How the FBI used El Chapo's lust and sexual paranoia to bring him down

Harriet Alexander
El Chapo's Los Angeles-born wife, former beauty queen Emma Coronel, attending her husband's high profile trial in New York - AFP

The chubby Colombian computer geek would not strike you as someone to challenge a cartel. His eyes shifting nervously, evidently uncomfortable, the baby-faced technician was ill at ease in the New York courtroom last week.  

Yet Christian Rodriguez played perhaps the most important role in bringing down the all-powerful head of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The security that surrounded him gave testimony to that.

And as he told his story to an enrapt courtroom – “narcotourists” in the public seating, hanging off his every word – a picture emerged of a sophisticated and complex $14 billion web of criminality, and of a man who was, ultimately, brought down by his own lust and jealousy.

Seven women including a local politician were named in court as Guzman’s mistresses – details which his Los Angeles-born wife, former beauty queen Emma Coronel, 29, listened to impassively, occasionally inspecting her raven-black mane for split ends.

Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman smiles at his wife, in a white trouser suit, in court in New York. At least seven mistresses have been named so far in his trial

The story of the unlikely hero began a decade ago.

Guzman and Rodriguez first crossed paths in 2009, when Guzman’s attempt to hack into every cyber café in his Culiacan, capital of his home state of Sinaloa, failed. He called on Rodriguez, a 21-year-old high school dropout with a knack for tech, to assist. Rodriguez had assisted a Colombian trafficker, and was recommended to Guzman. He was taken to one of Guzman’s mountain hideouts to meet him, and a deal was made - after three days on the run from the army in the jungle.

From then on, Rodriguez was paid $100,000 a year to work, from Colombia, for the world’s most powerful drug lord – and deal with his increasingly paranoid demands.

First he set up an encrypted network, which allowed as many as 100 members of the Sinaloa drug cartel to speak in confidence with each other merely by dialling three-digit extensions on their phones. The system was secure – it was not broken until Rodriguez cooperated – as the communications never went outside the secure servers.

Guzman wanted to install technology in the laptops he gave to his associates so that he could eavesdrop on their conversations, to see if they were loyal. He gave his wife a Blackberry – considered more secure than iPhones – and then installed Flexi-Spy software so he could record her conversations. He did the same with his two mistresses, both bearing strong similarities to Miss Coronel – a Kim Kardashian lookalike, present most days in court.

'Chapo' Guzman, arriving in the US on January 19, 2017

By 2010 the FBI had found Rodriguez.

In February of that year, an FBI agent testified on Tuesday, an undercover officer posing as a Russian mobster met Rodriguez in a Manhattan hotel. The officer said he wanted the IT expert to devise a way for him to speak with his associates without law enforcement listening in.

A year later, the FBI openly approached him in Bogota.

"They said they knew I worked for El Chapo and I was in serious trouble," he said, explaining why he agreed instantly to hand over access to Guzman’s communications.

If the FBI were on the hunt for the Holy Grail, they had just found it.

The texts are astonishing, with Guzman moving seamlessly from cooing over his and Miss Coronel’s twin daughters, Emali and Maria Joaquina (Kiki), born in August 2011, to discussing price per kilo of drugs and liaising about impending police raids on their properties.

“Our Kiki is fearless,” Miss Coronel writes, in January 2012. “I’m going to give her an AK-47 so she can hang with me.”

Guzman waves to his wife as he is brought into court

On another day they discuss plans to build a four-bedroom house, with a “spacious” master bedroom with high ceilings. Guzman tells her to put the deeds in the name of their daughters, and warns her that the architect must use a Blackberry for their discussions, for security.

“Don’t mention the house at all, otherwise they will find out where he is building it,” Guzman warns, aware that conversations can easily be intercepted.

The scale of Guzman’s infiltration of the police and government is also laid bare.

On January 24, 2012, he tells her: “Love, whenever you guys see suspicious-looking cars let me know right away so I can get them checked out, love.”

She says that the security team saw some strange vehicles, but “they were told they were from the government”.

He replies: “I am told that they are following you, darling. You just go ahead and lead a normal life, that’s it. They just want to see if you are coming to where I am.”

A week or so later, she says that she’s been told her home will soon be raided.

“Let me check and see what’s going on,” he replied. “Do you have a gun?”

She replies that she has one he gave her.

Shortly after, he responds: “They are doing a thorough check for me.”

She remarks: “I hope it won’t be today. I have a headache.”

Emma Coronel, wife of Guzman and mother of their seven-year-old twin daughters

The trafficking is a family affair. At one point she hands over the phone to her father, a lieutenant in the cartel, and the two men discuss arranging flights and shipments – Guzman’s father-in-law grovelling to the man he repeatedly refers to as “senor”, sir.

“Make sure you delete everything every time we’re done chatting,” he reminds her, when she takes the phone back.

Miss Coronel's father and two of her brothers have since been arrested.

On Feb 22, 2012, he informs her that his luxury gated hideout in the resort of Los Cabos was raided, explaining he “had to rush out at 3pm” and ended up “a bit scratched up but fine”.

He asks her to bring him some clothes – “sweats, underwear, five shirts, shampoo, aftershave lotion” and “black moustache dye”.

He explains: “I saw them pounding on the door next door, and I was able to jump out,” he said, adding that the raid was “not specific” and they searched various districts.

“How dangerous, darling,” she remarks. “So good that you were able to get out. So good that God always keeps you in his care.”

All the while, he was on another phone discussing liposuction with one of his mistresses, Agustina Cabanillas Acosta, and declaring his love for her. A second mistress, Lucero Sanchez Lopez, is also named by the FBI.

Agustina Cabanillas Acosta, one of Guzman's many mistresses, many of whom look remarkably similar

Cabanillas is as duplicitous as her lover, telling a friend named as Jeobana that she caught him spying on her.

“Guess what? I’m smarter than him,” she crows.

She adds: “I don’t trust these Blackberrys, the ones he gives me over here, because the bastard can locate them.” At one point, she remarks: “I’m going to play along and see what else the idiot tells me.”

The pair exchanged declarations of devotion, interchanged with talk about business – buying houses with large garages, shipments to Detroit, the price of kilos of drugs, and arranging flights between Belize, Ecuador and Venezuela.

“No passport, love,” he tells her on Jan 23, as they discuss logistics. “It’s a black flight.”

On Jan 26, 2012, she says: “The Greek asked me the exact place in Honduras where you want the factory.”

He replies: “Love, the exports will be to Europe, Canada, Australia but also to the United States.”

The companies will be disguised – “citrus in Ecuador and chemicals in Germany” he says.

He then asked her to ask a man if he was prepared to purchase a fishing boat and wait 200 miles off the coast of San Diego, “to receive”.

“Marijuana or cocaine?” she asks.

“Cocaine,” he replies – the only mention of drugs, beside “grass”, in the messages.

The then-26-year-old is a shrewd businesswoman. Guero, an associate, consults her on the price, and she replies brusquely: “Don’t think about it, do it.”

On Jan 22 Guzman asks her: “How are the sales going, love?”

She replies: “Like busy bees, non-stop, love.”

Chapo Guzman, captured in Sinaloa in January 2016

Rodriguez told the court that in 2012 he intercepted a call, saying that “Chapo’s IT guy” was “working for the Americans”.

He knew he had to leave immediately, fleeing Colombia and seeking protection in the US. He told the court how he suffered panic attacks, requiring electroconvulsion therapy, and still needed medication. He told the court he still sees a psychiatrist.

Guzman was arrested, for the third time, in January 2016 and extradited to the US a year later - the day before Donald Trump was inaugurated.

His trial began in New York in November, and is expected to run until March.

The court has heard electrifying testimony from around a dozen cartel hitmen and operatives, who detailed, for the prosecution the extent and brutality of Guzman’s global network.

One of the cartel’s employees testified, early in the trial, how Guzman made so much money he had to fly it into the US, in cash, by private jet.

A press conference detailing an escape from prison by Guzman, in 2015

“When I met Mr Guzman, he didn’t have a jet,” said Miguel Angel Martinez. “But in the ‘90s, he already had four jets. He had houses at every single beach. He had a ranch in every single state.”

Martinez had the jury spellbound with his tales of excess – including how he and his boss once went to visit Juan Jose Esparragoza, a trafficker who was serving time in prison. When the two men arrived, they discovered their colleague at a party in the prison, surrounded by waiters, cooks and a mariachi band. Dinner was being served and the guests had a menu to choose from: lobster, steak or pheasant.

Even the veteran Mexican court reporters could not hide their amazement.

Another prosecution witness, the son of one of the cartel’s main leaders Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains on the run, testified in astonishing detail how his father’s bribery budget was often as much as $1 million a month. An Army general who worked as an official in the Mexican defence department earned a monthly stipend of $50,000 from the cartel, Vicente Zambada recalled. He also said that his father routinely bribed a military officer who once served as a personal guard to Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox.

If found guilty Guzman faces life in prison, but his lawyers have set out to downplay his importance, depicting him as a simple footsoldier in a much bigger battle between powerful forces, with even the previous two presidents implicated. They have vehemently denied the accusations, saying that the caught cartel members will say anything to reduce their sentences.

Guzman's wife has backed up his case, telling Latino news station Telemundo in December that he was a “humble” man who wants “everyone to realise how things really are and see it all from another perspective”.

“We have a business,” she said. Their company specialised in agricultural irrigation, she explained.

“But I cannot talk about that," she said. "Because everything in my life makes for scandal.”