Real-life James Bond villain Paul le Roux comes under the loupe in Evan Ratliff’s book The Mastermind, a consideration of what makes the maverick criminal mind tick.
South African-born tech entrepreneur Elon Musk’s outrageous and futuristic plans to change the future of humanity are a mixture of science fiction and insanity. From Hyperloop, a proposed means of rapid transport, to his plan to colonise Mars to his work in artificial intelligence, Musk is an example of what happens when a genius puts his mind to the betterment of the world.
But what happens when a genius puts his mind to the selfish pursuit of making money and a name for himself, and shows a ruthlessness associated with stone cold killers? That is the story of Zimbabwe-born, South Africa-raised Paul le Roux, traced with immaculate detail in American journalist Evan Ratliff’s book The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal.
A private militia in Somalia. Assassins. Smuggling massive quantities of methamphetamines from North Korea. Trading weapons with Iran. Shady timber operations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Papua New Guinea. Shipping millions of dollars’ worth of prescription painkillers, essentially aiding the painkiller addiction epidemic in the United States.
Le Roux’s story is one of murder, drugs and weapons dealing, intimidation and cross-border, intercontinental criminal enterprises, described perfectly by Ratliff, a journalist, podcaster and founder of Atavist magazine. For years, Le Roux lived and operated out of the Philippines – a country where he knew he could bribe politicians and police officers to stay under the radar and out of trouble.
Hitman for hire
Ratliff started looking into the story in September 2013, following the arrest of one of Le Roux’s henchmen and a member of his hit squad, Joseph Hunter, also known as Rambo.
“It made a splash in the news here [in the US], given that he was ex-US military and stood accused of being an international hitman for hire,” Ratliff told New Frame.
At the time, Ratliff wasn’t aware of Hunter’s connection to Le Roux, or even the scope of Le Roux’s criminal enterprise. He was arrested a year earlier but became an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Ratliff was only able to connect the dots following mention of “a mysterious other player in the sting operation” along with another operation in which five people were arrested in an attempt to import meth from North Korea.
“It wasn’t until 2014, when Le Roux’s name was leaked to The New York Times, that there was a name to put to that connection. Once I had the name and started digging in on it, I very quickly realised that he was engaged in an array of activities so broad as to be almost difficult to process,” Ratliff said.
Once he started making the connections, a picture of a ruthless and ambitious criminal emerged. But looking closer at the brains behind the global criminal operation, what emerged was a quiet, lonesome man. He didn’t fit the picture of an international drugs and arms smuggler, with a penchant for killing off anyone who disobeyed him or who he suspected was stealing from him.
Le Roux was overweight with dyed blonde hair. He was mostly spotted wearing shorts and slip-slops, and had an air of superiority about him. He was born in Zimbabwe, but was adopted and moved with his new family to Krugersdorp on Johannesburg’s West Rand. There, he soon discovered and immersed himself in the world of programming – he would soon distance himself from everyone and spend most of his time online.
He developed encryption software called E4M (Encryption for the Masses), which was released towards the end of 1998. E4M’s code was later used to develop a more secure encryption software called TrueCrypt – shown to have given the US government’s National Security Agency “major problems” to decode encrypted messages and software.
Le Roux, often described as a genius by Ratliff and others, used his computer knowledge and the power of his encryption software as the basis for his operations. He instructed all his employees – from hitmen like Hunter to call-centre managers pushing prescription painkillers in the US – to use his encryption software and encrypted email servers he set up for them.
Ratliff’s book is a punchy and fast-paced account of Le Roux’s life and criminal enterprises around the globe, as well as his upbringing and what put him on the path to becoming one of the biggest criminal bosses in the world. It also follows the investigators who focused on Le Roux and his shady dealings for years, with little to no immediate reward.
‘Deception by design’
Ratliff spent years on the story, first writing a series of articles before embarking on researching and writing the book.
“For the original series, I was essentially funding it myself, so it was certainly challenging to decide how much to put into it not knowing what exactly I would find,” he said about tracking the story.
“And at first I had trouble getting anyone to talk. People were afraid of Le Roux, afraid of getting caught up in the investigation, afraid of police corruption, afraid of their names getting associated with it all.”
But through years of painstakingly meeting insiders, getting them to make vital links and telling the bigger story, the challenges changed.
“The hardest part then became who to believe about what, and how to triangulate the facts to get as close as possible to the truth. Le Roux’s world was full of deception by design, essentially, and some of the main players were dead or in hiding. So that left other people to talk, and assessing their credibility was a constant challenge,” Ratliff said.
Reading the book, much of Le Roux’s exploits seem like something from a crime thriller instead of one man’s hunger for more power, more money and more influence. Ratliff said it was “hard to pick one” thing that was most incredible about Le Roux’s operations.
“I mean, designing drones for drug delivery and trying to build missile guidance software for Iran is pretty insane. But I spent so much time on Somalia in the book, in part because that situation really encapsulated a lot of Le Roux’s operations,” he said.
“On the surface it was truly absurd: establishing a fishing company in one of the world’s most lawless places, protected by a hundreds-strong militia armed with imported weapons. But then, when you talked to the people who were there, you could start to see the internal logic under which they were operating. It all made a kind of sense. But truly, I couldn’t include even 20% of the insanity that came with that project.”
Ratliff said researching and writing the book involved some “unsavoury aspects”.
“Sometimes you just look around and wonder which people sitting in the bus with you would commit murder if paid enough money. And I was certainly obsessed with trying to get the story, which makes it hard to turn off. On the other hand, the craziness of Le Roux’s world, and even my own immersion in it, gave me a deep and ongoing appreciation with how placid and domestic my own life is,” he said of the experience.
Le Roux was arrested after being set up by a former associate. This associate had helped US agents set up a fake meeting with Colombian drug dealers who he was supposed to meet in a hotel in Monrovia, Liberia, to broker a massive narcotics deal. The day after his arrival in Monrovia, he was arrested by Liberian police who handed him over to Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
Le Roux later signed a proffer agreement, which meant he would be granted immunity against prosecution for any crimes he might admit to if he pleaded guilty to two charges relating to the sting in Monrovia: conspiracy to import narcotics to the US and violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Later, in court, Le Roux admitted to a number of murders and many other aspects of his criminal trial.
With Le Roux’s sentencing initially scheduled for July this year, but recently extended to August, Ratliff said what would happen to him was still “up in the air”. Because Le Roux was willing to cooperate with the US government to bring down other parts of his network, Ratliff said the judge had a great deal of latitude in sentencing him and, weighing the value of his cooperation, it was difficult to guess the length of his sentence.
The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal by Evan Ratliff is published by Penguin Random House (2019).