Last month The Atavist Magazine launched The Mastermind, a weekly series on a programmer turned crime kingpin. Paul Le Roux was the leader of an Internet-driven global drug cartel who has been implicated in the murders of at least six people. He was arrested in 2012 and recently appeared in a Minneapolis court for the case against his alleged former employees. Atavist writer and co-founder Evan Ratliff (who moonlights as the co-host of the Longform Podcast) began digging into the story after he was able to link Le Roux to the creation of the encryption software put in the spotlight by Edward Snowden.
In his seven-part series, Ratliff tracks Le Roux’s rise from gifted programmer to cartel leader and – with the advantages of reporting each week in real time – unearths new details on his crimes. On this week’s podcast, Ratliff talks with ProPublica reporter David Epstein about some of the story’s most remarkable twists and the painstaking reporting that led to them.
Some highlights from their conversation:
- Crime reporting abroad can allow for greater access to information.
Ratliff: The DEA still will not talk to me, the U.S. Attorney’s office still will not talk to me about this story, and we're four episodes in. It's an open case, so generally they won't talk about open cases. When you go to other countries, they have different standards. Different police have different understandings of those standards, so I made it my policy to always just ask the question that seems impossible. [In the Philippines where I was investigating a murder], we were riding in a van and we had gone out to the crime scene. They had taken the case file with them. On the way back I was just sitting in the back of the van and said, "Hey, can I see that? Can I look at that?" Then I was paging through, and taking pictures with my iPhone.
- Telling the story serially has encouraged new sources to come forward and help with the reporting.
Ratliff: We were hoping that, as a couple of episodes came out, more people would come out of the woodwork. It's really hard to get people to talk about working for a criminal who’s killed people, for various reasons. People are legitimately afraid for their lives if they speak out, so I had found a lot of sources, but I was hoping to get more. After the first episode came out, this person who is a relative of Le Roux’s sent me an email, and at first I glossed over it. It just said, “Great story, I'm really enjoying it.” And then it said something like, “Did you know he also had a Bulgarian passport and a diplomatic passport from the Congo?”
- Ratliff keeps any potential dangers out of his mind while reporting.
Ratliff: I try not to overplay that even in my own mind, because you can get really paranoid if you do that. I'm not a war reporter, and I'm not generally in dangerous environment. I generally think people who are involved in this thing, they've got all kinds of problems with each other. Some of them might be mad about people talking, some of them might be mad about things that happened. My role is not one that they're going to benefit from harming me. … I just don't think there's anything in it for them. Hopefully I will never be proven wrong.