On the trail of software guru McAfee
Amid all the panic, his friend with the boat had to go to town to get some spare parts. Engine mended, they then discovered that there was no petrol. “That was the scariest part,” he recalled. “The police were looking for us everywhere.”
The obvious question was, why run at all? After all, the police had said that there were no charges against McAfee yet. “He is still just a person of interest” in the investigation, police spokesman Raphael Martinez told me. “We are still looking for him.” (Asked why they had not found him, Martinez said, “It beats the hell out of me.”)
Besides, McAfee insisted that he had nothing to do with Faull’s murder and that in spite of being neighbours - their houses were about 300 yards apart - he barely even knew the man. “He drank and I don’t hang with people who drink,” he said. He also reminded me that Belize was not as safe as people thought. I had already checked the statistics: according to United Nations figures, the country’s murder rate has risen rapidly, from about 16 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2000 to more than 41 in 2010.
For many people, the answer was that McAfee was paranoid. Or as Dean Barrow, Belize’s prime minister, suggested a couple of weeks ago in statements made in Belize City to a local reporter, McAfee might simply be “bonkers”.
The inspiration for that assessment came in part from locals on Ambergris Caye, many of whom painted a picture of an increasingly insular McAfee, rarely venturing from his blue-roofed beach compound on the northern part of the island where armed guards kept vigil. Neighbours, including Faull, had complained about his numerous dogs, which barked at passersby, while rumours had been circulating, and with increasing speed, about his cavorting with young women and, above all, about drugs.
McAfee, who feeds on attention, didn’t help to suppress the rumours. Two years ago, and for several months, he posted regularly on Bluelight.ru, a Russian-registered drug- aficionados forum, claiming to have rediscovered the formula for “tan” MDPV, a narcotic that wowed the drug community when it first appeared in the early 2000s and then acquired semi-mythical status following its disappearance soon after.
From his hideout, McAfee admitted to authoring the posts but also said that they were a hoax, a practical joke - the inevitable result of being a “prankster”. He said he gave up all drugs and even alcohol 30-odd years previously. That tallies with other accounts: people who knew him and worked with him closely back then recall that there was never any alcohol at his company parties and that, in the typical style of someone who had at one time taken plenty of narcotics - “There is not a drug I have not taken,” he told me in Belize - he would often “preach” about how bad drugs were.
Samantha brought us some lunch from the impossibly small kitchen. It was a plate each of tightly rolled tacos filled with beef and thick-cut salsa. McAfee stubbed out his cigarette and, between mouthfuls of taco, he told me he had decided to run because he felt tension had been mounting between him and the authorities ever since he moved, a couple of years previously, from the touristy Ambergris Caye to the jungle interior of the country. “I was the only white man living full-time in a district of 30,000 people,” he said. “And that was a mistake. It became clear that I had money. I had automobiles, I had houses, I had things that other people did not have. And so suddenly, I became a target.”
A wealthy man living in a small, isolated and poor community provided fabulous employment opportunities for many locals. There were jobs in construction work and to provide security, gardening and maintenance of the properties. But there were also the ventures that McAfee set up, such as the Studio 54 bar in Carmelita village, which he paid for and then let others administer. During a stay in Carmelita the night before the interview, I was told that McAfee was spending about US$6,000 a week on his local payroll. But it also created plenty of bad blood for those who either failed to get “in” with him or, worse, got a job only to lose it later for one reason or another.
More important, McAfee claimed that living in the interior of the country had brought him into direct contact with local circles of power, which he insisted saw in him a once-in-a-lifetime chance to line their pockets. He gave. But he also believed that he had annoyed the authorities by giving in kind - goods, property, equipment - instead of handing out cash. “No one can skim,” he said. “Instead of giving $5m to the government, I gave it to the people. So suddenly, [it’s] like, ‘Where the f*** is my share? You should have given it to us and we will buy the stuff.’ So that they will take the $5m and buy $50,000 worth of stuff and then give the rest to their families. So I didn’t do that. I didn’t play by the rules. It pissed everybody off.”
McAfee argued that the breaking point came in April when members of the Gang Suppression Unit, a division of the police force created in response to Belize’s rapidly rising crime rate, stormed his jungle compound. “That’s when I knew I was in trouble,” he said, lifting another taco to his mouth. Police said they were looking for illegal weapons and drugs. According to Martinez, they found some guns but no illegal drugs. He also said no charges were filed against McAfee.
Today, the jungle compound, which served as McAfee’s house and laboratory where he was developing topical antiseptics, is gated and the doors of the eight or so houses on the riverfront property, all built on stilts and constructed from local hardwoods with palm-leaf roofs, are boarded up. All his personal belongings have also been moved out. I came across some of them at a nearby house on a different property that McAfee had said was empty and where I could stay the night. On the phone, he described it as “very comfortable”.
And it was. But it was also basic and hardly a millionaire’s dream house. Constructed in a similar design to his houses in the jungle compound, it consisted of one main space with a counter top or bar separating the living room from the kitchen. To the side, there were a couple of tiny rooms sectioned off by white walls.
I slept in one of them. It had a small, rustic four-poster bed and the largest flatscreen television set I could recall seeing. There was a yellow notepad with some of his handwriting on it. It read: “Lesson 6: Solving systems by graphing”. There was also a leather-bound edition of Robert A Heinlein’s science-fiction classic, Stranger in a Strange Land. No kidding.
McAfee was born in 1945 in England to an English mother and a US soldier fighting in the second world war. He described his father as “an alcoholic and abusive”. When McAfee was two the family moved to the US to a small town in Virginia, and into a society that he described as “very conservative, provincial, Christian. I had to go to chapel every week on Wednesday.” As if to ram home the point, he added: “I was an altar boy. I could probably quote the Bible from beginning to end.” To my surprise, he started to do just that and then interrupted himself, saying, “I never believed it.”