Evan Ratliff’s new book, ‘The Mastermind’, explores the dark side of the Internet

Ratliff was so intrigued by the story of Paul Le Roux that he travelled across the world, trying to piece together the puzzle   | Photo Credit: Jonah Green

Arms dealers and drug cartel kingpins are no novelty. We’ve all watched enough Narcos to get a glimpse of how that world operates. But one particular journalist — New York-based Evan Ratliff (co-founder of Atavist magazine and co-host of the Longform podcast) — was convinced that the story of criminal mastermind Paul Le Roux was unique.

The reason? Because he believed that Le Roux was “fully a product of the Internet age”, and that his story was not very different to that of tech company founders like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. “It’s an almost clichéd Silicon Valley startup story — Le Roux was a natural programmer, he dropped out of school and took computer classes on his own,” he explains. But along the way, Le Roux’s life took a very different turn to that of the Tesla and Facebook founders.

In his recently-released book, The Mastermind: Drugs. Empire. Murder. Betrayal, Ratliff walks readers through his multi-year fascination with this subject. It is not just a thriller, but also a glimpse into the far-reaching powers of those who know how to skilfully manipulate the Internet.

Success at all costs

From super-fast yachts carrying drugs, to pirates in Somalia and arms deals with Iran, Le Roux’s life has all the makings of an action flick. But the Zimbabwe-born South African — who ran most of his operations out of Manila — started his career (if you can call it that) in the World Wide Web.

In the early 90s, he built a piece of encryption software, E4M, which he shared with other coders for free under the principles of the Open Software movement (thereby foregoing any royalties). It became very successful, forming the basis of TrueCrypt, the software used in 2013 by ex-CIA employee and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. “Le Roux was very frustrated that he never made any money on it,” explains Ratliff, adding that he soon delved into “grey-area” businesses on the Internet, selling prescription medicines. American residents could enter their symptoms on a website, have them reviewed by a doctor (who was paid for every prescription filled), and receive the order from a local pharmacy. “If you take away just the legal aspects, as a startup, it was very successful,” he says. In fact, by one estimate, the venture was making around $250 million a year in revenue in 2008 — roughly the same as Facebook.

Le Roux eventually “diversified” into ventures such as arms and drug trafficking to become the leader of a criminal cartel that is believed to have contributed to the American Opioid epidemic. Busted by American authorities in 2012, he somewhat bizarrely turned informant, and currently awaits trial in the US.

Around the world in illegal activities

Officers at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the US were first alerted to suspicious sales of prescription drugs in 2006, and spent six years gathering information and biding their time. Ratliff, too, was on Le Roux’s trail, from Tel Aviv (meeting call-centre employees who managed the network of American doctors and pharmacists) to Manila (trying to piece together the murder of a real estate agent) to Minneapolis (attending trials). “Just in terms of building a criminal cartel from nothing — I had never seen that anywhere in the world,” explains the tech writer, about his fascination with the man he calls the most successful cyber-criminal in history.

By the time trials surrounding the case had begun in the US in 2016, Ratliff started writing a seven-part longform series of highly detailed, carefully-researched articles for Atavist. His intimate knowledge soon made him a source of sorts. People reached out to him, and an influx of clues and tips led to more information, including the details of the anonymous ex-employee who colluded with the authorities to trap the mastermind.

Worth the wait

Ratliff is the journalist who deliberately “vanished” in 2009, making his physical whereabouts unknown, offering readers of Wired magazine $5,000 to locate him. Eventually tracked in New Orleans, he did the experiment to see what “going off the grid” looked like in the social media age. His book brings the same level of curiosity and willingness to jump in to the thick of things. With reams of notes and a web of interconnected characters that he pursued relentlessly, he hopes that The Mastermind will not just serve as a juicy read, but also as a signal of more complicated realities. “For instance, a lot of Le Roux’s mercenaries (employees) were products of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had the kinds of skills that drug dealers needed. There’s also the Opioid epidemic. My hope is that those things filter into your brain as you’re enjoying an insane story,” he concludes.

The Mastermind, published by Penguin Random House, is available on

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 2:43:43 PM |

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