Jeremy Jimena had just started his shift when he found the body. At 6:30 on the morning of February 13, 2012, Jimena, a garbage collector in the Philippines, had set out with his driver on their regular route through Taytay, an industrial city an hour east of Manila. It had rained most of the night, and a light drizzle fell as they turned down Paseo Monte Carlo, a quiet road with no streetlights. Their first stop was a large vacant lot overrun by low shrubs, a green carpet of vines, and a scattering of banana trees.
The field wasn’t an official pickup spot, but local residents often dumped garbage there anyway, and the collectors had informally added it to their route. There was a small pile of trash that morning spilling into the road: two large grain bags filled with waste and a bulging, rolled-up bedspread. Jimena hopped off the truck and approached the pile. When he leaned down and grasped the damp edge of the blanket, he saw a human foot.
Jimena dropped the blanket and ran, shouting to the driver, and the two of them left the truck and sprinted to the municipal headquarters, 200 yards away. There they told Ricardo Maniego, the local head of security, what they found. Maniego called the police and brought a long cord to rope off the area, like he’d learned in first-responder training.
Nearly four years later, in December 2015, I sat with Jimena outside the municipal headquarters. He is a small, wiry man with jet black hair and a wisp of a mustache. He looked off in the distance as he recounted the story, his eyes wide and mournful. He’d known right away that the foot was a woman’s, he said, but couldn’t remember much else. “I was shocked and disoriented,” he said.
After he’d shown Maniego the body, Jimena had returned to his route in a daze. He never spoke to the police, he told me, and never learned who the woman was. But for years, he had dreamed of her every night. “She’s screaming, asking me for help,” he said. “Sometimes she is wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes it wakes me up.”
I came to Taytay that afternoon because I believed that the woman Jimena had found was a small thread in a much larger story. Somewhere between a pile of American legal documents and a two- paragraph story about Jimena’s discovery in a Philippine newspaper, I had noticed a hazy connection between the body and a man named Paul Le Roux, a South African who was reputed to be the most prolific international criminal of the 21st century. The scant information I could find on Le Roux suggested his involvement in weapons shipments, gold smuggling, and online prescription-drug sales. But he was also a kind of phantom, reportedly captured by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in 2012 and then disappeared to work as a valuable asset. My attempts to find out who Le Roux really was, and why the U.S. wanted so badly to keep him a secret, had led me from New York to Manila and then to this vacant lot, where I suspected that Le Roux’s ghostly influence had once been manifest…