On August 20, 2009, Mar Supnad, a 31-year-old reporter for the Manila Bulletin, got a tip from a police source: A large shipment of illegal weapons had been seized from a ship off the coast of Mariveles, a port city in Bataan province, three hours west of Manila. When Supnad arrived at the site, his contacts told him that the day before, a local fisherman had alerted customs officials to a suspicious cargo ship anchored near the coast. When three port officers motored out to the vessel, they noted that it lacked a national flag, although the word “Panama” was painted on its hull.
They boarded the ship, called the MV Captain Ufuk and questioned the captain, a South African named Lawrence John Burne, who explained that the rest of the 13-member crew were from the Republic of Georgia and spoke no English. One officer noticed 20 large unmarked wooden crates on deck.
When Burne was unable to produce a cargo manifest for the boxes, the officer called his superiors. Soon, a team of customs agents arrived on board with reinforcements from the Philippine National Police and the coast guard. In three of the crates, they found 54 assault rifles. A fourth contained 45 bayonets and 120 empty gun magazines.
Supnad’s sources told him that “at least 16 boxes had already been unloaded and fetched by other, smaller crafts,” he recalled recently, as we sat together in the headquarters of the governor of Bataan. In interviews with authorities, Supnad learned that this cache of weapons had filtered out into the country. It was an election year in the Philippines, and officials feared that the influx of guns might portend a rash of political terrorism. Some believed that the weapons were destined for rebel groups operating in the southern part of the country, including militants from Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group linked at the time to Al Qaeda. The news of the illegal shipment, Supnad told me, “exploded like a bomb.”
On a December morning last year, I drove from Manila to Bataan to see Supnad after I read his reporting on the gun shipment. The events that followed the interception of the Ufuk struck me as a turning point in Paul Le Roux’s history. They mirrored his shift from a kind of gray-market entrepreneur, making hundreds of millions of dollars in online pharmacies, to an insatiable tyrant atop a global crime cartel of his own invention.
The MV Ufuk affair was, as well, the nexus of the kind of indiscriminant violence that would become Le Roux’s hallmark, and the beginning of a chain of events that would culminate in his downfall. Mar Supnad himself would become a player in that story— and nearly pay a very steep price…