The Mastermind – Evan Ratliff

About the Book

The incredible true story of the decade-long quest to bring down Paul Le Roux—the creator of a frighteningly powerful Internet-enabled cartel who merged the ruthlessness of a drug lord with the technological savvy of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur

It all started as an online prescription drug network, supplying hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of painkillers to American customers. It would not stop there. Before long, the business had turned into a sprawling multinational conglomerate engaged in almost every conceivable aspect of criminal mayhem. Yachts carrying $100 million in cocaine. Safe houses in Hong Kong filled with gold bars. Shipments of methamphetamine from North Korea. Weapons deals with Iran. Mercenary armies in Somalia. Teams of hitmen in the Philippines. Encryption programs so advanced that the government could not break them.

The man behind it all, pulling the strings from a laptop in Manila, was Paul Calder Le Roux—a reclusive programmer turned criminal genius who could only exist in the networked world of the twenty-first century, and the kind of self-made crime boss that American law enforcement had never imagined.

For half a decade, DEA agents played a global game of cat-and-mouse with Le Roux as he left terror and chaos in his wake. Each time they came close, he would slip away. It would take relentless investigative work, and a shocking betrayal from within his organization, to catch him. And when he was finally caught, the story turned again, as Le Roux struck a deal to bring down his own organization and the people he had once employed.

Award-winning investigative journalist Evan Ratliff spent four years piecing together this intricate puzzle, chasing LeRoux’s empire and his shadowy henchmen around the world, conducting hundreds of interviews and uncovering thousands of documents. The result is a riveting, unprecedented account of a crime boss built by and for the digital age.

480 pages (hardcover)
Published on January 29, 2019
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This book was a library loan. Yay libraries!


I’ve been on a bit of a nonfiction kick, recently. I ran across this book online, and immediately ordered it from the library. The reason? Apparently criminals interest me, and criminals who rule over empires, virtual or not, are just fascinating. I saw this, and figured it was just the right amount of weird, technical, and unique to really float my boat.

I read this book in two days. To put that into perspective, I’m editing two books for clients right now, going through one of my own books before I get it ready for editors, and writing another. I do not really have time to read, but I was so completely captivated by this novel, I put everything on hold so I could read it.

This book tells the story of one Paul Le Roux. (I totally suggest you google him. You won’t regret it.) Le Roux is sort of an uncanny operator. He’s not really the person you’d expect to rule a drug empire, but there he was. He had the right mixture of brains, and an entrepreneurial soul to make all of this work just right.

He basically started out in the “gray market” of online pharmacies in the United States, basically cornering the marketplace with RX Limited, and it’s tons and tons and tons of affiliated sites, basically amounting to gaming the system, so people could order almost whatever pills they wanted, and they’d show up. It was pretty easy to do without prescriptions. This, of course, got the attention of the DEA, and by the time it was all said and done, a ton of small mom and pop pharmacies that got involved in this thinking it was all above board, and a bunch of board certified doctors (involved for the same reason) ended up being arrested and/or paying huge fines.

ANYWAY.

So it starts out with online pharmacies in the United States, wherein Le Roux made absolute bank. Then he moves to the Philippians, and things get… weird. He starts hiring bodyguards, there are rumors that he was trafficking women, he started selling meth from North Korea. He had a squad of hitmen who assassinated anyone his paranoid brain thought was betraying him. He basically funded a militia in Somalia. He had a whole bunch of people assassinated. He laundered his money through lumber, diamonds, and gold in Africa, filling up a ton of safe houses with gold bars, which he’d rely on his people to transport from location to location. He also ran a healthy identity theft operation, which he used to open up just tons and tons of front companies all over the world.

He paid off almost everyone he could in the Philippians, so no one could, or would, touch him. Everyone was afraid to talk, and even after he was arrested, the author seems to have had a hard time finding people willing to go on the record about this guy because who knows if his network is still functioning.

Anyway, all of this stuff is going on, and he’s managing it all from the comfort of his own home, via computer. Things happen, and he gets caught. Then, oddity of all oddities, he begins to turn on his own people, reporting to the authorities who is doing what, where, and when to catch them. He ended up taking down most of his own network. Dude is now in prison, and so are a whole bunch of the hitmen and drug movers and shakers that worked with him.

This book tells that entire story, from inception to takedown, and then an epilogue saying where people are now, and what they are doing and it’s gripping. I mean, this is some stunning, surreal, incredibly readable reporting, and if it doesn’t get made into a movie I will eat my shoes.

The author did go into quite a bit of detail, really boiling down some things to their most minute points. It can possibly be a bit “too much” to some readers, but I honestly found myself on the other side of the equation. I wanted to know more. Specifically, I wanted to know a lot more about this meth and North Korea angle, which is really just glossed over rather than reported in detail. I want to know how that worked out. I want to know if exporting meth from North Korea is common. I’m interested, because I didn’t expect it. How do you get meth from one of the most closed off countries in the world? Fascinating.

Anyway.

Mastermind pulled me in and didn’t let me go. I was fascinated and horrified. It’s stunning. Shocking. Frightening. This guy likely won’t spend his whole life in jail, and that’s also scary. A lot of the people who worked with him are unknown, or have disappeared, and that’s something that left me with a cold chill as well. The reporting, however, really does deserve to be admired. It’s not often that a reporter gets this in-depth with a figure that is this powerful, and this frightening. He really got into it, tracking down sources, and speaking to everyone he could, from hitmen, to people who only had brief interactions with Le Roux, to the investigators in the United States who started looking at this guy and spent years trying to take him down.

Immensely readable, this book just blew me away. It’s the kind of nonfiction book you have to keep reminding yourself is nonfiction. It’s just… surreal, almost. This guy was everywhere, with hands in so many different pies, and his network was beyond extensive and so secretive. He’s in prison, but it really left me thinking that prison might just be another front. I mean, how can you really take the head off an organization like this?

So yeah, this book really gripped me and I think it got into my head a bit and made me look at the internet differently, as well as how we use it. More than that, though, I was just fascinated by the story of this person who rose up from obscurity to rule an empire. It also made me wonder how different things could be if people like Paul Le Roux decided to use his substantial skills for something good, rather than running drugs, laundering money, and liberally shifting pills around the United States.

If you’re into true crime, or if you’re really just into action in general, you really need to read this book. It’s probably one of my favorite books I’ve read this year. It sank its teeth into me, and it hasn’t let go. I can’t stop thinking about it.

And that, friends, is the mark of a truly good book.

5/5 stars

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