El Chapo trial: An epic narco drama unfolds in a New York courtroom

In the epic narco drama unfolding in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, the defendant, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzm...

Posted: Jan 11, 2019 8:36 PM
Updated: Jan 11, 2019 8:36 PM

In the epic narco drama unfolding in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn, the defendant, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, delivered the usual wave and smile to his former beauty queen wife near the end of a devastating week.

On the stand, a pudgy, baby-faced computer geek from Colombia would soon describe an East German Stasi-like plan to infiltrate every single internet cafe in the capital of Guzman's home state in Mexico.

Joaquin Guzman

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Riveting accounts of Guzman's paranoia and obsession with the electronic monitoring of his wife, mistresses and associates captivated courtroom regulars this week, including so-called narco-tourists drawn to the Latin American soap-opera atmosphere of the proceedings.

At least one of the 18 jurors and alternates, though, nodded off now and then.

Emma Coronel, Guzman's wife, sat in the second row on the defense side of the vast courtroom. She checked her shiny black hair for split ends and occasionally smiled at her husband as the witness recounted stunning lapses that eventually led to the drug boss' downfall.

On the stand Thursday was an information technology specialist named Christian Rodriguez, a cooperating witness dressed in a metallic gray suit and dark tie. The 32-year-old college dropout from Colombia ran a cybersecurity startup that catered to drug cartels looking for more secure communications.

Over two days, Rodriguez avoided eye contact with Guzman, who wore a blue suit Thursday and sat at the end of the defense table. Rodriguez testified that he was barely 21 when he took an IT dream job that wound up leading to a number of nervous breakdowns and a spot in witness protection.

On the other side of the packed courtroom sat two couples who'd arrived in the predawn hours to witness the long-awaited trial of the man alleged to be the world's biggest drug trafficker. They endured multiple security checkpoints. Before 7 a.m., they stood on a long queue outside the heavy-guarded courtroom for a chance at limited seating.

"We got the last two seats," said a smiling Rosa Alvarez, 50, who dragged her husband to court from New Jersey on his day off from a chemical plant.

"El Chapo is fascinating. This is a telenovela," she said, evoking the schmaltzy dramas that dominate Spanish-language prime-time TV.

'We'll tell our grandchildren about this'

For nearly two months, the rise and fall of the near mythical Mexican drug lord who rose from humble origins to allegedly pocket nearly $14 billion as head of the deadly Sinaloa cartel has been on display, Monday through Thursday, in the eighth-floor courtroom of US District Judge Brian Cogan.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime trial," Alvarez said.

"We'll tell our grandchildren about this someday," said her husband Raul, who is 51.

On the stand, Rodriguez recounted how FBI agents confronted him in 2011 and persuaded him to flip on his biggest client. He handed over electronic keys and other data that revealed the kingpin's most intimate secrets. It was a betrayal almost biblical in scale.

"They said they knew I worked for El Chapo and I was in serious trouble," Rodriguez said of the agents.

Rodriguez described Guzman as a man with an insatiable appetite for electronic spying.

A glitch in the scheme to hack every internet cafe in the northwestern Mexican city of Culiacan led to a 2009 meeting between Rodriguez and cartel members at one of Guzman's mountain hideaways in Sinaloa state, according to the techie's testimony.

Protected by more than a dozen heavily-armed guards, including one with "a very large weapon" capable of downing a helicopter, the clandestine meeting was cut short by reports of an advancing convoy of Mexican troops.

Rodriguez recounted how the next three days were spent hiking through the mountains with Guzman and his entourage. They crashed in small houses before making their way back to Culiacan.

"How were you feeling?" federal prosecutor Andrea Goldbarg asked Rodriguez.

"I was very frightened," he said.

What about Guzman?

"He was always very calm, very sure, very tranquil," Rodriguez answered Goldbarg.

Rodriguez said he quickly returned to Colombia and never met with Guzman again. He sought to "put distance" between himself and Guzman before turning on the cartel boss, he said.

After opening Guzman's encrypted phones and spyware to the FBI, Rodriguez fled to the United States, he testified. He'd heard that associates of Guzman knew of his cooperation. He said he suffered a breakdown and required electroshock therapy to treat his stress and trauma.

Rodriguez, who told the jury he's on medication and going to therapy, avoided looking over at Guzman on Thursday when his testimony ended. Several federal agents in plainclothes trailed him out of the courtroom.

Rosa and Raul Alvarez stayed until the end of the day. They practically rubbed elbows with Guzman's wife as they left court.

The couple vowed to come back.

"It's like a narco movie," Rosa Alvarez said, "in real life."

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