Saturday, April 20, 2019

Paul Le Roux: "The Most Versatile Criminal In History"

From Longreads:

Journalist Evan Ratliff has uncovered the shocking reach of Paul Le Roux’s criminal enterprise — a global network of pawns, most of whom were unaware of the full extent of the empire.
Paul Le Roux is unequivocally a criminal mastermind, and if you’ve never heard his name, that only proves the point. After all, a criminal mastermind isn’t just defined by the audacity of his crimes, but the extent to which he gets away with them, and by that measure Le Roux is nothing short of brilliant.
Journalist Evan Ratliff has spent years piecing together who Le Roux is and the unbelievable nature of his crimes. In his recently released book, The Mastermind, Ratliff paints a picture of a man considered by one source to be the “most versatile criminal in history.” Throughout the mid-aughts, Le Roux, a South African computer programmer, ran an illegal online pharmaceutical scam that sold addictive painkillers to Americans at astonishing rates. Real doctors signed off on the scam. Real pharmacists sold the drugs. But it was Le Roux, usually operating from a computer in Manila, who was pulling all the strings. The painkiller scheme grossed him hundreds of millions of dollars.
That money would go on to fund a global criminal enterprise that included literal boatloads of cocaine, shipments of methamphetamine from North Korea, weapons deals with Iran, and a team of ex-military mercenaries who were ordered to kill anyone who threatened Le Roux’s bottom line.
The Mastermind is an incredible feat of reporting that takes the reader step by step into the journeys of Le Roux’s employees, accomplices and hired killers, as well as the law enforcement teams trying to take him down. Most of these parties were largely unaware of the scope of Le Roux’s enterprise. The shocking details and twists that Ratliff reveals are unrelenting; they tell a story that would be impossible to believe if Ratliff didn’t bring the reader along on the reporting upon which it all rests.
Ratliff took the time to talk to Longreads about his reporting process, what it was like having more information than some of his sources, and how Le Roux’s machinations may still be at play.
Jonny Auping: How did you first come to hear about Paul Le Roux?
Evan Ratliff: The first part of the story that I heard about was the arrest of a guy named Joseph Hunter — his nickname was “Rambo,” which was part of his claim to fame — in 2013. Hunter was arrested in a sting operation by the DEA for agreeing to organize a hit team to murder a DEA agent. There was no actual DEA agent in that situation. It was all a setup. They had been luring Hunter into this trap.

That news came out in September 2013, and then there was another DEA bust of a group of guys who were trying to import methamphetamine into the United States. The bust happened right around the same time, and there were some similarities between them in terms of the prosecutors involved and the people being arrested. I started following along the story then and doing a little bit of reporting on it, trying to figure out what the connections were.

Then about a year later someone leaked the name Paul Le Roux in a New York Times story and that kind of unified all the reporting that I’d been doing before, in terms of connecting what brought these groups together. What brought them together was this guy named Paul Le Roux, who had basically started his own international drugs and arms cartel, and he was actually the person behind all these other operations.

I had been hooked on it since Joseph Hunter, but once a little bit of information came out about Paul Le Roux — but no one was really putting it all together — that’s when I started really, really reporting hard on it.

So when you found out that there was this guy that linked all of these things together you knew then that you wanted to write about that guy?
For sure. I could glean enough about him at a glance that I sort of knew that I would be fascinated with not just how he built what he did but who he was. He was a computer programmer, who initially made hundreds of millions of dollars selling painkillers over the Internet to American customers. Then he became this sort of criminal mogul, who diversified into every type of crime that you can pretty much imagine on an international scale.

So there was this question of how did he actually do that? It’s not the way that the Colombian drug cartel comes about, for instance. He was entirely unknown, and he was South African, and he was doing it out of the Philippines and yet a lot of the stuff was happening in the U.S., and he had these mercenary teams of ex-military guys. There were so many elements that made me wonder how is this even possible? Once I got deeper and deeper into it the question became how did these other people get involved?
One expert I interviewed… basically said to me, I think he may be the largest individual contributor to the painkiller epidemic. That’s as an individual person.
When you originally wrote about Le Roux it was for a series of stories for Atavist Magazine. You wrote in the book that a number of new sources came forward reaching out to you after that series came out. Did those new characters unlock perspectives you needed to write the book?
Yeah. Absolutely. The series was long, and we did it very quickly, so it didn’t exactly feel like I got to sit down and do my best writing necessarily because I was writing a couple thousand words a day and we were doing them weekly and churning them out based on what I could do in the time. I knew there was more to say, but I didn’t want to just say Oh here’s this series and, I’ve added some words, and now it’s a book.

It was really the secondary reporting that came about after that that really allowed me to take it all apart and form it as a book. Part of that was, yes, the people that got in touch with me who read it and would say things like, “You nailed it. You got everything right except you didn’t mention me.” That’s such a gift, because at varying levels, it’s so hard to even find people that were part of an international criminal network or to get them to talk.

There were people who were very afraid to go on the record or be identified by name, who as time went on, saw the depth that I was trying to achieve with the way I was telling the story and they changed their minds....MUCH MORE