A MASTERMIND UNMASKED
How a South African man became the world’s most notorious cyber-criminal
When he was growing up in Krugersdorp in the 1980s, friends of Paul le Roux had no sense of what was in the nerdy teenager’s future. Le Roux had the coding abilities and brains to have been another Mark Shuttleworth – but he chose a different path. Now 46, Le Roux is in a federal jail in the USA, awaiting sentencing after being unmasked as the mastermind behind a global cyber-criminal enterprise involving drug trafficking, arms trading, and murder.
The first appearance of Paul Le Roux in the South African media came in a Beeld report in 2008.
“A South African expatriate has paid millions of dollars to a former Israeli gun-runner with links to Robert Mugabe in a bid to secure 99-year leases on farmland seized by the Zimbabwean government as part of its land-reform programme,” wrote investigative journalist Julian Rademeyer.
“Paul Calder le Roux, 35, hired Ari Ben-Menashe, a self-proclaimed former Mossad spy who famously tried to discredit Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai by implicating him in a plot to assassinate Mugabe, to facilitate the land deal.”
It was a wild story. In an interview a year earlier with Washington newspaper The Hill, Le Roux had explained that his attempt to secure land in Zimbabwe was rooted in a desire for justice for the white farmers driven off the land by Mugabe.
“We want recognition that injustice was done in the past and that the land reform programme corrects that,” Le Roux was quoted as saying.
That comment given to The Hill was the first and last time Le Roux was known to make a statement to the media.
But in 2011, he would crop up in a local news report again – once more due to the investigative efforts of Julian Rademeyer. On this occasion, Le Roux was named as “the financier of a 220-strong private Somali militia and a bizarre scheme to cultivate opium, coca and dagga in the war-torn country”.
Le Roux had been fingered in a report to the UN Security Council, along with his company Southern Ace Ltd, as being responsible for “egregious violations” on the arms embargo on Somalia.
One year later, Le Roux would enter the custody of a US federal prison, where he remains to this day. It is only in recent months, however, thanks largely to the publication of American journalist Evan Ratliff’s book on Le Roux – The Mastermind – that the full picture of Le Roux’s astonishing criminal enterprise has started to become clearer.
He is being called the most successful cyber-criminal in history: in Ratliff’s words, “a brilliant self-made software programmer from South Africa” who single-handedly built “a dystopian company to rival today’s tech giants”.
Paul Calder Le Roux was born in 1972 in Bulawayo and given up for adoption – a fact which he only discovered later in life, and that is believed to have shocked and angered him.
His biological father is named by Ratliff as “a South African named Darroll Hornbuckle”, with whom Le Roux made contact in adult life and who became involved in an unspecified capacity in his son’s criminal activity.
There is little trace of such a person online, but a 51-year-old “Darryl Hornbuckle” was reported in 2003 as having been arrested in Durban and charged with illegally exporting Schedule Five medication using fake doctor’s prescriptions. As will be seen, this makes it likely that the Darryl Hornbuckle in question is the same man named as Le Roux’s biological father.
Le Roux’s adoptive parents moved to South Africa in Le Roux’s childhood in the hope of providing him with a better education. The family settled in Krugersdorp, on the West Rand.
Ratliff describes the teenage Le Roux as “a decent but unmotivated student” who “despised the idea of learning Afrikaans”, which was then still compulsory in South African schools.
“He derided the new countrymen at his high school as halfwits and morons,” writes Ratliff. “In a sports-mad culture where a kid of his size was expected on the rugby pitch, he favoured video games.”
Shortly after matriculating, Le Roux left for London – but maintained close links to both Zimbabwe and South Africa, using ID documents from both countries, registering companies in both and favouring South African staff in certain unsavoury capacities. In secret recordings of Le Roux captured in the sting operation which led to his arrest, he can be heard speaking in an unmistakably South African accent.
The tragedy of Le Roux is that it is clear he had the intellect and ability to make major contributions to the world of technology, but one event in his life, in particular, seems to have set him on a different course.
After toiling for two years on the project, in 1999 he released groundbreaking encryption software called E4M which he had written. It allowed users to encrypt their entire hard drives, meaning they became effectively impenetrable to inspection. Le Roux distributed the software for free, alongside a kind of mini-manifesto in which he predicted that government surveillance would become ever more invasive and the need to safeguard privacy accordingly more acute.
But after this act of cyber altruism, Le Roux found himself broke – and ended up having to work for a company called SecurStar on what was effectively a commercial version of his own software.
This experience seems to have embittered Le Roux, who would go on to pursue money and power with lust that “would slip the bonds of the internet and enter the realm of flesh and blood”, writes Ratliff.
His primary money-making operation, which he ran from the Philippines, was the world’s largest network of online pharmacies. Le Roux would later tell the feds that he had made at least $300-million through this enterprise, which enabled Americans to buy painkillers online without a valid doctor’s prescription at a time when the USA’s opioid crisis was beginning to take root.
Yet despite the success of this operation, Le Roux had bigger ambitions.
Ratliff quotes one of Le Roux’s employees as saying: “He never told me his exact plans, except to have ‘his own little kingdom’.”
Le Roux would say: “We’ll have a kingdom in Africa.”
He laundered money from his pharmacy business through gold, timber and diamonds in Africa and Asia.
From prescription medication, Le Roux expanded to illegal drugs. He ran a global drug trafficking syndicate, buying meth from North Korea. At one stage he attempted to purchase a North Korean submarine to move the drugs.
Some of his projects started off with a veneer of legality and then shifted course. His interest in Somalia – the operation which caught the eye of the US in 2011 – started off with plans for a tuna-fishing business off the Somali coast. When Le Roux grew impatient with the lengthy time frame involved, the focus changed to the cultivation of illegal drugs and the establishment of an accompanying militia.
At one stage, he asked two underlings to develop a plan to “invade and occupy the Seychelles”, Ratliff writes.
Arms trading became a significant focus for Le Roux. Ratliff reports that he brokered a deal with an Iranian government official to sell Iran a formula for powerful explosives which Le Roux had perfected.
“But Le Roux had a more lucrative project for the Iranians,” writes Ratliff: “Missile-guidance-system software, similar to that used in US Tomahawk missiles, that could potentially help the country extend the reach of the nuclear capabilities it had been trying to develop for decades.”
South Africans featured prominently in Le Roux’s security team. As former apartheid security operatives turned freelance mercenaries, they were tasked by Le Roux with guarding his operations, smuggling money and gold across borders, and carrying out assassinations on Le Roux’s behest.
One of the hitmen in question was interviewed by Ratliff for his book. He is identified as a “former South African policeman named Marcus”, whose duties consisted “primarily of assassinating employees and business associates who Le Roux believed were cheating him”.
Some of Le Roux’s South African employees did not work out. One, dispatched to Somalia to oversee the tuna-fishing operation, “rarely ventured outside and loudly disdained the Somalis”.
He had to be sent home “after he drunkenly fired weapons from the roof of the compound”.
Le Roux himself is described as an unpleasant person: an unkempt, lumbering figure who almost never deviated from a uniform of shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops.
One of his managers told Ratliff: “[Le Roux] was a really big racist, an asshole. For Paul, everyone was a ‘n*****’. I was a ‘white n*****’.”
Le Roux also comes across as being possessed of Trump-esque hubris. One of his unexecuted plans was to build two towers in Manila and call them the Le Roux Towers.
Another of his schemes reeks of an even more sinister brand of megalomania. Ratliff records that Le Roux had women brought from villages all over the Philippines to be installed in his houses in Manila. They were there not just to feed Le Roux’s apparently sadistic sexual appetites, but also because he aimed to impregnate as many as possible in order to build a trusted army of future employees: his own children.
After a US investigation spanning several years, Le Roux was arrested in 2012 in a sting operation in Liberia involving a fake Colombian drug merchant wearing a wire. He has been in US federal prison ever since.
But astonishingly, Le Roux’s sentencing – a date for which has yet to be set – may result in a prison sentence as short as 10 years, or even “time served”, meaning he would effectively be released without further imprisonment.
This is because US authorities allowed Le Roux to make a deal in which he would rat on his former criminal partners.
Writes Ratliff: “Le Roux had offered not just to help catch his associates, but to share information about dealings he’d had with Iran and North Korea. He was now more than a drug and arms dealer… He was a national security asset.”
Le Roux will also not be charged with any of seven murders he admitted to, as part of his co-operation agreement with the US government and their lack of jurisdiction over murders committed outside the USA.
Ratliff reports that Marcus, Le Roux’s former hitman, continues to live freely in South Africa.
“’Fuck, I’ve already said so much, the last thing I want is people knocking on my door,’ [Marcus] said to me after we’d talked for an hour. ‘I’ll never be able to put my fucking feet in America, or they will lock me up, I suppose.’ He felt he’d paid for the killings in his own way. ‘I think karma sorted me out for the shit I’ve done. I got divorced, I lost everything. I had to restart. I rebuilt my life, a good job and everything, and now I’m a bit scared because I don’t know what’s going to happen, to be quite honest.’
“He was disappointed, he said, that he’d never get to take the Harley road trip across the southern United States that he had always dreamed about.” DM