“[McAfee] greets me wearing a pistol strapped across his bare chest. Guards patrol the beach in front of us. He tells me that he’s now living with five women who appear to be between the ages of seventeen and twenty; each has her own bungalow on the property.”—Joshua Davis
One of the strangest and most compelling stories in The Best American Magazine Writing 2014*, edited by Sid Holt, is “Dangerous” by Joshua Davis. Published in Wired, the story recounts software mogul John McAfee’s rise and subsequent encampment in Belize after fleeing the United States. Below in an excerpt and recordings of Davis’s conversations with McAfee.
*Use the coupon code HOLBES and Save 30% on The Best American Magazine Writing 2014.
[John McAfee] started McAfee Associates out of his 700-square-foot home in Santa Clara. His business plan: Create an antivirus program and give it away on electronic bulletin boards. McAfee didn’t expect users to pay. His real aim was to get them to think the software was so necessary that they would install it on their computers at work. They did. Within five years, half of the Fortune 100 companies were running it, and they felt compelled to pay a license fee. By 1990, McAfee was making $5 million a year with very little overhead or investment.
His success was due in part to his ability to spread his own paranoia, the fear that there was always somebody about to attack. Soon after launching his company, he bought a twenty seven-foot Winnebago, loaded it with computers, and announced that he had formed the first “antivirus paramedic unit.” When he got a call from someone experiencing computer problems in the San Jose area, he drove to the site and searched for “virus residue.” Like a good door-to-door salesman, there was a kernel of truth to his pitch, but he amplified and embellished the facts to sell his product. The RV therefore was not just an RV; it was “the first specially customized unit to wage effective, on-the-spot counterattacks in the virus war.”
It was great publicity, executed with drama and sly wit. By the end of 1988, he was on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour telling the country that viruses were causing so much damage, some companies were “near collapse from financial loss.” He underscored the danger with his 1989 book, Computer Viruses, Worms, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs, and Other Threats to Your System. “The reality is so alarming that it would be very difficult to exaggerate,” he wrote. “Even if no new viruses are ever created, there are already enough circulating to cause a growing problem as they reproduce. A major disaster seems inevitable.”
In 1992 McAfee told almost every major news network and newspaper that the recently discovered Michelangelo virus was a huge threat; he believed it could destroy as many as 5 million computers around the world. Sales of his software spiked, but in the end only tens of thousands of infections were reported. Though McAfee was roundly criticized for his proclamation, the criticism worked in his favor, as he explained in an e-mail in 2000 to a computer-security blogger: “My business increased tenfold in the two months following the stories and six months later our revenues were 50 times greater and we had captured the lion’s share of the anti-virus market.”
This ability to infect others with his own paranoia made McAfee a wealthy man. In October 1992 his company debuted on Nasdaq, and his shares were suddenly worth $80 million….
In August, McAfee and I meet for a final in-person interview at his villa on Ambergris Caye. He greets me wearing a pistol strapped across his bare chest. Guards patrol the beach in front of us. He tells me that he’s now living with five women who appear to be between the ages of seventeen and twenty; each has her own bungalow on the property. Emshwiller is here, though McAfee’s attention is focused on the other women.
He has barely left the property since he came out of hiding in April. He says he spends his days shuttling from bungalow to bungalow, trying to mediate among the women. I ask why he doesn’t leave the country, given that the Belizean government has returned his passport. “I would be perceived as running away,” McAfee says.
“Within three days, all of Carmelita would return to no-man’s-land, and it would be the staging post for every illegal activity in northern Belize.”
As McAfee tells it, he is all that stands between Carmelita and rampant criminality. The police raided him, he says, because he had run the local drug dealers out of town. These dealers had political connections and had successfully lobbied to have the police attack him. They wanted him gone. He says he also refused to make political contributions to a local politician, further antagonizing the ruling party. If he gives in, he argues, it will send a message that Belize’s corrupt government can control anybody, even a rich American.
As McAfee talks, we walk across the white sand beach and into his bungalow. In many ways, his life has devolved into a complex web of contradictions. He says he’s battling drugs in Carmelita, but at the same time he’s trying to trick people online into taking drugs. He professes to care about laws—and castigates the police for violating his rights—but he moved to Belize in part to subvert the U.S. legal system in the event he lost a civil case. The police suggest he’s a drug kingpin; I can’t help but wonder if he has lost track of reality. Maybe he imagines that he can fix himself by fixing Carmelita.
His bungalow is sparsely furnished. The small open kitchen is strewn with dishes, rotting vegetables, half-drunk bottles of Coke, and boxes of Rice Krispies and Cheerios. A dog is licking a stick of butter off the counter. A bandolier of shotgun shells hangs from a chair. He pops open a plastic bottle of Lucas Pelucas, a tamarind-flavored Mexican candy, and depresses the plunger, extruding the gooey liquid through small holes in the top. “I fucking love these things,” he says.
I tell him that while I was in Carmelita, the villagers described the place as quiet and slow-moving. There is crime, most admitted, but it is limited to stolen bicycles and drunken fights. It did not seem like a particularly dangerous place to me.
“Ninety-nine percent of all crimes are never, ever reported to the police,” he says. “Because if the gang kills your sister and you report it, the gang will come back and kill you. Nobody says anything.”
When I tell him that the locals I spoke with can remember only two murders in the past three years, he argues that I’m not asking the right questions. To illustrate his point, he takes out his pistol.
“Let’s do this one more time,” he says, and puts it to his head. Another round of Russian roulette. Just as before, he pulls the trigger repeatedly, the cylinder rotates, the hammer comes down, and nothing happens. “It is a real gun. It has a real bullet in one chamber,” he says. And yet, he points out, my assumptions have somehow proven faulty. I’m missing something.
The same is true, he argues, with Carmelita. I’m not seeing the world as he sees it. He opens the door to the bungalow, aims the gun at the sand outside, and pulls the trigger. This time, a gunshot punctures the sound of the wind and waves. “You thought you were creating your reality,” he says. “You were not. I was.”
He pulls the spent cartridge out of the chamber and hands it to me. It’s still warm.