Over the past month a strange story has been percolating about former antivirus software icon John McAfee and his new life in Belize. McAfee is currently being sought for questioning by Belizean authorities in relation to the death of American expatriate Gregory Faull, who was McAfee’s neighbor on island resort Ambergris Caye. He has been imprisoned in neighboring Guatemala for entering the country illegally and was hospitalized today. My interest in the story has been partly personal, due to the fact that in 2010 I took my honeymoon in Belize and went past McAfee’s jungle compound while on a river tour. I want to write this story to attempt to process what I have read, heard, and seen from and about McAfee in light of my experiences in his adopted country.
The trip into the jungle wasn’t as romantic as part of me wanted it to be.
I had expected winding our way through a claustrophobic canopy of trees in stifling heat along a river infested by crocodiles to arrive Indiana-Jones-style at a lost Mayan city.
Instead we were gliding along a wide, open river in overcast skies, retired couples at our sides, while our guide who was well-spoken in English pointed out the sights to us. Oh and an American millionaire had already built a compound here.
I can’t remember whether our guide told us, or whether we found out later, but our river journey glided by several buildings right by the river owned by John McAfee. He was engaged in research about how the compounds in jungle plants could provide new pharmaceuticals. I knew almost nothing about McAfee but was happy that he was deciding to focus his energies on possibly doing some good with the money he had collected in the tech industry.
I selected Belize as my honeymoon destination based on a couple factors. Firstly, the previous winter my wife and I had done our first warm-weather winter vacation, and quickly realized why going to a warm climate in February was appealing to so many people in our neck of the woods. We wanted to go somewhere warm, but not just park ourselves on the beach for two weeks. I chatted with a co-worker about what we were looking for and he suggested we investigate Belize. As we looked into it further Belize appeared to be the perfect winter destination. While the beaches would be gorgeous, there were so many more things to enjoy. Belize has the second longest barrier reef in the world, which makes for fabulous snorkeling and diving. The interior of the country features Mayan ruins. Belize started to become popular as a destination around the same time that the concept of eco-tourism began to flourish, and as a result much of Belize is protected national parkland. Belize’s history as a British colony (formerly known as British Honduras until the 1960’s) made it more politically stable compared to nearby Guatemala and El Salvador. It seemed the perfect place for people who wanted a little more to their vacation than just sun, surf, and sand.
We also felt we were realistic about what we were getting ourselves into. Belize is a third-world country (or at least a second-world country), and has all the problems associated with that: poverty, crime, lack of sanitation, minimal facilities, amongst other things. We got a ton of immunizations, purchased emergency medical evacuation insurance, took anti-malarial drugs, wore long-sleeve shirts and pants in the interior to avoid mosquito bites, and never drank water that wasn’t bottled or boiled. We didn’t venture off the island of Caye Caulker without guidance from our cab driver about where to go and who to see. When we checked into our cabin on the island, our landlord (a Canadian expatriate) warned us to watch out for the local Rastafarians and strongly cautioned against buying any drugs as the police had a strong anti-drug policy and targeted tourists in particular when making arrests. Walking into the vacation with open eyes, we ended up having a fabulous time, and came home with a ton of memories and only a little Montezuma’s Revenge (my fault for sampling some street food).
One of the trips we took while in Belize was to visit the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. Lacking direct road access, tourists take taxis up to the town of Orange Walk and board boats that go down the New River to the site of the former Mayan city. Along the way, a knowledgeable guide talked about the environment and used unnaturally sharp eyesight to spot all sorts of rare animals and point them out to us as we went by. We traveled by the Mennonite community of Shipyard and were told that the Mennonites produce 75% of the commercial agriculture in Belize. It was on this trip that we passed McAfee’s compound and his existence soon faded from my memory.
My reason for sharing all the above is that it colors everything I am now hearing about McAfee, and my opinion of McAfee is colored by everything he says about Belize.
On the one hand we have stories written by sources such as Wired’s Joshua Davis , who portrays McAfee as dangerously unbalanced and paranoid, trying to set up a fiefdom in the jungle of Belize. In Davis’ story, he recounts McAfee’s freewheeling coding days as a cokehead before settling down and devising how to make himself millions in the budding world of antivirus software. Davis notes that you need a certain amount of paranoia to work in computer security, and that paranoia is fed as McAfee moves to Belize and finds his larger-than-life persona clashing with the authorities in Belize. His good-natured attempts to improve the lot of the locals inland only served to increase the tension. As he embarked on pharmaceutical research, his paranoia increased and McAfee started believing that the big pharmaceutical companies were out to steal his secrets. He started hiring his own private security, and not making very good choices about who his security was comprised of. For some reason didn’t realize that some people may get worried when a rich man sets up a drug lab in the jungle and hires a bunch of locals (including criminals) to provide security. McAfee also posted on drug use forum Bluelight about his work to synthesize MDPV, a strain of which has been called the street name “bath salts.”
On the other hand we have the voice of McAfee himself, via both his blog and appearances he has made on CNN, the Joe Rogan Show , and the Alex Jones radio show . McAfee portrays himself as a man with money in a poor country where everyone wants a cut of his fortune. He states that he was trying to help improve the lot of the people in Belize, and chose to spend money on improvement directly rather than give it to the government, whom he describes as incredibly corrupt. He says Belizean authorities are after him, not because he is guilty of anything, but because he is threatening their power. He says that he spent money on helping provide the police with boots, uniforms, and guns, but because he gave the money directly to the police rather than the local government he has been targeted. He claims that his posting on Bluelight was a practical joke that had no real meaning behind it.
The facts in this case are hard to uncover. McAfee and Gregory Faull were neighbors on the island of Ambergris Caye, which is off the coast of Belize and is probably the busiest part of the country for tourism and expatriate living. Faull had apparently complained to McAfee repeatedly about the barking of the dogs on McAfee’s property. Then on November 11 Faull was found dead in his home from a gunshot wound. Police went to McAfee’s home but according to Wired’s Davis, McAfee buried himself in the sand because he thought the police were coming to kill him. Ever since then McAfee had been on the run, granting interviews but doing everything to cover his tracks, before turning up in Guatemala on Tuesday and announcing he had (finally) retained legal counsel.
Is John McAfee guilty of murder? I don’t have access to that information, but from everything I have seen and heard on the matter, I believe that he is not responsible for the death of Faull. If there is any connection between Faull’s death and McAfee, I would place it at the feet of the various hangers-on that accumulated around McAfee. McAfee started hiring tons of locals to act as his security force, and was probably not very discriminating in who he was choosing. If Wired’s Davis is to be believed, some of the people in McAfee’s employ were some of Belize’s toughest gangsters. I believe that it’s possible that one of them, upon hearing about the dispute with Faull, chose it to take it upon themselves to solve their boss’ problem.
I think the reality of Faull’s death is probably more prosaic, however - Belize is headed for a record number of murders this year, and only about 1/3 of those crimes are ever solved. Even on Ambergris Caye, the “nicest” part of Belize, crime is a serious problem, and I imagine expats are targeted because thieves know they will probably make out well in a robbery.
That being said, I think that McAfee’s behavior can only be described as “erratic” at best and “insane” at worst. He is almost a cliche, a man who moved to the jungle and “went native,” and tried to set up a fiefdom there. If Wired’s Josh Davis is to be believed, McAfee appears on one level to be guilty of what Americans all around the globe have been doing for years - walking into a country, taking a look around, and deciding to start “fixing” things without taking time to talk to the people living there and what they ultimately want. While Belize is no shining star in terms of its police force and government corruption, McAfee isn’t going to instantly solve everything, and it’s incredibly patronizing of him to act like he can move in and in the space of a year or two suddenly fix everything that is wrong with Belize.
I am surprised at McAfee’s supposed naivete about how one deals with the police and government in a poor country. Surely someone who has made as much as McAfee must have some sense of realpolitik about him. Surely he must realize that walking into a country and spending a lot of money to interfere with the running of the local government and not expect to run afoul of the authorities. McAfee uses the word “Sir” a lot in conversation, and while he claims it is based on his southern upbringing, it comes across as patronizing, as if he knows more than you do and he’s just tolerating your position. He seems like a typical type-A businessman who is used to getting his way.
Finally I believe that McAfee is engaged in some kind of drug use, whether it is MDPV, cocaine, or something else. In his interviews he sounds strung out, although that could just be his incredible paranoia at work. Added to the creep factor is the fact that 67-year-old McAfee is carrying on with several women aged 20 or younger. I’m sure that behavior is not improving how the police feel about him.
During his interview with Rogan, McAfee was asked why, if Belize was so corrupt, he was intent on staying, when he had only lived there five years. McAfee responded that Belize was his home and he had no intention of leaving. However, a week after that interview McAfee turned up in Guatemala. Now that McAfee is in custody and will return to Belize to face his charges, perhaps some more of the truth of this situation will come out, and a picture of the real John McAfee will finally emerge.