A cartel boss who made millions selling arms to Iranian warlords, trading methamphetamine with North Korean drug dealers and hundreds of millions of prescription painkillers to American citizens has turned informer to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
His name is Paul Calder Le Roux. The number of deaths he has caused is likely to be into the hundreds and his web of criminality stretches over global underworlds and across continents from a laptop in Manila, a new book has revealed.
But Le Roux, born in subtropical Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, doesn’t look like the criminal masterminds of early modern history chronicled in pop culture.
The 46-year-old has more blonde hair tips and pairs of flip-flops than your average mobster and doesn’t necessarily look like someone whose ‘actions showed an utter disregard for human suffering’.
One journalist has been connecting the dots between Le Roux’s underground enterprises to uncover why this multi-millionaire motivated by power and greed chose a life of crime which, subsequently, ended the lives of so many.
Evan Ratliff, author of The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal., spoke to UNILAD about how Le Roux created a system of killing, fear and control from behind his keyboard.
Before reading the account, you’d be entitled to think ‘The Mastermind’ an odd title for a criminal who got caught. But this man – the most prolific purveyor of crime in history you’ve never heard of – even managed to manipulate his own retribution.
Upon his arrest in Liberia in 2012, Le Roux was charged with conspiracy to import narcotics into the US and violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and placed in secret custody in New York City, from where he helped the government orchestrate stings on hit-men and traffickers on his own payroll.
He agreed to plead guilty to these two charges in exchange for immunity against prosecution for any other crime.
Immediately after signing the agreement, he confessed to ordering or participating in seven murders – a crime which would see perpetrators face the death penalty in some states, but for which Le Roux will never be prosecuted.
Documenting the wake of destruction he left, Ratliff said:
In my reporting I encountered other deaths at the very least linked to his operation, whether in the Philippines or Somalia.
There are potentially dozens or hundreds of secondary deaths which resulted from his activities. His selling of weapons and explosives to potential terrorists in the Philippines and elsewhere, for instance, or the militia that he armed and then abandoned in Somalia.
Those numbers are impossible to count – and that’s leaving aside anyone who might have died from the drugs he was trafficking.
It all started with an online pharma business which looked legitimate to the many doctors who were sold Le Roux’s RX Limited which pushed ‘hundreds of millions of prescription painkiller doses to American customers’.
By DEA estimates, Le Roux – who had been a computer programmer familiar to those who frequent encryption forums – was ‘likely the biggest single provider of painkillers’ in America as the prescription drug epidemic took off.
Ratliff said, while the elusive kingpin was eventually caught, his ‘true brilliance manifested in the online pharmacy business’, the nature and execution of which ‘are unlike any online criminal network’ ever seen before.
Between his desire for notoriety and disregard for those around him – an attitude which often crossed the border into racism – Le Roux quickly realised he must rule his ever-expanding multi-million dollar enterprise with an iron fist.
Ultimately, this was his downfall, Ratcliffe said:
He orchestrated a wide range criminal endeavours, pulling strings 24 hours a day around the globe, all from behind his laptop in Manila.
But it proved too sprawling an empire for one man to micromanage. And yes, as smart as he was, in the end he was a little too eager for the next big deal, and made a huge mistake.
Between an exhaustive five-year DEA investigation into Le Roux by Kimberly Brill and the brave reporting of crimes suspected to be related to Le Roux on the ground in the Philippines, South Africa, and Brazil, Ratliff was able to build up a jigsaw puzzle of his organised crime cartel.
The book he’s since written documents how Le Roux diversified his money-making life-taking schemes – and how those in authority brought him to this odd justice after a five-year investigation.
His many companies fed into the supply of AK-47 assault rifles and light machine guns to Somali militias, as well as what is believed to be a missile guidance system to the Iranian government, in violation of an existing arms embargo.
While there’s no way to know exactly what motivated Le Roux – already a rich man profiting off a legal grey area of prescription drugs – into criminality, Ratliff believes it was ‘the rush of the deal’ which appealed to the mastermind as much as the ‘toxic mix’ of money, power and control.
Not satisfied with counter drugs – most of which are now classified – Le Roux turned to trafficking methamphetamines out of North Korea and shipping hundreds of kilograms of cocaine around the world, as well as experiments to cultivate narcotic plants including opium and cannabis near the Ethiopian border.
Using multiple identities by which he manipulated his disparate den of thieves – many of whom are former soldiers and security personnel having served in armies worldwide – he was also able to launder money through Hong Kong.
But this is more than just a cops and robbers tale. It’s one, as the author puts it, of fascinating moral complexities.
Ratliff estimated the hundreds or even thousands of people involved in the cartel are all culpable in different ways.
He said many suffered from an ‘amoral gravitational pull’ where Le Roux was the sun:
There were absolutely people who were pressured into various jobs – whether managing call centers or shipping drugs – because they feared the consequences if they said no.
But there were also plenty who loved the money, the adventure, the lifestyle that working for Le Roux afforded them.
What interested me was the way in which many of them signed up for activities they viewed as just barely outside the law but then slid bit by bit into more criminal activities until they found it impossible to get out.
Ironically, in cooperating with the government, Le Roux himself has helped take some very dangerous people off the streets.
Contrarily, many of those individuals had never conducted criminal activity before meeting Le Roux.
It is ‘one of the great paradoxes of Le Roux’s cooperation’, Ratliff adds, musing over the ‘awkward’ and ‘obvious problems’ with the judicial loophole which has seen ‘underlings’ get life sentences for murder commissioned by the very ‘top boss’ who confessed under the protection of a plea deal.
It’s just part of his enigmatic persona and his genius.
At first, the secrecy surrounding Le Roux made sense: He was in custody but pretending from custody to be still at large, in order to set up sting operations with the DEA against his own men.
After those arrests became public, and obviously after Le Roux’s own name leaked, the secrecy no longer had any justification, and seemed to just operate under its own momentum.
As for whether its right to allow him to cooperate, I think anyone who is interested in the story will have to look at his final sentence and weigh what was gained through his cooperation.
There are those, even within the DEA, who think authorities should have ‘flipped the right lower-level people to obtain the evidence to convict’ Le Roux, who is rumoured to be attempting a revival of his enterprise from behind bars.
If this is to be believed, some might argue it shows an inhuman lack of remorse.
It seems he’s driven, at least partly, by a sense of self-aggrandisement and self-preservation, never practicing the loyalty he preached to his employees on pain of death, instead favouring ‘utter frivolity when it came to their lives’.
With this in mind, it felt pertinent to ask Ratliff, who freely admits he became fascinated and obsessive about piecing together Le Roux’s story, is scared of what might happen if the reported narcissist reads the book.
Apple Books named The Mastermind audiobook a must-listen for Feb, so if you are an audiobook aficionado get to it! I will read this insane story right into your brain: https://t.co/OzhnPr9ZGe @PRHAudio pic.twitter.com/wJ0aKgPJ2x
— Evan Ratliff (@ev_rat) February 11, 2019
He was ‘careful’, he replied, but isn’t worried:
Everyone involved in this story, including Paul Le Roux, has bigger issues going on in their lives than my telling of it. While I’m reasonably confident he will at some point read the book, and maybe already has, I think he has concerns that are more significant than me.
Le Roux will never face trial thanks to his plea deal, but his sentencing – which has thus far been subject to a number of delays – is currently scheduled for the first half of this year. His case file remains sealed.
The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal. by Evan Ratliff is available now.
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A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.