“El Chapo, the Sinaloa Cartel & Intelligence” – with Trial Reporter Noah Hurowitz
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week, we look at the infamous drug lord and gangster El Chapo Guzman. He attempted to consolidate much of Mexico's narco trafficking under the auspices of the Sinaloa cartel. This week's guest, Noah Hurowitz, is a journalist who covered the trial of El Chapo in New York City for Rolling Stone magazine. His work has also appeared in The Village Voice, The Baffler and New York Magazine. He is the author of the recent book "El Chapo."
Andrew Hammond: In this episode, we discuss all things El Chapo and intelligence, including El Chapo's rise from a provincial, low-level drug dealer to a kingpin attempting to subvert the Mexican state, including its security agencies, to his will, technology in the drug war, including the use of cryptography, spyware and drones, the role of the DFS, a highly corrupt intelligence and security agency, in the Mexican drug war and the role that the DEA and the CIA played in the Mexican drug war, including the murder of DEA agent Kiki Camarena, an important waystation in the current and ongoing war on drugs.
Andrew Hammond: I just wondered if we could just frame or - just tell us what it was like to be there at the El Chapo trial. So some of us saw on TV. What was it like to be there, and what kind of information came out that would be of particular interest to our listeners - so intelligence agencies, spy tech, those sorts of things?
Noah Hurowitz: So to try to describe what it was like to cover the trial - it was insanity. You know, it was - from the moment that it started, it was a bizarre spectacle, circus. There was intense security. The trial - for those who don't know, El Chapo was on trial in Brooklyn Federal Court from November 2018 to February 2019. It was the culmination of many, many years of building a case against him, waiting for him to be captured, waiting for him to be recaptured and then waiting for him to be extradited. So this was years in the making, and it was really, really hectic. I think, you know, there were snipers on the roof. There was a National Guard unit down in the lobby with a Geiger counter in case anyone saw fit to, I guess, bring a dirty bomb or something.
Noah Hurowitz: And even just to get El Chapo to the courthouse - he was being held in the federal detention facility in Manhattan, but the trial was taking place in Brooklyn. And so every time that he would have to be moved, they would have to - they would shut down the Brooklyn Bridge completely to all traffic and bring him across in this convoy of several police cars, a transport vehicle and an ambulance, I guess, just in case. And so they had actually - they had rigged up sort of a - some kind of cell for him so that during the week, he would stay in the Brooklyn courthouse overnight and then be brought back to Manhattan for the weekend so that they wouldn't have to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge every single morning.
Noah Hurowitz: So, you know, my colleague covering it for The New York Times, Alan Feuer, I think, put it best. It felt like being on a spaceship, sort of in orbit. It was just this whole other world. And just for - you know, for three months, essentially, it felt - you know, I was living in Brooklyn. I was going to the courthouse every day, going home every night. But it felt almost like some kind of foreign posting. It was just - it was so immersive. And the trial itself was incredible because there were more than 40 witnesses providing testimony. Some of those were expert witnesses. Some of them were DEA agents, FBI agents. But the most interesting, of course, were the cooperating witnesses who were former associates or lackeys or henchmen or partners of El Chapo. And that included Garcia, aka El Rey, who is the brother of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, who is the partner of El Chapo, who is still at large in Mexico. It included the son of El Mayo, this guy Vincente Zambada Niebla, aka Vincentillo. These were extremely high-profile drug traffickers who had been arrested some time before and then had flipped and were cooperating against El Chapo and were providing just an incredible amount of insight into the inner workings of El Chapo's drug trafficking network.
Andrew Hammond: Are they in witness protection now?
Noah Hurowitz: We don't really know where they are, actually.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Noah Hurowitz: A lot of - so a lot of the people who provided testimony against El Chapo have since received significantly reduced sentences. There's a great deal of secrecy, and there was a great deal of secrecy throughout the trial about any number of, you know, aspects. There was this constant stopping and starting of the testimony, and then the lawyers would go up and argue with the judge about what could and couldn't be included. And sometimes that would be heavily redacted just because there were all of these sort of state secrets.
Noah Hurowitz: And there was also the - Judge Brian Cogan expressed a certain willingness to protect the U.S. government and the government of Mexico from allegations that he saw as sort of a sideshow to the actual trial. This issue of avoiding embarrassment to a diplomatic partner came up again and again because, obviously, a story about a high-profile drug trafficker in Mexico includes a significant amount of official corruption and collusion. And that - you know, that did come up a lot. But at a certain level, there was a lot of secrecy and a lot of attempts to, I think, shield the higher levels of the Mexican government from allegations of collusion with El Chapo.
Noah Hurowitz: Now, you asked about what would be of particular interest to listeners of this podcast. I think, hands down, the most astonishing part of the trial was the revelation of this young Colombian essentially IT guy named Christian Rodriguez. Now, Christian was - as far as we can tell, that's not his real name. That's a pseudonym. Christian was a young Colombian sort of hacker guy. You know, he was a college dropout, very plugged into sort of internet hacker circles in Colombia.
Noah Hurowitz: And he had been - essentially, he had started working for a Colombian family of cocaine producers called the Cifuentes-Villa family doing communications for them, essentially. You know, he set up a encrypted phone system for them, and they liked it so much that they were - their main partner in Mexico was El Chapo. And one of the brothers of that family, this guy named Alex Cifuentes, was in Mexico with El Chapo as sort of a half-hostage, half-lieutenant. If anything went wrong, the implication was they have him. But he did become sort of an active part of El Chapo's network.
Noah Hurowitz: So Christian, in, I believe, late 2008, early 2009, flew to Sinaloa and met with El Chapo and literally flew up into the mountains of Sinaloa and literally like, gave him like, a PowerPoint presentation of how encrypted communications work. And so nobody had ever heard of Christian before. Prior to that, there were a few instances that we knew of of El Chapo being on tape, and that was mostly thanks to these twin brothers from Chicago, the Flores twins, who were major wholesale drug traffickers who had worked closely with El Chapo and his network and had, in 2008, flipped and turned themselves in to the DEA because things were getting too hot in Mexico and they wanted a way out. And they had caught El Chapo and some other high-ranking drug traffickers on tape discussing drug shipments.
Noah Hurowitz: Now, we knew about that. That had come out. And until the trial, nobody knew of any other instance of El Chapo being caught on tape. And then, you know, along comes Christian Rodriguez with just this absolutely wild story of essentially an outsider, you know, not a real - he didn't grow up in the drug trade. He didn't have the same level of familiarity with it. And he, essentially an outsider, comes into this world and sees it through almost not quite civilian eyes but the next best thing. And he provided just this incredible glimpse into this world, and he also provided a tremendous amount of hard evidence against El Chapo and his allies.
Noah Hurowitz: Eventually, he handed over the keys to the encrypted messaging network to the FBI, and they were able to see everything. They were able to see messages. They were able to intercept phone calls, everything. And so it told us a lot about El Chapo's use of technology in his management of this global enterprise. And it also told us a lot about the effort by the FBI to infiltrate that. And I was fortunate enough or, you know, dogged enough, I guess, whichever way you want to look at it, to gain access to some high-level federal law enforcement agents who were familiar with that investigation when I was reporting the book. And so I was able to - over the course of three or four interviews of several hours at a time, I was able to really flesh out that story a lot more. And so even if people read along during the trial and heard about Christian Rodriguez and heard about the audio and the messages, I think that in the book, I was able to expand that story a lot.
Andrew Hammond: So just to be clear, Christian is a Colombian who's involved in hacker culture. And then he works for Colombian narco trafficante. And then eventually, he gets introduced to El Chapo. And he introduces El Chapo to the...
Noah Hurowitz: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: ...The information age way of doing things?
Noah Hurowitz: Exactly. Exactly. Well, so, I mean, El Chapo always did have an understanding of technology and a desire to work with the most advanced technology. And that's something that goes back many years to other drug traffickers in Mexico, you know? One thing that comes up again and again with the most high-profile, the most successful drug traffickers, whether it's Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in Guadalajara in the 80s or Amado Carrillo Fuentes in Juarez in the 90s, these guys had a really keen understanding of the fact that technology could be their friend. It could also be their enemy. I was recently reporting a story for insider.com about Amado Carrillo Fuentes. And one thing - you know, I was talking to a number of DEA agents who were investigating him in the 90s. And one thing that I heard come up again and again was they were always a little bit behind the technology, you know? They were always playing catch-up.
Noah Hurowitz: These guys really - they had the resources to invest in the latest technology. And they had a jump on the people investigating them because as long as their communications technology and strategy stayed secret, the FBI, the DEA, whoever, would be a step behind. And it took a sort of - it took a combination of human intelligence, sources, informants, that kind of thing, for law enforcement agencies to figure out what they were using, and then play catch-up. The way that the FBI found out about Christian Rodriguez was literally just a walk-in tip in Manhattan. A guy walked into the Federal Plaza in Manhattan and was like, hey, I know about this guy. And so they had to sort of work out that tip. And then they had to start doing pretty extensive human intelligence operations on the ground in Colombia just to find out who Cristian was.
Andrew Hammond: Help us understand how all of this information was gathered. So he goes to Mexico. He speaks to El Chapo, gives him the PowerPoint brief - talk about giving a PowerPoint under pressure. I wouldn't want to give one to El Chapo (laughter).
Noah Hurowitz: Right. You say that, but he was a pretty - all indications tell us that if you weren't on his bad side, he could be a pretty chill guy. When Christian was talking about his first trip to Sinaloa, he's talking - you know, he's so nervous. He's in this rickety Cessna airplane, flying up into the mountains. He land, and he's greeted by this party of armed guards. And they drive him up the hill on a ATV. And then he meets El Chapo. And El Chapo is like, hey, dude, how you doing? Like, hope you had a good trip. You guys - you professionals, you can travel so much easier than guys like me. Man, I'm jealous. So - and when you hear him on the intercepts later, he wasn't the most imposing guy.
Noah Hurowitz: Actually, one of the agents who I spoke to for the book about this investigation told me that one of the first recordings that they listened to, they hear this one guy who sounds really worked up and angry and yelling. And then they hear this other guy who's sort of trying to calm the other guy down - hey, hey, hey, chill, chill, chill. And they assumed that the angry guy was El Chapo and the other guy was his lieutenant or whatever. And then when they ran it by the translator, the translator was like, no, you're wrong. That's El Chapo. El Chapo is the chill guy. El Chapo is the one who's like, hey, dude. Like, so I will say, yes, I wouldn't want to go up into the mountains to give a PowerPoint presentation to El Chapo. But from everything that we learned about him, he was, perhaps, not the most intimidating guy to give a PowerPoint to compared to, perhaps, other drug traffickers.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) I'm just being playful. I guess I'm just...
Andrew Hammond: You know, I wouldn't want to get on his bad side.
Noah Hurowitz: That - no, that you would not. And Christian learned that, I think, the hard way.
Andrew Hammond: And so help us understand how all of this information gets collected then? So he gives a PowerPoint brief. But why does El Chapo allow conversations about a criminal conspiracy to be kept under the control of someone else that he doesn't control? Why does he not exert the necessary leverage or take the steps necessary? Does he just not understand how cybersecurity works? Or was it a loophole? Or was this guy doing what archivists in the Cold War done, where they would make the copies. And then they would make a separate copy and exfiltrate it and keep it for themselves? Like, how did this information get gathered? And how did it get out of El Chapo's control?
Noah Hurowitz: So Christian set up servers originally in Mexico, and later he moved them to Canada because he felt that they would be more secure there and that the infrastructure was better. But essentially, the - I would have to - man, I would have to go back and look at the exact testimony to tell you the exact technical specifications. But essentially, there was a...
Andrew Hammond: Just broad brushstroke kind of thing.
Noah Hurowitz: Yeah, essentially, the encrypted - the message would be sent from one encrypted device to another. And it would pass through a server, where it would be briefly unencrypted, and then sent on. And my impression is that it was saved on these servers, which is a massive security flaw. That's - and the issue is, I think, that essentially it was incredibly secure, unless you could get to the guy who runs the servers, which the FBI did. I think El Chapo made a mistake. I think he - I think perhaps he trusted Christian too much. I think he maybe saw this sort of dweebish tech guy and thought, this guy is no - can't betray me, you know, when in reality, I think that he was an incredibly weak link because if the FBI or whoever else could get to him, that guy's not going to stand up.
Andrew Hammond: So it's not that the FBI got to the server independently; it was through Christian and Christian handing over the decryption keys that they managed to get access, right?
Noah Hurowitz: Exactly. I mean, within six months of getting that tip about this guy named Christian who was working for El Chapo, the FBI was able to get their hands on one of the devices that he had set up, not for El Chapo but for the Cifuentes Villa family in Colombia. And they got their hands on the device, and they sent it to Quantico, and they couldn't do anything with it. They couldn't crack it. Like, Christian set up a really sophisticated encrypted - I guess the term would be firmware-encrypted device, especially for the time because now...
Andrew Hammond: So he really knew what he was doing?
Noah Hurowitz: He knew what he was doing. Now, of course, we have a whole range of consumer-focused encrypted phones, messaging apps, what have you. But at the time, it was much more - I think much more subcultural, that interest in encrypted communication. And it was harder to get your hands on these things. And Christian was able to set something up that, according to the FBI, they couldn't crack. Now, it's possible that they just don't want anyone to know that they could crack that. But if you can hack those servers, what's easier? Hacking those servers or managing a potentially delicate human informant? Because the reason that I trust that they couldn't get in that way is that they had to go with Christian, and Christian was a handful. He - they had to manage him as an informant for - actively for more than two years. And then after that, they had to relocate him, and they had to pay for his relocation. He's going through therapy. He's having a rough time. So I do think that if they could have found a way to get in there without having to deal with Christian, they would have.
Noah Hurowitz: But ultimately, they knew that they weren't going to crack these phones. And so what they did is - stop me if I'm giving away too much, if I'm - you know, I don't want to give up the suspense in the book. But they lured Christian to a hotel room in Manhattan where they had a - someone associated with the FBI with a thick Russian accent and a big coat, real spy stuff, pretending to be some kind of shady figure who needed encrypted communications equipment. And so a go-between who had contact with Christian essentially brokered this meeting in a hotel room in Manhattan. And he showed - you know, he showed him the ropes. He showed him how it worked. And then at the end of the meeting, the Russian "gangster," quote-unquote, goes, OK, I am going to use this to traffic cocaine from Miami to New York. And Christian's like, all right, cool, nice.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Noah Hurowitz: And just like that, he was implicated in a major conspiracy to traffic cocaine and could've faced enough time to go away for life. And so even with that, the FBI was still trying to get into those phones, just brute force. And they couldn't. So a year later, they corner him in Bogota, in Colombia, in the airport, and they hustle him into a car with the help of some unspecified Colombian partners, they said. And they bring him to, essentially, an hourly motel, one of those really skeevy - you know, in New York tabloid lingo, we call it a hot-sheet motel. And one of the officials who was in the room that day told me nobody wanted to sit on the bed when we were interrogating Christian there.
Noah Hurowitz: Eventually, they show him the surveillance footage of him meeting with this Russian guy in Manhattan. And they're like, look, man; we have you. And Christian cracked. And so he worked with them to move the servers from Canada to the Netherlands in order to - because the U.S. had a really good working relationship with the Netherlands, with a mutual legal assistance treaty - an MLAT. I forget what the A stands for. But there's these treaties where you can do sort of mutual law enforcement maneuverings with another country. Christian told El Chapo, you know, we have to move the servers. They're going to be more secure here. And El Chapo is like, OK. You know, he had already moved the servers once before, so it wasn't out of the blue. And he moved them to the Netherlands. And then the U.S. got - essentially got a warrant to just go in and get everything.
Noah Hurowitz: And so for - you know, there were a few issues here. One was the encrypted messaging system. And then there was also a voice-over-internet protocol, like, phone system, also encrypted. And those calls were being stored on another set of servers. And after a certain point, I think the summer of 2011, El Chapo started - stopped using the message system. He didn't trust it anymore. But he kept talking on the phone. And he shouldn't have.
Andrew Hammond: For her all of this, as well - why did Christian flip? Why did he turn? I mean, obviously, they've got him. But other people that have tried to flip, the implication is that, I mean, sure, you can rat me out, but I'm going to take out your whole family. Other people have been dissuaded from doing it. And I know you don't know his intentions, but why do you think that he was persuaded to do it? Was it just the fear of prison, or is there no repercussions on his family or anything?
Noah Hurowitz: I think that they got to him at a good time. Shortly before they cornered him in Bogota, he had been in the mountains of Sinaloa with El Chapo and Alex Cifuentes and all of the gunmen. And a few things had happened at that meeting. One, so in addition to the encrypted communications that Christian was running for El Chapo, he was also installing spyware on BlackBerry devices that El Chapo was giving out to his lieutenants and his girlfriends and his wives. And then El Chapo was able to use this spyware program to see what was on their phones. He was able to see their text messages. He was able to see their locations. He was even able to remotely activate their mic and listen to them. And he loved that. Christian recalled that it was like a toy to him, almost. He became obsessed with it. And he was he was calling, like, every day. He was calling Christian, help me with this. Help me with that. And it was - I think it was a lot of work.
Noah Hurowitz: And so Christian goes up to the mountains. This is his last visit to the mountains. And El Chapo had a new request for him. Essentially, he asked Christian, would it be possible to set up spyware on every single public computer in the city of Culiacan, which is the capital of Sinaloa? It's sort of his home turf. He wanted Christian to basically go into all of the internet cafes and Culiacan and set up spyware so that his people could see everything that was happening. Now, to be perfectly honest, I don't know how they would have handled that amount of information. Like, that seems like it would have been almost too much for them to process. But he wanted to essentially have a citywide intelligence surveillance network in Culiacan And so I think that was sort of a pretty crazy ask.
Noah Hurowitz: And then in the middle of this meeting - mind you, El Chapo was a wanted fugitive at the time - in the middle of this meeting, they get word from from a lookout that the army is coming. And so they have to hastily pack up their little sort of encampment and run down the mountains. And so for two nights, El Chapo and Alex Cifuentes and all of these other guys who are used to living in the mountains, used to carrying weapons - a lot of them have military training - they're running. And then poor Christian is just huffing and puffing his way through the mountains with these madmen with, you know, rocket launchers and machine guns. And he was - I think he was pretty close to done after that. I don't think he wanted to - you know, he never saw El Chapo again after that. He never went back up into the mountains after that. I think he wasn't - I think that that was sort of a breaking point.
Noah Hurowitz: And so the fact that the FBI approached him shortly after that - I think he was looking for a way out. He wasn't necessarily a lifer in this thing. He wasn't necessarily - you know, he didn't necessarily get involved as, like, a hitman when he was - or a lookout when he was, like 13, 14. He didn't - I don't think he was necessarily raise with the same level of omerta, you know, of, you know, never speaking, never telling. I think he was in it for a profit. And he was looking to get out of it in a way that would work. I think that he wasn't in an enviable situation.
Noah Hurowitz: The next - for the next year or two years, he was running this double game and living in an intense amount of fear. He ended up having to get, like, electroconvulsive therapy when he came to the US because he was having panic attacks and deep depression. It wasn't easy for him. I think that the FBI correctly ascertained that he was a weak link, that he was someone that they could get to. He wasn't a hardened criminal. He wasn't - I don't think had any particular loyalty to anyone that he was working for. He was a guy who was doing it for money. And because he was good at what he did and he was - well, he was kind of a wimp. You know, so I think they correctly saw him as someone that they could get to.
Andrew Hammond: And no repercussions. Or there haven't been any yet? Or was he not afraid of that?
Noah Hurowitz: I mean, his family was relocated with him to the United States.
Andrew Hammond: OK.
Noah Hurowitz: We don't know enough about his family in Colombia to know if everyone made it to the U.S. But we do know that his wife and his girlfriend and both of their kids were brought to the U.S.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: So I just want to take a step back now, Noah, and just broaden our horizon a bit. And then we'll come back in and look at El Chapo and his organization and its inner workings and its link to the Mexican state. But you sketch it out quite well in the book. I just want to quickly summarize the kind of geography. So correct me at any point of a get it wrong. So Mexico - Culiacan is on the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains. It's about an hour from the coast. Sinaloa is the state. Culiacan's the capital. And Sinaloa's got a lot of frontage on the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. This is El Chapo's kind of home turf. It's been traditionally seen as a bit of a backwater in Mexico. So from there, build the story out. Give us more context in terms of, where does El Chapo come out of? Maybe just briefly discuss Felix Gallardo and the aftermath of that era and then the system that El Chapo comes into and how he manages to get power. So that's quite a lot. But just kind of bring it together so that we can start looking at intelligence a bit more.
Noah Hurowitz: There has been a culture of drug production in Sinaloa since the late 1800s, first with opium and then with marijuana. And those became sort of staple, almost, like, staple cash crops in the mountains for many people for many years, but it was a relatively small-time thing. They could get more money for that then by farming non - farming legal crops. But it wasn't this transnational operation, necessarily. You know, if you're a farmer, you would grow opium or marijuana, and you would sell it to a broker who would then either sell it to someone smuggling or smuggle it themselves and make a tidy profit. But nobody was getting to be billionaires at that time. And in the 1960s, there's a tremendous amount of surge in demand due to sort of the hippie boom in the United States. Everyone wanted weed, and they were getting it from - many of them were getting it from Sinaloa. And in the early 1970s, the main pipeline for heroin from Europe to the United States, known as the French Connection, was shut down by Turkish, French and U.S. police. And people still needed heroin. Dealers still needed to sell it, and users still needed to do it. And the demand shifted to Sinaloa.
Noah Hurowitz: So these two events, these two sort of historical trends happen right when El Chapo is getting involved in the drug trade. You know, he's a young man, a teenager, a young man. And suddenly, the drug trade in Sinaloa is getting turbo charged. And fast forward to the 1980s. Then comes sort of the advent of cocaine, right? The Colombian producers, you know, the Pablo Escobars, the Cali Cartel - they were initially moving coke through the Caribbean by plane, by boat, by submarine. And the Coast Guard and the DEA were cracking down really heavily on that in the early 1980s. And they needed a new way to get cocaine to the United States. And they started working with existing Mexican smuggling networks that had relationships with authorities in Mexico. They knew where to cross the drugs. And cocaine is just - you make so much more money smuggling. It's smaller. It doesn't smell as much as marijuana. It's just the...
Andrew Hammond: It's more compact.
Noah Hurowitz: Exactly. The profit margins are astronomical. And that move to cocaine by Mexican traffickers, most notably, as you mentioned, Felix Gallardo, really just completely changed the game in Mexico. But you can't look at that without looking at the relationship with the state, right. So in Mexico, the drug trade really developed alongside and from within the post-revolutionary state-building project of the Mexican government. Especially in Sinaloa, there's been some really great scholarship - particularly by my friend and colleague Benjamin Smith, who wrote this book called "The Dope." He has written about how the - there was a lot of turmoil in Sinaloa in the 1940s over land reform. And essentially, the way that it stabilized was the government sanctioned certain drug traffickers to basically be the - you know, sort of the official drug traffickers. And these were cops. These were judges. These were powerful people there who - they - by providing inflated wages to peasants growing illegal crops, they were able to stave off a certain amount of agitation from poor segments of society. And they were able to give jobs to the gunmen who had, five years ago, been murdering leftists. And so it created this sort of - this stability that Mexico City relied on, sort of far-flung rural areas.
Noah Hurowitz: And so there was this great amount of collusion. The drug trade was essentially run as a state-run protection racket. Pay the cops, and the cops let you work. And in the late 1970s and early '80s, that - those protection rackets shifted from more localized control to more federal control. So the federal police, and particularly a secret police agency known as the Federal Security Directorate, or the DFS, really took over the game. And the reason why that's really significant in the 1980s is that the DFS was - essentially, that was the closest ally of the CIA in Mexico. They did really dirty work in the '70s, killing leftists, killing guerrillas in certain areas of Mexico. And then they pretty much shifted into becoming full-time criminals.
Noah Hurowitz: But they continued to provide information to the CIA because Mexico, at this time, was - it's been sort of a "Casablanca" of the Cold War. There was a major Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. There was - I think there was a Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. And the Mexican government was not entirely aligned. It had some - to different degrees over the years, it had some sort of internationalist pretensions. It had some sort of - it had certain connections to - if not explicitly communist or left-wing movements abroad, it did see itself as - I guess you would put it - sort of nonaligned, right? And so the U.S. felt like they had - in the DFS, they had an ally who were fiercely right-wing, fiercely anti-communist. And they were willing to look the other way about the fact that they were also full-time criminals.
Noah Hurowitz: There was in the early 1980s, the head of the DFS, this guy named Miguel Nazar Haro, was arrested or - yeah, he was arrested in San Diego for running a car-smuggling network. His men were stealing cars in San Diego and moving them over the border into Mexico. And he was arrested. And basically, the State Department put so much pressure on the DOJ that they had to drop the charges. You know, they were like, this guy is too important to our interests in Mexico. And so for drug traffickers like Felix Gallardo, having the DFS as on your side was really important because even if the CIA is not directly financing your operations, if they're backing the people who protect you, you're kind of untouchable. So that all broke down in 1985 when a number of high-ranking members of what we now call - refer to as the Guadalajara Cartel were implicated in the kidnapping and torture and murder of a DEA agent named Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, who was very well-known. You know, he was the star of the first season of "Narcos: Mexico." And he's seen as sort of this foundational martyr of the DEA.
Andrew Hammond: You know, you mentioned the CIA there and the book you set up, the trade-off - it's the war on drugs or the Cold War. And just I know for a fact that some of our listeners will be saying, well, what did you expect us to do? You know, it's a cold war. We're in this global struggle against a totalitarian system where every country is up for play, and we had to make some uncomfortable choices. And does it help us in the long term? Yes. Doesn't look good in the newspapers. No. So I just wondered if you had thought about that.
Noah Hurowitz: I've thought about that a great deal. I guess I would reject pretty much out of hand the fact that what the CIA was doing in Central America was for the greater good in any way. I think that the CIA was categorically on the wrong side of history in that era. They were backing death squads in El Salvador. They were backing the Contras in Nicaragua. And it's hard for me to - if that is - I guess if that is in the interest of a certain side, I don't want to be on the side of whoever that's in the interest of. Particularly by the '80s, the sort of Cold War mission, at least in the Americas - that's sort of what I'm familiar with - it had become so blinkered and so self-propelling. I think in general, these operations, whether it's the drug war or the Cold War - they become so self-propelling. You know, one of the things that I love most about John le Carre is that you can't always tell why it matters that they get this information; they just have to get this information, or they have to run this op.
Andrew Hammond: It becomes a machine that runs itself.
Noah Hurowitz: Exactly. Exactly. And so I think that, yes, by the logic of the Cold War, of course national and international interests in Mexico outweigh the goals of the DEA. But I also think that the goals of the DEA are patently absurd. I think that the drug war is a hopeless project based on some - on an idea that that will never happen. You know, you're never going to get rid of drugs.
Andrew Hammond: Help us understand that almost passing of the baton from the Colombian cartels to the Mexican ones. And I know that it's not an intentional - here you go, Mexican cartels. But there was something going on there, right? So we go from the age of Escobar to the age of El Chapo. Help us understand that shift from Colombia over to Mexico.
Noah Hurowitz: For a long time, the Colombians were moving cocaine to the U.S. and selling it in the U.S. And when they were forced to start moving cocaine through Mexico, for a long time, the Mexicans, El Chapo included, were essentially couriers. You know, they were essentially very large-scale couriers of drugs, and they were moving it to the U.S. and then handing it off. And at a certain point, people like to pinpoint it as Felix Gallardo was responsible for, oh, pay us cocaine instead of money, and then we'll start being wholesalers, whatever. I don't know if you can necessarily pinpoint who exactly started that trend, but I think what happened was just that the Colombians became so dependent on the Mexican traffickers to move their cocaine that the power changed. The balance of power changed, and the Mexicans realized, they can't do it without us. They work for us now.
Noah Hurowitz: And I think that in many ways, the Colombian traffickers were willing to take that demotion because they saw what happened when you had too much power. They saw what happened to Pablo Escobar. They saw what happened to the leaders of the Cali cartel who were arrested and extradited to the United States. So at the same time that the Mexicans start gaining more power and more notoriety, you see this shift in Colombia toward what we now refer to as sort of the invisibles. Traffickers in Colombia learned to blend in more. Often, they learned to blend in more by associating with paramilitary units that had the backing of the U.S. And so I think it was a fairly gradual process, but by the early '90s, the Mexicans had so much control over that route that essentially, the Colombians were just providing cocaine. And I think that many people in Colombia were fine with that because they were still making hella (ph) money, you know?
Andrew Hammond: I think that blending in is not something that many people would accuse Pablo Escobar of.
Noah Hurowitz: No. But his - the people who came after him learned a lesson from it, you know?
Andrew Hammond: You know, to go through the various twists and turns of the various cartels in, say, Mexico, that could be like, a 20-part documentary. So let's just kind of fast-forward to El Chapo, so the Sinaloa cartel. And then help us understand how various parts of the Mexican state get co-opted or involved. And I know that they're pushing sometimes as much as they're pulling, but help us understand that relationship between the Sinaloa cartel and the powers that be. And then from there, maybe we can go on to discuss special forces and intelligence agencies and their role in it because I think Los Zetas is an interesting example.
Noah Hurowitz: Well, like I said, the Mexican government was controlled by the Party of Institutional Revolution for 70 years, from...
Andrew Hammond: PRI.
Noah Hurowitz: The PRI - from 1930 to 2000. And the PRI was an incredibly corrupt regime that ruled through patronage and brute force when necessary. But they had a really keen understanding of how to control areas of the country that they didn't necessarily have much of a presence in, you know? In the area where El Chapo grew up, the state has a very minimal presence. And so in order to maintain stability, to keep violence at a minimum, to prevent land reform agitation from peasant groups, there was a lot of sort of carrot and stick. There was a lot of, like I mentioned, as Benjamin Smith has pointed out, that the drug trade in Sinaloa functioned as sort of a pillar of stability for the PRI.
Noah Hurowitz: And because it was still an illegal business, thanks to prohibition, that was an extra tool that they had in controlling the drug traffickers that they worked with because at any moment, they could decide, OK, you're out. You're gone. And they did that. They killed Draviles (ph). They arrested Don Neto Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero in Guadalajara. They eventually arrested Felix Gallardo. Essentially, whenever a drug trafficker gained too much power or recognition or attention from the United States, the Mexican government could get rid of them and work with someone else who had less notoriety. And so I think that El Chapo and other drug traffickers of his generation, people who were relatively small fish in the early and mid-1980s, rose to prominence in the late 1980s as sort of these successors, the new people with official government connections, who were able to work a little bit more quietly.
Noah Hurowitz: But as the PRI's control of Mexico started to break down, their control of the drug trade began to break down. And these negotiations, these pacts that traffickers had with authorities, started to be renegotiated, and the lines of communication became less clear. And as that generated more competition, it generated more violence because traffickers who previously could have, you know - there didn't used to be these sort of privatized armies in Mexican drug trafficking. That's a relatively new phenomenon because for many, many years, if I'm a drug trafficker and I want to get rid of someone, I'm just going to give - I'm just going to have a military unit or a corrupt police unit get rid of them. And if I'm lucky, then they can confiscate the drugs and give them back to me. And then I can traffic those drugs, and I get rid of my enemy. And so I didn't need to have, you know, I would have bodyguards, but I didn't need to have these, essentially, paramilitary units controlling territory for me because the territory was controlled by the state, and the state allowed me to move drugs through that area and nobody else unless they paid a tax to me.
Noah Hurowitz: And so in the '90s, as that system starts to break down, trafficking networks started to recruit soldiers - ex-soldiers, current soldiers. And the best example of that, of course, is Los Zetas. Los Zetas started as - started from a core group of former special forces soldiers from this unit known as the GAFE, G-A-F-E, which was U.S. trained. A lot of them cut their teeth, actually, in Chiapas during the Zapatista rebellion, very straightforward counterinsurgency. And then they defected to the Gulf Cartel as sort of the privatized security of the leader of the Gulf Cartel. And once Los Zetas formed, pretty much every other trafficking network realized that they started - they would have to also recruit ex-special forces soldiers. So El Chapo started. When El Chapo escaped from prison in 2001, he started to build up his security arm. He was recruiting soldiers and ex-cops and people with military training who could compete with a group like Los Zetas. And it created this sort of paramilitary arms race in the drug trade. And as a result, the level of violence and the need for more overt territorial control increased, and it really spun out of control.
Andrew Hammond: So we know that the special forces - you mentioned the Marines and Los Zetas. Help us understand just really briefly. Who are the major Mexican intelligence agencies that are involved in all of this, and to what extent are they co-opted and brought into this? To what extent are they on the payroll of people like El Chapo and so forth?
Noah Hurowitz: I think that there's a certain level of unknowability. We see prominent examples of that. I think it's an issue of you don't have to co-opt the entire state apparatus to get the results that you need. If I'm a drug trafficker, I need to be able to traffic drugs. And I have a number of ways of either directly controlling various military units. Maybe I'm paying one high-ranking official for information. Maybe I'm paying another to just sort of gum up the works, you know? I think that even if a big chunk of the military is honest, if a drug trafficker is moving enough money around at higher levels, it creates a situation where there is no political will to capture someone, even if there's people who are interested in truly fighting the drug trade and truly capturing people like El Chapo. There's an issue of political will.
Noah Hurowitz: Then you also have - El Chapo had a number of people over the years, very high-ranking police officials who were essentially in his pocket. You know, right now there's this guy, Genaro Garcia Luna, who was essentially the - in the U.S., he would have been, like, the head of the FBI. He was the architect of the anti-drug policy in Mexico in much of the 2000s, and he, according to U.S. prosecutors, was taking massive bribes from El Chapo the entire time. And so if you can get someone that high up, he is able to influence the operations below him in a way that just make it so that his guy is never going to get caught. And so, again, I mean, so much of this is shrouded in secrecy and innuendo and rumor. And it's really difficult to parse those, and honestly, it's pretty maddening. I feel sometimes like I've lost my mind a little bit reporting on this stuff because I just - it makes you paranoid, and it makes you - there's things that you know to be true that you can't report because you don't have hard (laughter) evidence. And I think that for that reason, you know, a lot of - there's a great amount of distrust in Mexico of sort of the official narrative. And there's a great amount of sort of commonsense understanding that I can't necessarily report.
Andrew Hammond: I get it. And you're (laughter) preaching to the converted, especially for this podcast. You know?
Noah Hurowitz: (Laughter).
Andrew Hammond: We spend a lot of time looking at things that are very difficult to apprehend. Are there any other spy or intelligence gadgetry or tech the cartels have appropriated because you've mentioned the militarization and special ops, and they're taking on some of that training and some of those ways of doing business, so are they also, like, using drones, hackers, cyber criminals? Help us understand how the cartels have adapted to, like, where we are now.
Noah Hurowitz: In recent years, you have certainly seen the increased use of drones. In - right now, there's a lot of fighting in the state of Michoacan and the neighboring state of Jalisco between different paramilitary groups. And they've started to use sort of, like, suicide drones, essentially - strapping explosives to them and then driving them into an enemy position. It's become incredibly militarized. We learned a lot about El Chapo's use of spyware and actually how that backfired on him because another thing that I - you know, with Christian - when El Chapo stopped using the messaging systems, he was still using the spyware. And the spyware sometimes picked up his communications, right? If he was texting someone and that person was using an infected device and that information was going to a server that Christian controlled, the FBI then had El Chapo's - you know, part of that communication.
Noah Hurowitz: You know, there's also been some really good reporting. Vice has done some really good reporting on the use of sort of next-generation encrypted devices. I'm blanking on the name, but there's - there was this company, I think based in Canada, that was selling encrypted phones to drug traffickers that they were using to communicate because this requires a lot of communication. And if you can't communicate in real time, you're at a huge disadvantage. And so there's this balance of, you know, we know it's not smart to talk on phones, but we need to do it. So we need to find a way to do it. And so I think that they're always - you know, they're always on the lookout for the newest technology and the newest ways of doing it. And it continues to help them until it doesn't.
Noah Hurowitz: In Europe, we just saw this massive breach of - I think it was called EncroChat, this encrypted chat network used by drug traffickers in Europe that the police agencies got access to. And they're just making arrest after arrest after arrest. And so it's this new frontier of this rapidly changing technology that helps drug traffickers until it brings them down. And I think that they're willing to take that - you know, being involved in the drug trade is always a bit of a - OK, you're successful until you're not. And so I think that they're willing to make that sort of bargain of we need this rapid communication, even if it might come back on us at some point.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Congratulations again.
Noah Hurowitz: Thank you so much for having me on. It's been really fun to talk about the sort of spooky side of this.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @IntlSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @SpyHistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The SpyCast team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.