The software king, wanted by police following the murder of a neighbour, talks of sensationalist reporting and why he's relieved to be in Guatemala.
By the time I contacted him on Wednesday, even by his own recent standards, John McAfee was having an unpredictable week. Seven days ago the multimillionaire internet security pioneer was still hiding in the jungle of Belize wanted for questioning by police in connection with the murder of his neighbour, Gregory Faull, who had been found shot dead at his home on November 11. McAfee had subsequently fled only to reappear on the internet, expressing fears that he was being set up by the Belize government, which he believed wanted him killed for refusing to pay a bribe.
Last Monday, after evading police for three weeks, there were reports of McAfee being arrested crossing the border into Mexico. In fact, the detained individual turned out to be a lookalike and the real 67-year-old self-styled adventurer was being smuggled across a different border, into Guatemala.
As his blog later revealed, he was in the company of his 20-year-old girlfriend, Sam Vanegas, and two reporters from Vice, an American magazine. McAfee was wearing a disguise that involved a dyed black goatee and flattened wads of chewing gum under his upper lip to make it protrude.
On Tuesday, one of those Vice reporters, apparently unable to believe his gonzo journalist luck, posted a picture of himself alongside McAfee on the internet, with the headline "We're with John McAfee, suckers".
The photograph was very quickly examined by a Twitter user, @simplenomad, who discovered from its image file an exact grid reference for the runaway quartet: they were staying at an exclusive resort in Guatemala called Ranchon Mary. The picture had been taken next to the pool.
McAfee, the anti-virus security guru, realising that he had been exposed by this schoolboy data error, made himself known to the Guatemalan authorities in the company of the "best criminal lawyer in the country" Telesforo Guerra, who also happened to be his girlfriend's uncle. The fugitive had abandoned his beachwear and surfer's peroxide in favour of a sober suit and trimmed beard, and announced that he was seeking asylum in Guatemala.
On Friday morning McAfee was arrested by Guatemalan police as an illegal migrant, but before a deportation order could be served, he was found semi-conscious in his room having suffered what his lawyer called "two minor heart attacks" and doctors termed "anxiety and high blood pressure". He was later released from hospital into informal house arrest pending appeal against deportation.
Not conspicuously a man shy of the media, in the midst of some of this mayhem, McAfee also found the time to correspond with the Observer. On Wednesday evening, having circuitously got hold of his email address, I had sent him a few questions with a view to capturing his view of some of the surreal turns that his story had taken. He replied, courteously, overnight.
The following day I sent him more queries, and again he found the time to reply by return late on Thursday evening, a few hours before his arrest and subsequent heart problems. Our email conversation, which began with news of McAfee's border crossing, went as follows:
You must be relieved to be in Guatemala and perhaps among friends for the first time in a while. Does it feels like the fates are more on your side than they were?
For the first time I am among people who truly understand my plight and are not afraid to openly sympathise. I did a TV interview yesterday and was chatting in a friendly way with the reporter beforehand in order to give them a background so they could phrase their questions.
I mentioned that I had not donated money to the Belize government when they asked for it and they sent in their soldiers to intimidate me. The reporter responded "The Guatemalan government no longer uses such tactics. You have come to the right country." Later in the day I gave a small press conference exclusively for the Latin American press and said that the government of Belize was trying to jail me or kill me because I was openly and loudly speaking out against them in the press. The young man next to me from a local Guatemalan newspaper muttered "Claro"—Spanish for "Of course".
I am getting nothing but sympathy from the press, from hotel staff, from people in the street. It is the First World press turned upside down. The only truly upside-down viewpoint is the First World press, which operates on the basis of sensationalism and fear.
For more than three weeks the world has been watching and reading about you trying to keep control of your story and your life. Some people have suggested it must feel like trying to hold on to your own novel or movie or biography second by second while others are all the time trying to rewrite the beginning, middle and end. Is that actually how it feels?
It's been chaos. The press has run away with itself. Headlines shout "McAfee accused of murder" and "Murder suspect on the run". In fact, I have been accused of nothing. There have been no charges issued. A few hundred headlines stated "McAfee believes bath salts are the best drug ever." Where that came from is anyone's guess.
The majority of the headlines proclaim me to be drug-crazed or a madman. A reporter from Good Morning America told me on the phone last night that he questioned whether the police were really after me. I am serious!!! I have been raided by 42 armed soldiers in [my house in] Orange Walk in April. The police raided my house eight times in San Pedro, the last time stealing nearly a half million dollars in property.
At first, the police denied the last raid. When I published an audio from Sam's father, whom they threatened to torture during the raid, they finally admitted they were there. The police have put out multiple press releases stating that when I am apprehended I will be detained. Yet the gentleman from Good Morning America was actually surprised when I declined to be on the show or talk to him further. I ask you—which of us was the madman?
I believe that the press is beginning to believe itself. By that I mean that one publication writes a story with a given point of view. The next reads the story and uses that story to bolster its own, possibly similar point of view. The end result is a sort of collective dream from which the press cannot easily wake up.
It has been widely suggested that you are paranoid; do you take any comfort from Joseph Heller's famous Catch-22 notion that "just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you"?
I can't say whether I am paranoid. I do know for a fact that they are after me.
How about William Burroughs's observation that "paranoia is just having the right information"?
From a First World perspective, my story would have to seem like paranoia. You sit in comfortable chairs and watch TV. You live under governments that by and large operate on the principles of law. You cannot conceive of a reality in which feelings of safety and predictability are impossible.
You once wrote a book about yoga called Into the Heart of Truth. Rarely can the truth-telling practice of pranayama and asana have been put under such mortal strain. Has your yoga been a help?
Not much, frankly.
I interviewed Salman Rushdie recently, another man who went into hiding, for good reason; he said he learned more about himself in that period than at any other time: "life teaches us who we are". Does adversity have its uses? Or is it too early to tell?
I am too old to learn much more about myself. But I am learning a great deal about society as a whole, and specifically the role of the press in moulding the opinions, fears, hopes, likes, dislikes and beliefs of the masses.
I guess if you feel lucky at all at the present time it is to have Sam at your side. Has her loyalty through this ordeal surprised you?
It did not surprise me. One of my few talents is the ability to identify uniqueness in human traits. Sam is unique. I saw it immediately. Her uniqueness is the following—the tougher things get, the cooler she becomes.
When the shit hit the fan in Fronteras, the two Vice reporters were panicking and frightened. Sam simply grabbed her bag and started calmly walking away from the place, turning only to say to me "Come. They will follow us." They did.
Given that you have given your name and devoted a good part of your life to the protection of data and privacy, does it feel a particularly cruel fate to have found yourself so exposed to the world's gaze?
The fates have been overly kind to me throughout my life. I am sure this cruelty is temporary.
If these past few weeks have clearly been the worst of times in Belize, what, looking back, were the best of times?
Swimming. Fishing. Laughter, dancing and the sweet smiles of those around me.
No one, to my knowledge, who has gone into hiding in the past has taken the opportunity to use blogs and social media. Did that seem strange?
I used the tools that I had. It was more of a weapon than a lifeline. I have discovered the absolute truth of an adage that I had never before truly taken to heart: "The pen is mightier than the sword."
The old truism that you discover who your friends are at times like these has no doubt been in your thoughts. What do you make of people like Jeff Wise, who claims to be one such old friend, and his comment to the New York Times that "Around the time his herbal drug plan collapsed, John started to get really heavily into this kind of synthetic, hallucinogenic, hyperaphrodisiac. Everyone was scared of McAfee … he was walking around the beach carrying a gun ..."?
Outside of press interviews, I have spent no time whatever with Jeff Wise. I knew him so little, in fact, that I mistook him for someone else called Tom Clynes. We have never been close. In spite of that, I have always treated him in a friendly manner.
Of all the events that have occurred, I'm guessing the one you still have nightmares about is when you were hiding on the beach from Belize's Gang Suppression Unit, up to your neck in sand with a cardboard box over your head for several hours. What thoughts were in your mind then?
No. The real nightmare was when Sam's friends tried to have her kidnapped. That story has yet to come out. Perhaps soon.
Your account of fears of lack of due process in Belize brought to my mind Warren Zevon's pointed ballad Lawyers, Guns and Money. Is that a song you can identify with these days?
That, and more strongly, Buffalo Springfield's "Stop, hey, what's that sound". Read the lyrics…
Our exchange ended here on Thursday night, with with me looking up Buffalo Springfield lyrics. I sent another string of questions the following day, after McAfee's arrest, when it seemed he still had access to a computer—he was blogging about the excellent quality of coffee in Guatemalan jail—but before his suspected seizures. After he was released from hospital, he got back with some short responses about his faith that "justice will prevail", his sense that he was caught in a political battle of will between two historically hostile governments, and a beleaguered hope that his surreal story could still have "a happy ending".
Asked if he believed he could offer information that might help with the inquiries into the murder of Gregory Faull he reiterated his position that he would be prepared to "speak by phone" to the police in Belize, but was not prepared to disclose what he would say. When, I wondered, had he last managed a night's sleep? "Quite a few weeks ago," he replied. - guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012