The Kid Who Masterminded El Chapo’s Secret Phone Network

Latin America World

 Chivis Martinez Borderland Beat  TY RB–Source

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

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.

In 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

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.

“It stood to reason that a man in
Guzmán’s position would at least want a means of sending and receiving secret

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.

“Marston knew that the tipster’s
story might have had a few implausible details, but he recognized its basic
inner logic.”

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

*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.

STALKING OF CHAPO GUZMÁN. COPYRIGHT © 2020 BY ALAN FEUER.  Use this link to purchase