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Spy vs. Spy, El Chapo Edition

Joaquín Guzmán Loera loved spyware—and it ultimately did him in.

Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press on February 22, 2014, in Mexico City. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press on February 22, 2014, in Mexico City. (Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images)

El Chapo was obsessed with spying on his lovers.

With the help of his IT specialist, the Mexican drug lord would supply them with what he called his “special phones”—devices that had been infected with the commercial spyware Flexispy. With that program installed, the phones became surveillance tools for the narcotrafficker born Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

For weeks, jurors in a federal courtroom in Brooklyn have heard evidence against Guzmán, who has been charged with running a global, multibillion-dollar drug empire as the head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

In recent days the trial has taken a turn toward techno-thriller as the prosecution brought Guzmán’s former IT specialist to the stand, where he detailed how he set up an encrypted telephone system for El Chapo, supplied him with commercial spyware to spy on lovers and lieutenants, and then turned the whole system against him.

For longtime observers of technology and espionage, the Chapo trial has turned into a parable of our times.

“The fundamental lesson is that technology makes accessing this information easier and cheaper. It’s just too easy to get ahold of this stuff,” said Stewart Baker, a former general counsel at the National Security Agency. “We are going to see people get access to private information more easily.”

Guzmán also delighted in infecting his underlings’ phones with spyware. He would call up his lieutenants and hang up, then activate the microphones of an infected device to hear what his subordinates had to say when their boss wasn’t in the room, according to courtroom testimony.

Guzmán’s IT specialist, Christian Rodríguez, says he first supplied his boss with 10 devices infected with Flexispy, and then another 40, providing him with a powerful tool to monitor his employees and lovers. The software was installed on phones belonging to his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, and at least two girlfriends.

In 2010, the FBI approached Rodríguez and flipped him, which allowed the bureau to infiltrate El Chapo’s communications network. Rodríguez installed monitoring software on the encrypted phone system and provided federal agents with usernames and passwords for Chapo’s Flexispy accounts.

In testimony this week, prosecutors have presented a series of highly incriminating, embarrassing conversations. The material presented in court includes details of drug transactions and conversations about shootouts. With El Chapo’s wife in the audience, prosecutors read aloud from his text-message conversations with his lovers.

“You are the most important person to me, I love you,” Chapo wrote to one of his girlfriends, for whom an FBI agent claimed El Chapo had arranged liposuction.

Flexispy is marketed by a Thai company and has been widely abused by jealous spouses to track their partners, as Vice reported in 2017.

But Guzmán’s “special phones” represent just one half of the tech story unfolding in Brooklyn. With his trial generating international headlines, the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group has gotten in on the action with a well-timed marketing ploy, telling the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman that its Pegasus software was used by Mexican authorities to track down Guzmán.

That software is best known for its role in intercepting the communications of human rights activists around the globe, including in Mexico, where it has been deployed against journalists reporting on the drug trade and cartel violence, among other. Pegasus has been detected in some 45 countries, and it most recently gained attention for its use against Saudi activists critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But the Israeli company is now cashing in on a rare bit of good PR, in an attempt to shift the conversation around its flagship product to its usefulness in fighting crime. The company argues that its technology is a key tool to combat crime, though human rights activists argue that the company has insufficient controls in place to ensure that it is not also used against members of civil society.

The use of NSO’s technology in capturing El Chapo has featured in the company’s marketing materials since at least 2017, but now it is making its executives available for interviews to an influential Israeli journalist in what appears to be a carefully calculated public relations maneuver.

So far, no material has emerged in the trial to corroborate that account, so NSO’s claims should be taken with a grain of salt.

But if they “really were valuable in catching El Chapo, you shouldn’t begrudge them a victory lap,” Baker, the former NSA attorney, said.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy@EliasGroll

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