The Daily Beast
The Kid Who Masterminded El Chapo’s Secret Phone Network
It came in off the street one day—a tip, a lead, a rumor—whatever you cared to call it, it was one of the strangest things they had heard in their careers. Chapo Guzmán, the world-famous drug lord, had hired a young IT guy and the kid had built him a sophisticated system of high-end cell phones and secret servers, all of it ingeniously encrypted.The unconfirmed report—perhaps that was the best way to describe it—had arrived that Friday in June 2009 when a tipster walked into the lobby of the FBI’s field division office in New York. After his story had been vetted downstairs, it made its way up seven flights of stairs and landed with a curious thud among the crowded cubicles of C-23, the Latin American drug squad. For more than thirty years, the elite team of agents and their bosses had hunted some of the drug trade’s biggest criminals, and while tall tales of their antics circulated constantly through its squad room near the courts in Lower Manhattan, no one in the unit knew what to make of this one. The tipster’s account seemed credible enough, but it was sorely lacking details: The only facts he had offered on the young technician were a first name—Christian—and that he was from Medellín, Colombia. All sorts of kooks spouting all sorts of nonsense showed up all the time at FBI facilities, claiming they had inside information on the Kennedy killing or knew someone who knew someone who knew where Jimmy Hoffa was. In what were still the early days of internet telephony, it seemed a bit far-fetched that a twentysomething hacker had reached a deal with the world’s most wanted fugitive and furnished him in hiding with a private form of Skype. As alluring as it sounded, it was just the sort of thing that would probably turn out to be a myth.Inside Colombia’s ‘Air Chapo’ Cocaine Shipping ScandalIn the middle of a drug war, chasing myths was not enough to send C-23 into the field: reality was keeping the unit busy on its own. Three years after Mexico had launched a crusade against its brutal cartel kingpins, the country had erupted into incomparable violence, and much of the chaos had rolled downhill into American investigative files. Just that winter, a psychopath who called himself the Stewmaker had been caught near Tijuana after having boiled three hundred bodies down to renderings in caustic vats of acid. Two weeks later, a retired Mexican general was murdered in Cancún, his kneecaps shattered, and his corpse propped up behind the steering wheel of a pickup truck abandoned on a highway. Since late 2006, the country’s seven drug clans had all been at war with one another or the government—or sometimes both at once—and ten thousand people had already lost their lives.C-23 and other U.S .law enforcement agencies pitched in when they could, opening cases and offering intelligence to their counterparts in Mexico. But in the past several months, conditions at the border had only gotten worse and had metastasized from an ordinary security emergency into something that resembled a full-scale insurrection. From the American point of view, the Sisyphean struggle to end the bloodshed—and to stem the flow of drugs heading north—seemed increasingly impossible despite the constant seizures, the federal indictments and the helicopter gunships sent as foreign aid.In this target-rich environment, Chapo Guzmán was an interest- ing case. While he was neither the wealthiest nor the most sadistic trafficker in Mexico, he was by a matter of degree the most illustrious. His famous alias, “El Chapo”—often rendered “Shorty” but more accurately a reference to his squat, stocky frame—was globally familiar, with a recognition level that rivaled that of movie stars and presidents. Not since Pablo Escobar had ruled over Colombia had la pista secreta—the secret path of the narcotics business—seen a figure who was both a major criminal and a mass celebrity. For nearly twenty years, Guzmán had been at the center of the drug trade, involved in some of its best-known capers and disasters. In 1993, in his earliest brush with fame, he was sent to jail in Mexico for the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo*, whose daylight killing at the Guadalajara airport introduced the world to the threat presented by Mexican cartels. Eight years later, in a move that earned him full folkloric status, Guzmán had escaped from prison, slipping out in a laundry cart after paying off his jailers.Ever since, he had been on the run, moving back and forth among a half-dozen hideouts deep in the Sierra Madre mountains, in the Mexi- can state of Sinaloa. Though he lived like an outlaw, he was treated like a king—loved by some, feared by many and inarguably one of the most powerful men in Mexico. A single word from him from one of his mountain dens could set in motion tractor-trailers in Nogales, planes in Cartagena, and merchant freighters in Colón. At fifty-two—an improbable age in an industry that did not promote longevity—Guzmán had reached the height of his career, running his business freely and warring against his rivals, all while playing cat and mouse with those among the Mexican authorities who weren’t on his payroll. While the American government was after him as well, a contrarian consensus had emerged in parts of Washington that at least he was contained in the Sierras, where he was spending exorbitant sums on his security and could not engage in the same bloody havoc that emergent mafias, like the Zetas or La Familia Michoacán, had recently been wreaking in the lowlands. It was also the case that no one—not the FBI, the DEA, nor their cousins in the intelligence community—had ever mounted a successful capture operation in the rugged region he had fled to. In the past two years alone, a panoply of American agencies had helped arrest Otto Herrera, Guzmán’s connection to Colombia’s cartels; Juan Carlos Ramírez, one of his top suppliers; and Jesus “El Rey” Zambada, the brother of “El Mayo” Zambada, his most important partner. The heir to Guzmán’s throne—Mayo’s son, Vicente—was in jail in Mexico City, and Pedro and Margarito Flores, the twin brothers who had handled much of his American distribution, were about to start recording him for U.S. drug officials. By mid-2009, Guzmán himself was already under indictment in San Diego and Tucson and would soon face further charges in Brooklyn and Chicago. But after all of this—countless hours of investigative and prosecutorial effort—he had never spent a single day in an American court of law.That was why C-23’s new lead couldn’t be discounted, as crazy as it sounded. The possibilities it promised were simply too enticing. It stood to reason that a man in Guzmán’s position—on the lam, with far-flung operatives around the globe—would at least want a means of sending and receiving secret messages. Imagine the windfall if the drug squad in New York could hack into the system.That is, if it actually existed.While many of his coworkers shrugged at the story of the mythic cell-phone system, treating it like a piece of science fiction, Special Agent Robert Potash raised his hand and volunteered to run the rumor down. As the rookie in the unit, he had little else to do. Potash had joined C-23 only the year before and while he was as eager as anyone to succeed, he was still finding his feet among his older, more seasoned peers.One of those anomalies who came to law enforcement late in life, Potash had attended the FBI’s academy in Quantico just before his thirty-seventh birthday, the outside age for new recruits. For a federal agent, his background was unusual. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Potash had spent fifteen years of well-paid boredom in the private sector, designing robots and lasers before he realized that what he really wanted to do was put together criminal cases, not expensive widgets. The son of a toolmaker from Connecticut, he had always been something of a tinkerer. Even approaching forty, he often still thought about himself as the handy little kid who built the neighborhood treehouse every summer and spent all winter working on a soapbox car in his garage.Potash had never handled a cartel case before, but knowing of his technical bent, his bosses at C-23 had invited him to sit in on the interview with the tantalizing tipster. He left the conversation convinced there was something there and did not get much resistance from the squad when he stepped forward to investigate it further. Many of the unit’s top agents didn’t want the job, which, by the looks of it, was going to require studying encryption and reading up on arcane subjects like Voice over Internet Protocol. It was, to say the least, not the typical drug cop stuff of busting bad guys or grabbing kilos off the street. When you got down to it, it was more or less nerd work. But that was Potash’s lane.Joining him in his new assignment was his partner, Stephen Marston. Marston was eight times as experienced as Potash and nearly twice as tall. An agent cut from the classic mold—big, broad- shouldered, stolid, methodical—Marston, a New Yorker, had been at C-23 for much of the decade. In his own time in the unit, he had mostly focused on Colombians, among them the remnants of the cocaine cowboys from Medellín and Cali who had since the 1980s supplied cocaine to Mexican smugglers like Guzmán who worked along the border. While Marston didn’t know much about technology—his computer degree from 1993 was obsolete—he did know quite a bit about investigating drug cartels. And something in the tipster’s report had caught his eye.Under questioning, the tipster had explained that shortly before the young technician Christian had gone to work for Guzmán, he had built a beta version of his system for another trafficking group, the Cifuentes family, one of Colombia’s stealthiest and most successful smuggling organizations. Known as the “invisible clan” for their ability to work beneath the radar, the Cifuenteses were, like Christian, based in Medellín. The family had a long and tangled history with Guzmán and had for years been shipping him their product in everything from King Commander turboprops to long-range shark and tuna boats. Marston knew that the tipster’s story might have had a few implausible details, but he recognized its basic inner logic. If some of the Cifuenteses had acquired a new technology, it would certainly be reasonable to think that they had passed it on, through the man who had developed it, to their longtime friend and ally.Meticulous as always, Marston was not about to raise an alarm—or his boss’s expectations—without first thoroughly confirming the account. In the FBI, if you were smart, you always promised less than you delivered. As he and Potash started on the case, Marston decided that he needed proof of concept: some hard evidence that the secret system was more than just a pipe dream.What he really needed, when he thought about it further, was one of the damned phones.They started with their colleagues in Colombia.After squeezing the tipster for all that he was worth, Marston and Potash decided to run his story past the experts on the ground: the FBI’s legal attaché team and their DEA equivalents in Bogotá. They arranged a call with the embassy and to their surprise, when they mentioned Christian’s name, everyone seemed to know who they were talking about. A young technician—Christian Rodriguez, they were told—ran a small business in Medellín repairing computers and setting up communications networks. Rodriguez was also known to dabble from time to time in the city’s black-hat hacking scene. Though there wasn’t much in the way of solid proof, the agents in Bogotá were confident it had to be their man.Signing off, Marston and Potash dwelled on their discovery: The young kid that Chapo Guzmán had brought in as his infotech consultant appeared to have a day job as Medellín’s Geek Squad guy.*The murder of Cardinal Ocampo, on May 24, 1993, was a seminal moment in Mexico, awakening the public to the rising power and violence of the country’s drug mafias. It was also a seminal moment for Guzmán. He has always denied involvement in the killing; indeed, the evidence suggests that he may have been its target, not its perpetrator. Ocampo was likely killed in accidental crossfire when hit men from the Tijuana cartel tried to murder Guzmán. Guzmán never forgot that the cartel’s leaders, the Arellano-Félix brothers, attempted to assassinate him or that they let him take the blame for Ocampo’s death. The rancor spawned a bloody war between Guzmán and the brothers that raged intermittently from the early 1990s well into the first decade of the 2000s.EXCERPTED FROM EL JEFE: THE STALKING OF CHAPO GUZMÁN. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY ALAN FEUER. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.Read more at The Daily Beast.Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. 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