John McAfee, the antivirus pioneer and expat, was the target of a Belize SWAT team, backed up by 30 or more heavily armed Belizean soldiers, who claim the dawn raid was to look for illegal guns and drugs. McAfee says the actual reason for the raid was that he refused to pay a large bribe to a politician.
Last Wednesday, McAfee’s home and research facility in Orange Walk Town, Belize was raided by the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU), equivalent to a SWAT team. McAfee and about a dozen employees, friends and construction workers were handcuffed and held for 14 hours without water or food. At one point, the SWAT team shot and killed his dog, an act which McAfee believes was to demonstrate how serious the raid was. When he was finally released, the Belizean officials kept his US passport.
A GSU press release said that McAfee was arrested for suspicion of unlicensed drug manufacturing and possession of unlicensed weapons. In addition, McAfee, 66, was allegedly with his 17-year-old Belizean girlfriend. McAfee stated that the charges were fabricated and that the raid was in retaliation for his refusal to donate to Gaspar Vega, a politician in Belize’s ruling United Democratic Party.
Here is McAfee’s video response to the charges:
There has been surprisingly little news coverage about the raid by US mainstream media, but many tech magazines and websites are covering the story. In addition, there are many posts and comments by travel and expat blogs about McAfee’s arrest. Much of the online coverage points out that the raid will certainly damage Belize’s efforts to attract new businesses, retirees and other expats.
The government of Belize reportedly spends more than US$1 million a month on public relations to promote tourism. Just two weeks ago, 300 travel agents, wholesalers, international tourism professionals and press representatives gathered in Belize for the Belize Tourism Expo (BETEX).
The UK Daily Mail published an article about McAfee’s arrest, with a headline describing him as a “British Millionaire”. McAfee was born in Britian, but as a child he moved with his family to Virginia, where he was raised. He became a U.S. citizen 40 years ago.
In 2009, The New York Times reported that McAfee’s personal fortune had declined to $4 million from a peak of $100 million, the effect of the global financial crisis and recession on his investments.
Two years ago, McAfee started a new venture in the field of bacterial quorum sensing (whatever that is). His new company QuorumEx, is headquartered in Belize and is self-described as working towards producing commercial all natural antibiotics based on anti-quorum sensing technology. Apparently, it was this facility that sparked rumors of illegal drug activity.
Philip D. W. Hodgen, a California lawyer who counsels expats, commenting on McAfee’s arrest, said that many people are giving up U.S. citizenship for tax reasons. But, while the tax problems might be solved, expats should also consider non-tax problems, such as stability of the the government.
“McAfee lives in Belize and he says that he has become a target of the Gang Suppression Unit,” Hodgen wrote. “He says the GSU came busting into his research facility in Orange Walk, killed his dog, took his passport, handcuffed him and arrested him on a bogus weapons charge.
McAfee says he’s a victim because he didn’t donate money to a known U.D.P. Orange Walk politician. Yes, I guess it is theoretically possible that Mr. McAfee is a criminal. Unlikely, though. Occam’s Razor suggests that his version of the story is vastly more plausible.”
Hodgen says his point is that potential expats should not rely on getting citizenship in another country just because it is easy. “If you must get a questionable passport, use it as a stepping stone towards a second (third?) citizenship in a stable (economically and politically) country. Do not assume that you and your money can necessarily live anywhere you want. You are a guest in someone else’s house. You might be asked to leave at any time, in a polite or not-so-polite way.”
As might be expected, McAfee has attracted some critics in his career. Two years ago, Fast Company Magazine published an article on McAfee, alleging that he is involved in suspicious behavior. One of the allegations was that McAfee’s donation of a million-dollar boat to the Coast Guard was so that the Coast Guard would not hassle his ferry business, Coastal Express.
Belize is a former British colony. According to the 2010 census, the population is 333,000. (I’m reminded of a funny line. My good friend Joe Bageant, who lived in Belize for a couple of years, once asked an expat what the population of Belize is. “Officially, it’s a little over 300,000. But, if you count all the kids, it’s three million,” the expat said.)
Here is a statement issued by John McAfee about the raid and his arrest:
On Monday at six o’clock, I was awakened by the sound of a bullhorn, a megaphone. I went outside and saw about thirty GSU in full uniform, full dressed, automatic weapons, storming through the property and drive way. I went back inside, got some clothes on, I came out. I was told to put up my hands up against the wall as was eleven other people on the compound. We had about eleven people present at the time — five of them were women.
I was told that they had a warrant to search property. They began, with sledge hammers, to break the doors of the buildings — none of them were locked, but they just went and broke them in any case. I was merely watching this. They confiscated my passport, all of the weapons we used for security on the compound, handcuffed me and everyone and for fourteen hours outside in the sun, I sat handcuffed without food or water. We got water around noon. At three o’clock we asked for food. We were told by the GSU, do we look like cooks to you. They murdered my dog in cold blood. That was the thing I think — it was a warning to us that this is serious; don’t mess with us.
They threw things around, they stole things — it was unbelievable, unimaginable for a country that was supposedly a democratic country. I was arrested on a bogus charge of having an illegal firearm — a firearm without a license. At the very beginning of the day, one of the GSU soldiers, one of the GSU officers, took all of my firearm licenses and put them in his vest. When he took them out to check the firearms, this one was missing. They charged me for having a firearm without a license; took me to Belize City. Fortunately we had copies. We showed up later at the police station with the copies. Even then it was difficult to get out. I had to get the intervention of the American embassy to get released.
By the time I got to Belize City, it was sixteen hours. I slept until two a.m. on a concrete floor at the Queen’s Street Police Station until the embassy finally convinced someone to release me. They confiscated my passport and claimed they didn’t have it. The entire day was an incredible nightmare. This is clearly a military dictatorship where people are allowed to go and harass citizens based on rumor alone and treat them as if they are guilty before any evidence whatsoever is obtained. It is astonishing, it is beyond belief and I intended not to let this stand. I will not stand idly by to let this happen to me. I promise you. It began, innocently enough, with my refusal to donate to the local political boss of the district where I lived in Orange Walk and I have given at least two million dollars in gifts to the police departments in Orange Walk, San Pedro, Belize City, to the village of Carmelita, the City of Orange Walk. I have started programs to feed children, I’ve helped mothers whose husbands have simply disappeared.
I am an old man, I am sixty-six. I have a fair amount of money and not much to do. So I spend it where I think it will do go. And I don’t ever invest in politics. I don’t donate to any political party; I don’t have any political affiliations. I think politics is foolish for a private citizen like myself to engage in — the winning party; you never get your money and the losing party; your on the outs. So I do not. And I refused to donate and the gentleman expected you know, I’ve given a million dollars to the police department, so he should get a huge chunk and he got nothing. Immediately after that, he began — not personality but his aids — began a campaign of calling to the local radio stations on Saturday morning talk shows saying the same thing; “What are we going to do about the white man at the toll bridge? He has all of these security guards. He’s probably involved in illegal activities. Everybody is complaining about him.” Nothing could be further from the truth. That politician by the way did not get reelected.