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Crime world How FBI used IT whiz kid to bring drug boss 'El Chapo' Guzman to justice

The FBI field office in Manhattan got a walk-in tip one day in 2009 when a guy literally strolled in the front door saying he had info on El Chapo

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Joaquin Guzman Loera aka "El Chapo" Guzman (C) escorted in Ciudad Juarez by the Mexican police as he is extradited to the United States

Joaquin Guzman Loera aka "El Chapo" Guzman (C) escorted in Ciudad Juarez by the Mexican police as he is extradited to the United States

Joaquin Guzman Loera aka "El Chapo" Guzman (C) escorted in Ciudad Juarez by the Mexican police as he is extradited to the United States

A 21-year-old IT expert who created a personal communications network for Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin Guzman Loera, otherwise known as El Chapo, was central in the wiretap investigation which eventually led to his arrest.

The young ambitious tech expert from Colombia developed one of the first encrypted and secretive telecoms system used by a criminal gang back in 2009, when he was paid €100,000 by El Chapo to get him up and running on phones which he believed couldn’t be wiretapped.

At the time, El Chapo was on the run and hiding out in the Sierra Madre mountains in his native Mexico, where he was running the world’s richest and most dangerous drug cartels and directing bloody wars against his rivals.

In an interview for this week’s Crime World podcast, New York Times journalist Alan Feuer goes behind the scenes of the massive wiretap investigations run by the FBI, DEA and Homeland Security that brought the drug lord down and details how the ‘Patron’ was unwittingly stalked as he moved around the country.

Feur said it all started from a tip-off that could have easily been ignored as a piece of fantastical gossip about a telecoms system which had never been heard of before, one similar to encrypted networks that are now used by nearly all criminal gangs in the course of their illegal activities.

“The FBI field office in Manhattan got a walk-in tip one day in 2009 when a guy literally strolled in the front door and went up to one of the officers in the lobby, saying he had info on El Chapo who was then the world’s biggest drug dealer.

“People walk into the FBI office all the time saying all kinds of crazy things, but for whatever reason this tipster was credible enough that the cop in the lobby called up to the international drug squad there and they heard the guy out.

"He told the officers that he had first-hand knowledge that Guzman had hired a savvy young IT guy from Colombia who had built the Cartel chief incredibly sophisticated, custom-made, encrypted cell phone system.

“Obviously that is extremely tantalising information and at that time nobody could quite believe it,” says Feur.

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Mugshot of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka "el Chapo Guzman"

Mugshot of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka "el Chapo Guzman"

Mugshot of Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka "el Chapo Guzman"

“While it seemed like a great story, they couldn’t believe that it could be true – as the idea of a personal encrypted cell phone network was so far-fetched back then.

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"Today we hear of it and we say of ‘course they use it’ but in 2009 that was something very different and high-tech and outside the norm,” says Feuer.

“There was a young rookie agent there, Bob Potach, with a background in tech who had worked in the private sector for a long time, he decided to run it down because nobody else wanted it.

“His partner was a more seasoned cartel drug investigator and together they started to get hints that his mystical young IT guy and his secret cell phone system were, in fact, real. And that was the beginning of the incredible surveillance of Guzman.”

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 U.S authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a plane at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y

U.S authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a plane at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y

U.S authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a plane at Long Island MacArthur Airport, in Ronkonkoma, N.Y

During his interview on Crime World, Feuer will detail how the IT whizz, Christian Rodriguez, was identified and eventually lured into the clutches of the FBI, who managed use him against Guzman.

He describes how Rodriguez helped move Guzman’s servers out of Canada and into The Netherlands, where wiretap warrants could be acquired and where secret codes were buried into them to allow law enforcement get access to El Chapo’s world.

“One of the special things he had done for Guzman was install a kind of direct dial or speed dial system on the phones so they were all connected.

" His wife, mistresses and his drug dealers and killers were all on the system, which was firewalled at various points to prevent any unwelcome guests.

“Guzman was always, over the course of his career, obsessed with secret communications and he had always had the best of what was available in the world.

"He was paranoid too, and at one point he decided he wanted to spy on everyone around him. He ultimately ended up wiretapping himself.”

Feuer, who has authored a book titled El Jefe – The Stalking of Chapo Guzman, says that the drugs boss was in the mountains of Sinaloa at the time in an area that was impenetrable. He had been living as a fugitive since 2001, when he had escaped jail in a laundry cart while serving time for the 1983 murder of Catholic Cardinal Juan Ocampo.

Operation Sewer Jack was launched by the FBI who had begun to get reams of information off their wiretap from Dutch authorities, including email intercepts.

In February 2012, Guzman came out of the mountains for a holiday in the Mexican resort of Cabo San Lucas. The FBI launched the first major sting operation connected to the wiretaps on him when Mexican marines stormed a villa the phones had pinned him to.

However, the troops had started their search in the wrong villa, giving Guzman just enough time to escape past the swimming pool at the back of his luxury home and into the sea where he was picked up and brought to safety.

As he went to war with rival Mexican drug Cartel Los Zetas for the Neuvo Laredo corridor, the wiretap investigation continued with the help of Rodriguez, who hadn’t initially been regarded as a ‘rat’ in the camp.

A number of call centres where Guzman’s communications were being scrambled were raided until eventually Rodriguez had to be pulled from the field to safety in the US when he was identified as a tout.

At the same time, the hunt for El Chapo was intensifying as he was listed by Forbes as a billionaire and allegations emerged that he was bribing people at the highest levels of Mexican public office.

Following the failed arrest, DEA officer Ray Donovan took over and decided to merge all the different wiretaps on El Chapo’s systems, including one underway in LA called Operation Crackberry.

He combined human intelligence and the wiretaps to paint the first full picture of the Sinaloa cartel and how it was operating.

At the heart of it was the Blackberry communications system that was keeping everyone in touch at that time.

In November 2013, a plan to arrest Guzman faltered when he was tipped off that he was to be targeted while holidaying in a duck-hunting club, and later he escaped again when his bodyguard was traced to a safe house in Culiacan, in Mexico’s north-west.

He was eventually arrested when the phones led officers to the Hotel Miramar in Matazlan, a city in Sinaloa, but within 18 months he had escaped prison again, this time disappearing down a hole in the shower from his cell at Altiplano Prison.

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Authorities inspect the exit of the tunnel they claim was used by drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to break out of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City

Authorities inspect the exit of the tunnel they claim was used by drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to break out of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City

Authorities inspect the exit of the tunnel they claim was used by drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to break out of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City

The phones again led officers to El Chapo when he began to hide out in his birthplace of La Tuna but he managed to escape again and go to ground when the troops moved in.

The wiretaps gave forces another chance when he holidayed in Los Michos, northern Mexico, with a lover and was woken as officers were storming the building only to escape through a tunnel built under a bath.

Finally, his luck ran out when he was traced to another safehouse and fled, but was caught by cops as he emerged from a manhole cover near a Walmart.

Taking no chances, the US authorities extradited him to New York where he was eventually put on trial in a Brooklyn courtoom.

He is now held in the most secure prison in the US in Colorado where he is hoping to appeal his life sentence.

During the interview Feuer describes his experience of covering the Chapo Guzman trial and the day when his glamorous beauty queen wife showed the courtroom just what she was made of.

Crime Word Podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Soundcloud.

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