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[Book Summary] Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks

Rogues (2022) is a compilation of veteran journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s most famous profiles for the New Yorker Magazine. Keefe delves into the lives of notorious criminals and con artists, exploring their complex motivations. He examines the societies that made them and the systems we have for bringing people to justice.

[Book Summary] Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Get a fascinating look into the lives of some of society’s most controversial figures.
A sister torn between family loyalty and her conscience.
A drug trafficker who felt invincible – until he wasn’t.
A disturbed academic who was a “ticking time bomb.”
Heroic whistleblower or greedy criminal? It depends on who you ask.
Final Summary
About the author
Video and Podcast

Genres

Biography and Memoir, Society and Culture, History, Writing, Essays, Mystery, Short Stories, Adult, Journalism, Leaders and Notable People, White Collar Crime True Accounts, Criminology, Murder and Mayhem True Accounts

Introduction: Get a fascinating look into the lives of some of society’s most controversial figures.

Most of us are used to consuming news in bits and bytes, getting a jumble of stories into our news feeds with the most sensational headlines – the most shocking news. But what about the people behind those stories? Behind every cartoonish portrait of a villain is a story. A history. A bundle of desires. A concerned family.

Teasing out that history is the specialty of Patrick Radden Keefe. In the decades he’s worked as a journalist, he’s written about all sorts of people, from drug traffickers to whistleblowers, from dedicated lawyers to cunning conmen. In Rogues, Keefe collates 12 of the most significant profiles he’s written over the course of his career as a journalist.

In this summary, you’ll take a deep dive into four of these stories. Each story examines the key questions that Keefe explores in his journalism: What influences the ethical choices that people make? And, how do the stories we tell about them affect how we understand those choices?

In this summary, you’ll discover

  • why notorious drug trafficker “El Chapo” managed to escape arrest for so long;
  • what could have caused academic Amy Bishop to become a mass murderer; and
  • why a whistleblower could be seen as both a common criminal and a hero.

A sister torn between family loyalty and her conscience.

What does family loyalty look like when your brother is a vicious killer? That’s a question that plagued Astrid Holleeder all her life. Her brother, Willem, was a Dutch mobster who had kidnapped and murdered tens of people. But Astrid felt a deep sense of responsibility toward him.

They were, as she said, “bound by misery.” They’d grown up with an alcoholic father who violently beat his family in drunken rages. Their childhood was about trying to survive and living by their wits. As painful as that history was, it was one Astrid shared with her brother. They had survived, together.

So, how could she betray him to the police?

For a long time, she didn’t. On the contrary, she shielded him from the police and the justice system. As a criminal lawyer, she built intricate cases defending him. She lied to the police on his behalf. And she worked to shield him from other gangsters who were out for his life.

But, one day, Willem crossed a red line. He authorized a hit on another member of the family, his brother-in-law, Cor van Hout. Willem and Cor had been partners in crime. But their relationship soured when they had disagreements about how to run the family crime business.

At around the same time, Cor had experienced multiple assassination attempts, including one that finally killed him. Astrid put two and two together: her brother, Willem, was behind the murder. He had killed Cor, and in so doing had deprived her sister of her husband, and her nephews and nieces of their father. Astrid had always believed in family loyalty, but Willem’s actions showed that he didn’t. He was only out for himself.

At that moment, Astrid resolved to turn him in and became a key state witness against him.

Her actions have cost her, dearly. She lives in hiding, moving from safe house to safe house. She constantly fears for her life. And, perhaps most painful of all, she has no contact with her brother, the person to whom she was once so close. But she doesn’t regret her actions. If she hadn’t turned him in, she’d have remained an accomplice to his crimes.

Astrid’s brother, Willem Holleeder, was eventually apprehended thanks to his sister’s testimony.

But what happens when the family and entire community of a criminal are determined to protect him from arrest? He becomes very hard to catch. In the next story, you’ll hear how a notorious drug trafficker evaded police for decades and what eventually brought him down.

A drug trafficker who felt invincible – until he wasn’t.

Mile-long tunnels burrowed underneath the Mexico-US border. Bathtubs that lifted up to reveal secret rooms hidden beneath. Communicating via a network of confidantes so that his calls could never be traced.

These were just some of the measures that one of the world’s most notorious drug traffickers, Joaquín Guzmán Loera – or El Chapo – employed to ensure he evaded capture by police. So, what possessed this cautious man to let down his defenses?

Guzmán was the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. They produce the raw ingredients needed to make cocaine, heroin, and other drugs, and ship them across the world. They’re said to be responsible for half the illegal drugs that make their way to the US each year. One recent study estimated that the cartel is active in as many as 50 countries.

Guzmán was one of the world’s most wanted men. The US offered a $5 million reward for his capture. The Mexican police, army, and marines pursued him relentlessly. But he escaped any attempts at capture. Time and again, police would respond to a tip-off only to find that Guzmán had left minutes earlier through the back door.

In fact, investigators feared that he had contacts in high-up places who warned him whenever they were coming. This was true, but it wasn’t the only reason that Guzmán was so hard to catch. Another was that he was so cautious and secretive. While lots of young drug traffickers were spending wads of cash at nightclubs and documenting their adventures on Instagram, Guzmán stayed out of sight at one of his ranches in the remote hills of Sinaloa. In fact, nobody even knew what he looked like. Guzmán had last been photographed in 1993. People speculated that he must have had plastic surgery since then.

His ranches were always perched on the top of the hill so that his security detail had a view for miles around. If a police car or helicopter came in his direction, he had plenty of time to escape the back way.

And although he had a reputation as a cruel and violent drug lord, he was also beloved by many of the people in his native region. In an impoverished place with few social services, his drug money plugged the gap. He invested money in shops, restaurants, and sports facilities. He lent his plane to locals who needed to get to hospital quickly. And he sponsored baptisms and other local feasts.

In this way, he became a Santa Claus–like figure to the community who helped protect him from arrest. As long as he stayed in Sinaloa, Guzman could avoid detection.

But, in 2012, his behavior changed. He started spending more time in the neighboring cities of Los Cabos and Culiacán. Investigators were able to intercept communications showing that he was meeting up with prostitutes. Sometimes he and his entourage even went out for dinner in fancy restaurants!

Guzmán was playing with fire. But why? Some people speculate that it had to do with his very young wife. Emma Coronel wasn’t a dusty hillside type. She may have pressured him to spend more time with her in the city. Others speculate that El Chapo’s finer tastes got the better of him. He loved living it up at parties, eating fine food at restaurants, and dancing to his favorite music. What was the point of being a multi-billionaire if he had to live like a peasant in the hills?

Guzmán started letting down his guard more and more. Perhaps all of his successful escapes had led him to feel invincible. But this time, something was different. The Mexican marines were after him with the assistance of US investigators. By tapping the phone of his trusted bodyguards, they were able to trace it to a hotel in Mazatlán. The marines surrounded the hotel and burst in on Guzmán, who was with his family and staff. He surrendered almost immediately and was taken into custody.

The invincible El Chapo had been captured. And all because he started to let down his hair and have some fun.

Guzmán’s career in crime was, in a sense, predictable. He grew up in a region that was already famous for producing drugs and joined the family business. But some criminals have a much less clear road into crime. In the next story, you’ll learn about the story of Amy Bishop, a woman with no known criminal record who became a notorious mass shooter.

A disturbed academic who was a “ticking time bomb.”

What would possess a middle-aged academic to pick up a gun and shoot at her colleagues in an otherwise completely ordinary staff meeting?

That was the question that bamboozled Amy Bishop’s friends and family. It also deeply puzzled the investigators assigned to work on her case. Bishop had no criminal history. She didn’t take drugs. She was a mother of four in an apparently happy marriage. And yet, she’d pulled out a shotgun and killed three of her colleagues. Her deadly spree would have continued if the gun hadn’t jammed.

One obvious motive was that Bishop was bitter about having been denied tenure. In America, academic staff have to vote on whether their colleagues can get coveted permanent contracts. In Bishop’s case, most of her colleagues had voted against her staying in the job. Her publication record was poor and she was unpopular with her students.

So, could her anger about this rejection explain why she started shooting her colleagues? That might sound like a neatly-fitting theory, but it doesn’t really provide an explanation. After all, how many people suffer professional disappointments without resorting to murder? Some parts of the puzzle were missing. But new information from Bishop’s past shed new light on her behavior.

The police chief from the town where she’d grown up – Braintree, Massachusetts – contacted the investigators. He revealed something surprising: this wasn’t the first time that Bishop had been responsible for someone’s death. In fact, she’d killed her younger brother several decades before.

The death had been ruled accidental. In the family’s telling, Bishop asked her brother to help her unload the bullets in a gun. In the process, it accidentally fired. Bishop’s mother, Judy, who was with her at the time, attested to the story.

But several elements of the story didn’t add up. For one thing, Bishop had fled the scene and tried to hijack a car. When police apprehended her, she turned the gun on them. This didn’t sound like the behavior of a remorseful, accidental killer. Even stranger was the fact that the police released her into her parents’ custody that very night. Rumor had it that she’d been released because her mother was friends with the chief of police, John Polio.

This new information seemed to suggest that Amy Bishop was a seasoned killer; the murder of her colleagues forming another incident in a long, murderous history. But that reading isn’t as convincing as it sounds. For one thing, it doesn’t explain why she’d want to kill her only sibling, someone to whom she was actually very close.

Keefe discovered another, more likely theory. Her intended victim was not her brother, but her father, Sam. In fact, she’d had a big argument with Sam that very morning. When she heard her brother coming home, she may have come downstairs intending to confront her father. Perhaps she intended to scare him with the gun and teach him a lesson. But she ended up accidentally killing her brother instead.

We’ll never know exactly what transpired. But we do know that Bishop never fully faced up to what had happened. Her family conspired to protect her – their remaining child – from the consequences of what she’d done. And the rest of her community colluded in the cover-up.

Even without knowing exactly what happened, we do know that that earlier killing must have influenced the events in that university meeting room. Whether Bishop had unresolved trauma from killing her brother or had demonstrated an early pathology, she was a “ticking time bomb” that detonated under the right circumstances.

Over the last few stories, we’ve looked at blatant, violent crimes. But a lot of crime, known as “white-collar crime,” is much more insidious. Each year, billions of dollars are hidden in shell companies or tax havens. This financial fraud props up terrorist regimes and drug cartels, but it’s very hard to trace, and usually has no consequences. In the final story, we explore what motivated a bank employee to betray the institution he worked for, and blow up the world of private banking.

Heroic whistleblower or greedy criminal? It depends on who you ask.

In Switzerland, private banking is sacred. In fact, the Swiss government has gone to great lengths to ensure that client information is kept confidential. Switzerland has become a tax haven for very wealthy individuals wanting to hide their enormous wealth. This policy has paid off handsomely for Swiss banks like HSBC.

Or it did pay off handsomely before an employee by the name of Hervé Falciani collected the data of more than 100,000 clients and gave it to the French authorities. What motivated Falciani to betray the bank? Was he motivated by noble ideas or greed?

Falciani came from a family of bankers. As a boy, he’d watched his father count stashes of cash that arrived from clients in suitcases. In 2000, Falciani started working for HSBC in Monaco. He was talented in working with computers and was soon tapped to help the bank improve its digital security.

Falciani was transferred to a branch of HSBC in Geneva and soon became dismayed by unethical practices at the bank. Financial advisors helped clients set up sham companies in Panama to hide their wealth. The bank allowed clients to operate with no paper trail whatsoever; there was the option to receive account information only in person.

Falciani decided to take matters into his own hands. He managed to penetrate the bank’s formidable security system, and save the private data from over 100,000 accounts. Then he escaped to his parent’s home in France. When the French gendarmes came to arrest him at the request of the Swiss government, he told them about the data and offered to help them trace French tax evaders who had accounts with the Swiss bank.

This stage of the story marks a critical divergence: Falciani became a kind of hero in the eyes of the French. The “Edward Snowden of banking,” determined to help rid the world of corrupt tax evasion practices. The Swiss, however, saw things differently. They’d gotten word that before Falciani even approached the French government, he’d tried to peddle the data to the highest bidder in Beirut. As they saw it, he was a common criminal who’d caused immeasurable harm to the reputation of Swiss banks, and the country at large.

Discerning exactly what Falciani’s motives were is hard because he’s a rather unreliable witness. His story tends to change with different tellings and many suspect that he has an overactive imagination. For example, he claimed that he was the victim of a kidnapping attempt. To one person, he claimed the kidnappers were Mossad agents wanting his help. Then he suddenly switched stories, claiming that it was staged by a group of his accomplices fighting against tax fraud.

While we can’t know Falciani’s true motives, we can look at the effect of his actions. The data he provided was real. Thanks to the breach, international governments were able to aggressively pursue tax evaders. The US introduced new legislation requiring that foreign banks report American account holders to the IRS. And in 2012, HSBC was accused of money laundering and forced to pay a $1.9 billion fine.

Falciani is still living in France, protected by the French government against repeated attempts to extradite him to Switzerland. He says he’s satisfied with what he’s achieved: people will never think of Switzerland in the same way again.

Final Summary

The one non-rogue who Keefe profiles in the book is Judy Clarke, a criminal lawyer who dedicates herself to defending people who are in danger of being executed. Clarke has defended “the worst of the worst” – some of the most violent people in the world.

Her mission is to prevent her clients from being executed. And she does that by trying to humanize them for the jury. By showing that they’re not monsters. That, in fact, they’re ordinary people who’ve made very bad decisions, and who come from complex contexts. In every case, she’s looking for the why. Why do people commit violent crimes? What happened to them? She spends hundreds of hours with her clients to build up her case histories, interviewing everyone who knows them.

Patrick Radden Keefe, arguably, has a similar mission: he’s not content with the most obvious story. Instead, he embraces the shades of gray. His stories explore, most of all, the complex factors that motivate people to make the choices they do, and how they live with the consequences.

About the author

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Empire of Pain, winner of the 2021 Baillie Gifford Prize, and Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, was selected as one of the ten best books of 2019 by The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal, and was named one of the “10 Best Nonfiction Books of the Decade” by Entertainment Weekly. His previous books are The Snakehead and Chatter. His work has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. He is also the creator and host of the eight-part podcast Wind of Change.

Patrick Radden Keefe | Website
Patrick Radden Keefe | Email
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Patrick Radden Keefe

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