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BROOKLYN — It only took five weeks, but jurors in the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán finally got hear the infamous drug lord speak. Chapo's voice filled the courtroom Thursday as prosecutors played a taped phone call between the alleged Sinaloa cartel leader and members of the FARC guerrilla group. The two sides could be heard negotiating a six-ton cocaine deal.
The exchange was damning. A voice with Chapo’s nasally Sinaloan accent could be heard haggling over the price of cocaine, successfully talking the guerrillas down from $2,100 to $2,000 per kilo, and making arrangements to have the product shipped to a warehouse in Guayaquil, Ecuador, allegedly with the help of corrupt officers in the Ecuadorian army.
It’s still unclear exactly how U.S. authorities obtained the recording, but witness Jorge Cifuentes seemed to have a pretty good idea. He blamed the cartel’s IT guy.
Cifuentes, the patriarch of a prolific Colombian drug family, is one of several cooperating witnesses called by the government to testify against Chapo in exchange for a reduced sentence. The 52-year-old Cifuentes regaled the jury with stories about smoking weed with Chapo, gifting his business associate a million-dollar helicopter to celebrate the anniversary of his escape from prison, and his failed attempt to assassinate an imprisoned cartel associate with cyanide-laced arepas.
After days of testimony from Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, the cartoonishly evil Colombian cartel leader known as Chupeta, Cifuentes seemed downright likable. Diminutive and balding, Cifuentes had the demeanor of a middle-aged accountant as he peered over his eyeglasses and explained the mundane inner-workings of his organization, which supplied Chapo with thousands of kilos of cocaine in the early 2000s.
Tech support was among the many services that Cifuentes said he offered to Chapo. He testified that he sent a Colombian systems engineer named Cristián to set up an encrypted network for the cartel in the rugged mountains of Sinaloa. Cifuentes said Cristián hooked Chapo up with wireless internet and a custom network that offered "secure communications.”
Cifuentes appeared to be vigilant about digital security. Prosecutors showed the jury his detailed accounting records, which included items like "cellular inhibitors" and "microphone searchers" among his expenses. "You turn it on during a meeting and there's no way anyone can tape it or send out anything," Cifuentes said, describing one of the devices.
Being the Sinaloa cartel’s tech guru was not an easy job. Prosecutors played the jury excerpts of a taped phone call where Cristián complains about being scolded for the encrypted network being down. Another member of the Cifuentes clan, Jorge’s younger brother Alex, was living with Chapo in the mountains and apparently laying into Cristián about the service outage.
“Don Jorge, your… your… your brother is very upset with me because he says that it’s my fault that there’s no communication,” Cristián said, according to a transcript of the call.
“Oh, it’s true,” Cifuentes replied.
“No, but it’s not true,” Cristián said.
The elder Cifuentes wasn’t having it. “Yes, yes, it’s true,” he told his employee.
He explained to the jury that he was upset with Cristián “because he was in charge of the system always working."
The irony was that authorities were only able to obtain the call because the men were forced to use conventional cellphones while their secure network was down. Cifuentes called Cristián "an irresponsible person," and said the engineer screwed up by forgetting to renew the license on the software they had purchased.
While the cartel was experiencing technical difficulties, law enforcement was watching — and listening. Prosecutors showed the jury photos and other evidence that indicated members of Cifuentes and Chapo’s organization in Ecuador were under surveillance.
Cifuentes described how Chapo had brokered his complicated deal with the FARC guerrillas for six tons of cocaine. As part of the arrangement, Chapo would pay cash for two tons and the rest would be supplied on credit, with a property that Cifuentes owned in Colombia offered as collateral. Chapo made arrangements to send a "technician" to check the quality of the cocaine, and agreed to make a down payment so the deal could proceed.
Cifuentes testified that he was eager to see the deal succeed because the cartel’s last two multi-ton cocaine shipments had been seized by authorities, and he was worried Chapo would respond to another loss by killing his younger brother Alex.
Cifuentes said the deal with the FARC ultimately fell apart because the guerrillas never claimed the property he was offering as collateral, though Cifuentes said it’s possible Chapo received the two tons he was buying with cash. The younger Cifuentes survived his stay with Chapo, and he’s expected to be called later in the trial to testify against Chapo.
Cover image: A photo of Alex Cifuentes with El Chapo and an unidentified woman via U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.