El Chapo used BlackBerry to spy on wife and friends, trial told
|Toronto Star 11 Jan 2019 at 10:34|
Drug trafficking kingpin Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman enjoyed a feature of Canadian-made BlackBerry cellphones that allowed him to secretly keep tabs on his wife, mistresses and business associates, according to evidence at an ongoing trial in Brooklyn.
That was some of the testimony this week from Christian Rodriguez, 34, Guzman’s Colombian in-house internet guru, who is now a co-operating witness at the trial.
Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, arrives at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Guzman is on trial for allegedly smuggling more than 155 tons of cocaine into the United States over a period of 25 years. (JOHANNES EISELE / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
Guzman, 61, has pleaded not guilty to charges of smuggling more than 155 tonnes of cocaine into the U.S. over 25 years, as well as conspiracy to murder rivals. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors said an intercepted message showed Guzman advising cartel associates to use “just black” for communications, referring to BlackBerry phones and their reputation for security.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was able to monitor more than 800 calls on the BlackBerry encrypted system used by Guzman’s organization, court heard.
Rodriguez said Guzman wanted his own communications network to send encrypted communication via cellphones.
‘El Chapo’ gets emotional when daughters show up at his trial
“He didn’t like to write on the computer,” Rodriguez testified. “He preferred to talk.”
Rodriguez testified that Guzman later had him install software that allowed him to spy on roughly 100 members of Guzman s organization and family.
That included giving him access to their call histories and locations. In some cases, Rodriguez said, he doctored cellphones so Guzman could activate microphones and eavesdrop on his associates.
Rodriguez told jurors this week that Guzman kept upgrading spying applications so that he could keep tabs on associates, family and lovers.
“It was like his toy,” Rodriguez testified through a Spanish-language interpreter.
Rodriguez also testified that he installed four servers in Canada to allow Guzman to run his billion-dollar empire through encrypted messages.
Once he began secretly working for the FBI, Rodriguez tricked Guzman into moving the internet servers out of Canada and into the Netherlands on the guise of a routine security upgrade, court heard.
The Volkskrant newspaper in the Netherlands reported this week that the servers were moved out of Canada and into the Netherlands in 2010 in order to give the FBI a better opportunity to obtain wiretap authorizations.
Dutch privacy laws were not as strict as those in the United States or Canada, the newspaper reported.
The Volkskrant reported that sources said another reason the U.S. was not an option was because the “operation might be noticed.”
“Because the U.S. and the Netherlands work closely together and the Netherlands is relaxed about requests for tapping, the FBI placed the server in a data centre operated by Leaseweb, just outside Haarlem,” the Volkskrant reported.
Even after the Dutch wiretapping began, authorities in the Netherlands didn’t know that Guzman was their target until 2013. The operation lasted for 18 months, the newspaper reported.
The Dutch newspaper’s sources say the Netherlands and American authorities continue to work closely together in crime investigations.
Rodríguez specialized in cybersecurity while studying electronics engineering at a college in Colombia but dropped out before completing his diploma.
The Star has examined some of the evidence from the ongoing case online.
One secretly recorded message introduced by FBI Special Agent Stephen Marston was from 2012, when Guzman spoke proudly of one of his then-six-month-old twin daughters and how she might one day use an automatic rifle.
“Our Kiki is fearless,” Guzman texted his wife, Emma Coronel Espino, according to the prosecution team. “I’m going to give her an AK47 so she can hang with me.”
Rodriguez testified he first worked for the Cifuentes family of cocaine smugglers in Colombia, installing a private server that allowed members of their organization to communicate via encrypted instant messages.
A member of the Colombian organization introduced him to Guzman, which involved flying to a remote camp with a private landing strip in the mountains near the city of Culiacán in Mexico.
The central role of communications in Guzman’s empire didn’t surprise a Toronto-based journalist who covered organized crime on the Mexican-U. S. border in the early 2000s, before he was forced to seek asylum in Canada over cartel death threats.
“In a global landscape, encrypted communications are vital for any criminal organization,” Luis Horacio Najera said in an interview.
“From social apps such as WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal to custom networks as the Sinaloa cartel established, modern drug cartels rely in those virtual channels of communications, which can be as elaborated as dedicated servers, or as simple as the use of PGP messaging such as BlackBerry Messenger.”
Najera said he also wasn’t surprised about the Canadian role in Guzman’s communications network.
“Canada plays a significant role in transnational organized crime because of its location next to the United States, English language, and access to Asian and European markets,” Najera said. “Also, it is a hub that facilitates peaceful interactions and business between diverse groups that operate across the world.
“In particular ports such as Montreal and Vancouver, or a major region such as the GTA, are places where meetings and agreements are made between the Italian or Russian Mafia, Mexican drug cartels or Asian gangs.”