Global criminal mastermind learnt the ropes in Krugersdorp
It’s a story stranger than epic fiction, and at its heart is an international criminal genius who grew up in Krugersdorp.
The tale of Paul le Roux — described by the New York Times in 2018 as "one of the world's least known but most prodigious criminals" — begins in Zimbabwe, where he was given up for adoption at a maternity home in Bulawayo in 1972.
When Le Roux was 12 his adoptive parents moved to SA, where he was given his first computer in return for washing his mine-manager father’s car.
After that he became obsessed by coding and was "completely anti-social", according to a childhood friend who spoke to Evan Ratliff, author of a new book about Le Roux, The Mastermind.
Le Roux left SA when he was 18, and the programming skills he developed in his West Rand bedroom allowed him to build "a new kind of global criminal empire, making hundreds of millions of dollars feeding the American painkiller epidemic through a brilliant online scheme", said Ratliff.
"He then built his own cartel, trafficking meth out of North Korea and cocaine from South America, selling arms to Iran, building a militia in Somalia, dealing black-market gold across Africa and employing ex-military mercenaries as his enforcers and assassins."
Le Roux lived in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong and The Netherlands before reviving his SA links in 2000 by launching a company called SW Professionals, which offered encryption programming services to offshore clients.
The company went out of business in 2002, and two years later Le Roux began selling prescription drugs online, setting up call centres in Israel and the Philippines.
In 2007, according to numerous sources cited on the criminal's lengthy Wikipedia page, he began to diversify into illegal activities including logging, mining, gold smuggling, drug shipments, arms trafficking and money laundering, operating in Manila, Hong Kong, Colombia, Africa and Brazil.
He moved to Rio de Janeiro in 2011 and the following year the police caught up with him when he visited Liberia to negotiate a deal to supply ingredients for methamphetamine, known in SA as tik.
He was arrested and flown to the US, agreeing to plead guilty to drug charges in return from immunity against prosecution for any other crimes he might admit to. He then confessed to having arranged or taken part in seven murders.
Meanwhile, he began helping the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) dismantle his own organisation. His arrest was kept secret, and Le Roux continued to send instructions to many of his top employees, leading them into government traps.
Le Roux continues to assist US authorities. Reporting on a murder trial in April 2018, the New York Times said: "In a spellbinding two-day turn as a prosecution witness, Mr le Roux confessed to an astonishing array of crimes.
"He said he had once sold missile technology to Iran, shipped guns from Indonesia and trafficked methamphetamines out of North Korea. He calmly told a jury in New York that he had taken part in at least five murders.
"With a businesslike demeanour, he admitted not only to arming a 200-man militia in Somalia but also to hatching plans to use mercenaries to overthrow the government of the Seychelles.
"When a prosecutor asked what he had smuggled over the years, Mr le Roux responded without affect: 'Cash, chemicals, drugs and gold.' He said that he had also smuggled weapons and when asked to whom, he answered: 'Rebels, warlords, criminals — essentially anyone who had money'."
Le Roux was giving evidence against three mercenaries on his payroll who were accused of killing a Filipino estate agent, Catherine Lee, in 2012. The trio was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Random House's publicity for The Mastermind says Le Roux created a "frighteningly powerful internet-enabled cartel who merged the ruthlessness of a drug lord with the technological savvy of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur".
"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."
"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 21st century, and the kind of self-made crime boss that American law enforcement had never imagined.
Ratliff said on Twitter: "It took years of reporting to get to sources on all sides, against resistance that included official efforts to manufacture false narratives and erase the real ones. I’m proud of what I put into it, and I hope you find it worthwhile. Thanks to anyone who gives it a shot."
Penguin Random House SA marketing manager Rinette Verster said The Mastermind would be available at bookshops by Friday February 8.