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Trial Against Drug Kingpin 'El Chapo' Progresses In New York Courtroom


It has been a week of dramatic testimony in the trial of the notorious drug pin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Guzman's already convicted of trafficking crimes in Mexico. His current federal trial in Brooklyn deals with a 17-count indictment. These charges span decades. They include accusations of money laundering, also trafficking cocaine and other drugs and ordering murders, kidnappings and other acts of violence. And this week, we've gotten some more insight into how exactly the FBI ended up tracking his movements in real time. Keegan Hamilton is the U.S. editor at Vice News. He also hosts a podcast called "Chapo: Kingpin On Trial." And he joins us from New York. Hi, Keegan.

KEEGAN HAMILTON: Good morning.

GREENE: So it sounds like some almost made-for-movie moments this week. We're really learning about this witness who worked for El Chapo and, it sounds like, might've really been vital to the FBI.

HAMILTON: Yes. The star witness this week was Christian Rodriguez, who was an FBI informant, who basically designed a secure communications system for the cartel - an encrypted phone network - and then gave the FBI, you know, the keys to the kingdom and gave them a real-time window into how El Chapo was running his business.

GREENE: Wow. It's - you couldn't ask for a better informant if you're the FBI, potentially, given what he was doing.

HAMILTON: They'd spent months and months and months trying to crack the encryption on the system and couldn't do it. So they had to approach him, flip him and then get them to essentially design a special server that recorded all of these encrypted calls. It was pretty remarkable.

GREENE: So even if you're in a Brooklyn court room in the United States - I mean, is it terrifying to be a witness?

HAMILTON: He looked pretty uncomfortable on the stand and was doing his best to avoid Chapo's gaze who was looking over from the defense table. And yeah, the threats against him, we've been told, are real. The courtroom sketch artists who were there were blocked from the judge from drawing his face because of concerns that, you know, the cartel could potentially use that image to see what he looks like today and track him down.

GREENE: So what exactly has he been able to offer in terms of new information about how El Chapo did business?

HAMILTON: So for a couple - not quite two years, he was getting these - allowing the FBI to record these encrypted phone conversations which gave them sort of a real-time look at how the cartel was operating. And that was Chapo micromanaging many aspects of his business, you know, talking to employ - his employees constantly about who they're bribing, you know, who they're fighting this week and also setting up Chapo's mistresses and wife with spyware on their phones so he could track their movements, see who they've been calling and even listen in on the microphone on their phones without them knowing.

GREENE: He's pleaded not guilty to all of this, right? I mean, so how is he reacting as he's been watching this?

HAMILTON: You know, most of the time, he's actually seemed to be in a pretty good mood. This beats being in solitary confinement where he's been held. But when this testimony happened this week, you could see sort of the grimace come over his face where he knew that this was going to be a problem - that the jury's hearing this and seeing and hearing his own voice giving orders to do criminal acts. You could tell that it was - he knew it was a problem.

GREENE: Are we are learning anything about the larger drug war as this trial plays out?

HAMILTON: I think, if anything, we've learned the futility of the drug war. We've heard testimony through the course of this trial so far about tons of drugs that have been seized, El Chapo's top lieutenants being arrested and extradited to the United States. Meanwhile, there's been no problem for drug users to acquire drugs that the cartel is providing. And even now, with Chapo in U.S. custody, there's no shortage of drugs in the United States.

GREENE: Keegan Hamilton is U.S. editor at Vice News and hosts the podcast "Chapo: Kingpin On Trial." Keegan, thanks.

HAMILTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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