Guatemala Dispatch: Inside the Stranger than Fiction Saga of John McAfee

The eccentric and controversial tycoon calls a reporter to try to explain why his life has turned into one big weird trip through multiple countries.

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Luis Echeverria / Xinhua /

John McAfee arrives at the Aurora international airport on Dec. 12, 2012

It was barely 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 8 when John McAfee, 67, the eccentric U.S. software pioneer wanted for questioning in the slaying of his neighbor in Belize, called me from the Guatemalan detention center where he was being detained for illegally crossing the border. “I’m sorry if I’m not making much sense,” he said. “I just woke up, but I want to talk.” The former Silicon Valley millionaire said, “There’s not that much to do here. I’m kind of bored.”

Just over 36 hours had elapsed since McAfee’s last interaction with the media. At that time, he was being carried into a Guatemalan hospital on a stretcher. His lawyer claimed McAfee had suffered two heart attacks. (On Wednesday Dec. 12, McAfee–by then in Miami–acknowledged faking the incident to buy time to appeal Guatemala’s efforts to deport him.)

On the night of Dec. 7, he had frantically called his lawyer, a former Guatemalan attorney general. The police, McAfee claimed, were surrounding the immigration shelter where he was being held and trying to whisk him away. The lawyer must come at once, and bring reporters. “Are you sure?” his lawyer, Telesforo Guerra, asked. I accompanied Guerra as he rushed to the shelter, but immigration officials said there had been nothing of the sort. The facility had been quiet for hours. “He’s very paranoid,” Guerra said.

Earlier in the day McAfee had lashed out at one of Guerra’s assistants, claiming he had promised to put him in touch with Guatemala’s president, Otto Perez, but failed to do so. “I don’t understand where he got that from,” Guerra said. “My assistant can’t just call the president.”

(MOREFugitive Software Guru John McAfee Arrested in Guatemala, Faces Expulsion Back to Belize)

It was, in some ways, classic McAfee: riddled with mystery and subterfuge and wrapped in publicity. Since the saga began in mid-November, when his neighbor, fellow American Gregory Faull, was found shot in the head, McAfee has, he claims, documented a series of bizarre twists and turns that would seem improbable even in a Hollywood blockbuster. (“Running in the Background: The True Story of John McAfee” is in the works, Montreal-based Impact Future Media announced this week.)

Just four hours before Guatemalan police detained him on Dec. 5, McAfee met me in his disheveled downtown Intercontinental hotel room. The desk was cluttered with computers, pill bottles, makeup and red roses that McAfee bought for his 20-year-old Belizean girlfriend Samantha Vargas, who he said he plans to marry.

The conversation was scattered, difficult to follow. McAfee skipped quickly between topics, interrupting himself often to talk to Vargas or answer the phone. “I haven’t slept for weeks,” he said. “I had to constantly be on the watch.”

The whole affair started, McAfee claims, after he refused to pay some $2 million in bribes to Belize’s ruling party. McAfee has detailed on his blog a strange series of purported events involving two Belizean gangsters and two local politicians who he said tried to extort and kill him. As evidence, he posted several audio files on his blog that are mostly in Creole and difficult to understand. Belize’s prime minister has denied the allegations, calling McAfee “bonkers.”

(MOREFugitive Software Guru John McAfee Seeks ‘Asylum’ in Guatemala, Claims He’ll Be Killed in Belize)

McAfee claims it was in retaliation for his claims that police raided his property in April. Police say they suspected he was running a lab to produce illegal synthetic narcotics. After detaining him and searching the property, they released him without charges.

McAfee told me he hasn’t done drugs since 1983, when he joined Alcoholics Anonymous after years of taking drugs “24 hours of the day.” Yes, he solicited help in recreating a version of the dangerous narcotic known as “bath salts” on a blog for drug users. But it was “a prank,” he said, an effort to see “how absurd I could possibly be.” Likewise, a separate incident, when a neighbor in Belize found him passed out on his balcony next to a packet of gray powder: “A joke.”

“Yes, the gray powder was mine,” he said. “But have you ever seen gray powder resembling drugs?”

At first, McAfee said he thought Faull’s slaying was an attempt on his own life. “I thought the government had sent a gang of thieves to the wrong house,” he said. “I thought they were coming for me next.”

Police say they want to talk to McAfee as a “person of interest” in Faull’s slaying. The two had often argued, particularly about McAfee’s unruly dogs, several of which were found dead just two days before the killing. But McAfee, who denies killing Faull, said he fears Belizean authorities will use the incident to “get their hands on me.”

“It’s just one more in long series of charges they’re trying to pin on me,” he said. “So the judge can say he’s crazy and a menace to society, so put him away for the rest of his life.”

(MOREJohn McAfee Claims to Have Fled Belize After Elaborate Ruse Involving Body Double)

Thus, he claims, began the adventure: To evade police, McAfee said he resorted to extreme measures, from dyeing his hair to walking with a limp and covering himself with a cardboard box while hiding in a hole in the sand. He even paid an acquaintance to cross into Mexico with a North Korean passport in McAfee’s name. “A person needs doubles in life for a variety of reasons,” McAfee said. “I may need him again.”

Meanwhile, McAfee, Vargas and two reporters with Vice Magazine left Belize’s southern border by boat, arriving in Port Izabal. The freedom was short-lived, as the reporters posted a photo of McAfee online without removing its GPS coordinates. Yet even this incident is fraught with twists: First Vice claimed responsibility, then McAfee said it was him. Later, he said it was actually Vice. (Last week McAfee announced he had ended his relationship with Vice, saying he suspected they outed him on purpose.)

“I may be crazy, but this is not a PR stunt,” McAfee said shortly before ushering me out of his hotel room. “And I don’t think I’m crazy.”

Days later, calling from detention, McAfee said he no longer had access to the Internet, but a friend, “Harold,” was running the blog. (Once a Guatemalan judge ruled he could return to the U.S., McAfee revealed another twist: he had been posting as “Harold” to trick Belizean officials.)

McAfee said he wanted to hang out in South Beach for a while to figure out his next step, adding, “It’s difficult for people to comprehend what has been happening to me. It’s so unusual.”

Then he said he had to go. He had another interview.