The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Building an international criminal empire — online

Jill Leovy is the author of “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” and a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Paul Le Roux was raised in South Africa and mastered computer programing well enough to have made a good living and maybe even gotten rich, had he pursued a straight career in software development or cybersecurity. Instead, he built an international mafia-style empire, hired a team of hit men to kill and torture people, and went to federal prison.

Why? In his book “The Mastermind,” Evan Ratliff speculates that Le Roux’s obsessive immersion in coding might have warped his mind and amplified his sadistic leanings. “His approach was algorithmic, not moral,” he observes. But Ratliff takes the idea no further; he’s more concerned with how Le Roux’s coding affected the rest of us — by making him vastly more powerful and dangerous.

This allows him to place Le Roux’s story within a larger one about a world made more incoherent and frightening by the Internet. Web promoters and billionaires praise the Internet’s potential to redistribute power and disrupt institutions, but Ratliff reminds us that those so empowered include people like Le Roux — in thrall to greed and uninhibited by ethics — and the institutions so weakened are those that once afforded us protection.

Ratliff’s thoughtful, deftly written account begins in 2007, when federal investigators in Minneapolis come across Le Roux’s vast network of online pharmaceutical suppliers. Le Roux, then in his mid-30s, had been a dropout, a computer geek and an inventor of groundbreaking encryption software, then built his gray-market drug empire from scratch. The business was filling thousands of prescriptions by mail, mostly painkillers not yet regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was soon grossing $250 million a year, and Le Roux branched out into overseas logging, gold-buying and money-laundering ventures.

Ratliff describes how Le Roux’s enterprises metastasized into international shipments of cocaine, methamphetamine and illegal arms. His gang of mercenary thugs, mostly former soldiers from “the international private security circuit,” roughed up people at his bidding, Ratliff writes. They threatened a journalist and killed, among others, a lawyer and a real estate agent in the Philippines.

Finally, federal law enforcement caught up with Le Roux, made a deal with him and used him in a sting to catch some of his underlings, including American mercenaries involved in the Philippine murders.

Bit by bit, Le Roux’s juvenile drug-lord fantasyland comes into focus: He treated women like toys and bought himself an island. But Ratliff recognizes that Le Roux, despite his over-the-top heinousness, is at base an uninteresting figure. He focuses instead on the workings of his empire.

This proves a fascinating chronicle, especially when Ratliff turns to the many ways poor nations serve as spillways for the dark excesses of rich ones. He highlights a telling remark Le Roux made about Liberia while being covertly recorded by investigators: “I understand this type of place,” he says approvingly. He means Liberia is a haven for organized crime.

In fact, it is the Liberian police who aid the DEA’s arrest of Le Roux, but up until then, his sense of where to find cover was unerring. For years, he inhabited an alternate universe — a dark zone of semi-failed states across Africa, Asia and Latin America through which he moved freely, shielding his criminal enterprises from the law. He bribed embassy workers in the Philippines and, in an astonishing episode, set up an armed corporate compound in Somalia.

Ratliff doesn’t spare the intermediaries who linked this world to Western drug consumers. These included a Midwestern pharmacy and an Israeli call center. Le Roux found American doctors willing to write prescriptions for patients they had never seen and telemarketers willing to peddle painkillers to random strangers. He even employed a team of software engineers to develop a missile-guidance program to sell to Iran. The Web made Le Roux’s rise possible. But so did the willingness of so many professionals to tread the edges of ethics and legality.

Ratliff’s book was released a few weeks before “Hunting LeRoux: The Inside Story of the DEA Takedown of a Criminal Genius and His Empire” by Elaine Shannon. Though she covers much of the same ground, Shannon’s lens is narrow where Ratliff’s is wide, and the cultural spaces the two books inhabit are different.

Ratliff has produced a sharp and critical examination of the entirety of the case. Shannon has spun an action-packed yarn around a piece of the whole — the DEA sting operations that led to the arrests. Filmmaker Michael Mann owns the film and television rights, and with “Hunting LeRoux,” he inaugurates his book line under William Morrow. True to the Mann formula, Shannon’s purpose is to dramatize the “boundary-breaking” efforts of one set of DEA agents who joined the case several years after the agency began to track Le Roux’s business.

Probably no one involved with either book is happy about this concurrence. But the two narratives complement each other in interesting ways. Ratliff suggests that rivalries inside the DEA were bitter; Shannon’s fleeting mention of any investigative efforts besides her subjects’ can be taken as confirmation. Similarly, the DEA mostly refused to talk to Ratliff. So he is left to infer that agents were swayed by unfounded hopes of obtaining valuable intelligence about North Korea and Iran. Shannon, to whom DEA agents seem to have happily recounted their exploits, shows this was indeed much in the air.

One example sums up the contrast between Shannon’s slightly overheated style and Ratliff’s detached one: Shannon introduces a key character as a capable military veteran with a “pleasantly craggy face” and a “deep bass voice.” In Ratliff’s hands, the same man is revealed to be an idle, sun-seeking expat who washes up in a Philippine beach town to milk his public benefits.

Despite its cinematic gloss, Shannon’s book does contribute some worthy observations to Ratliff’s more penetrating — and more interesting — account. She is especially convincing when she laments the inability of traditional institutions to cope with the globe-straddling crimes of Le Roux. Ratliff’s reporting shows this problem’s depth and, unlike Shannon, zeroes in on the lackluster results of the U.S. government’s investigation. He’s especially troubled by the favorable terms Le Roux won in his cooperation deal. Le Roux, after all, was helping agents catch people who were carrying out his orders.

By that time, Le Roux had already lost the loyalty of several associates. (Shannon shrewdly notes that the Internet allowed Le Roux to become an international crime boss without “a massive structure of camaraderie, like the Mafia.”) Le Roux was reckless. He had been on authorities’ radar for years. And although both authors nod to the conceit that he was a cyber-genius, even this seems arguable. Ratliff captures an early employer saying that Le Roux “wasn’t a brilliant pure coder” and mostly built on others’ work.

What Le Roux clearly had in excess was cruel obsessions. Isolated and with visions of movie-villain grandeur, he was able to extend his stunted worldview across borders partly because the forces that might have contained him proved feeble. To those who celebrate the Internet’s capacity to flatten barriers and transcend institutions, read Ratliff and think of Le Roux.

By Evan Ratliff.

Random House. 446 pp. $28.

William Morrow. 351 pp. $27.99