors discussing drug deals, weapons and security measures.

On Thursday, the college dropout recalled several meetings with Guzman at his hideaway in the mountains in his home state of Sinaloa, including one that was interrupted by word that Mexican troops were advancing on the alleged kingpin.

Along with Guzman, aides and about 15 heavily armed security guards — including one with a weapon capable of shooting down helicopters — Rodriguez spent three days hiking through the mountains and staying in small houses to escape the troops, he said.

Guzman “was always very calm, very sure, very tranquil,” Rodriguez recalled. “I was very frightened.” After that scare, he said, he dealt with Guzman over the phone from Colombia because he wanted “distance.”

He fled after hearing two Cifuentes siblings — Alex and Dolly — say they knew he was an informant, but said he continued to use his tech skills to help the FBI, tracking a phone that belonged to Jorge Cifuentes, who was later arrested, and going to Mexico to help track Guzman before a 2012 raid of a safe house in Los Cabos, where the alleged drug lord barely escaped.

Jorge Cifuentes, who became a cooperating witness after his capture, testified against Guzman earlier in the trial, and Alex Cifuentes, once a key aide to Guzman, followed Rodriguez to the witness stand on Thursday — responding to a nod from his ex-boss by putting his hand over his heart as he took the stand.

Cifuentes said he was a jack-of-all-trades in the cartel’s drug business, and Guzman “would describe me as his secretary, his right-hand man, and his left-hand man.” Asked to identify his old friend, typically outfitted in a baseball cap and jeans or camo pants in old pictures, Cifuentes drew laughter.

“I can’t distinguish his tie’s color,” he said, “but it is the first time I see him wearing a suit.”

His testimony is scheduled to resume on Monday.

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