Among the many, almost uncountable failures dating back before the 1983 crime bill failure from Job Biden’s time in politics, this one too will go down in history as one of the largest by far. While the Afghanistan withdraw was one of the biggest failures, I feel that at some point in time, we will see that this one will create more problems into the future.
Viktor Bout, known as “The Merchant Of Death” was born January, 13 1967 (by all researchable accounts). Bout’s origins are unclear. Documents and Bout himself both state his birthplace as Dushanbe, Tajik, Soviet Union, now the capital of Tajikistan.
Viktor Bout, a prolific arms manufacturer, distributor and trader on the world arms black market, married Alla Vladimirovna. The two share a daughter, Elizaveta.
While most of this might sound a bit innocuous by nature as there are hundreds of arms dealers through-out the world – just look at any government – the underling consequences of his release a mere ten years into his twenty-five year sentence will have far reaching effects that will not be seen by the main stream media and those that do talk about it will be dismissed as internet blab.
So why would the United States be so hot-to-trot to take Viktor down and why would they expend so much energy to get it done?
The first reason is Blackhawk and Apache. Blackhawk and Apache helicopters are, well…Expensive. Very expensive and Viktor supplied the means needed to shoot them out of the sky. But it wasn’t just the prized possession of these helicopters that was upsetting the US government so much, it was also the selling of surface to air missiles (SAM) that can take down a passenger aircraft and I’m sure that they have been used to do just that at some time, but governments and media wouldn’t dare to speak of it as it would cause outrage that would not be controllable and would blow the cover of operatives that are involved in capturing black market arms dealers.
How did the US government finally capture Viktor after so many years of following him around?
The story as told by most media and talking pundits goes something like this…
Around 1 p.m. Bangkok time on March 8, 2008, two shaggy Colombian guerrillas locked eyes with a genial mega-rich Russian arms dealer and realized they had a lot to talk about.
“They’re flying Apaches,” a guerrilla dubbed Ricardo raged. “They’re flying Blackhawk. We don’t have any. How can we defend ourselves with a rifle against a Black Hawk or against an Apache? … We want to knock down those American sons of bitches. Because we’re tired. Kill them and kick them out of my country.”
Bout assured Ricardo and his pal, Carlos, both working for the Colombian Marxist rebel insurgency known as FARC, that he shared their hatred for the United States. “We have the same enemy.”
The guerrillas and Bout talked for two full hours, first in the mezzanine lounge of the Bangkok Sofitel, then holed up in a bland conference room on the 27th floor. No lunch, no wine, none of the orchid-draped prostitutes who draw sex tourists to Thailand. Just water, tea and business.
The Colombians described life in the jungle under constant fire from the government in Bogota and its American military advisors, with their powerful helicopter gunships ripping across the canopy.
Bout, already known as the Merchant of Death with a long bloody history in Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and other war zones, offered sympathy, and relief, in the form of a massive arsenal. Viktor offered to sell the Colombian rebel group FARC at least 10 million rounds of ammunition, vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft cannons that could take down an airliner, and 30,000 AK-47 assault rifles.
He listed what was on offer: 30,000 AK-47 assault rifles, 10 million rounds of ammunition, or more, five tons of C-4 plastic explosives, ultralight airplanes outfitted with grenade launchers, mortars, unmanned aerial vehicles, Dragunov sniper rifles with night vision, vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft cannons that could take down an airliner, and, most audaciously, 700 to 800 shoulder-fired homing surface-to-air missiles, known in the West as SAMs or MANPADs, for man-portable air-defense systems.
That was a massive arsenal, enough to arm an army. But the SAMs were the big attraction, and Viktor was offering many more than Ricardo and Carlos had originally requested. They’d asked for just 5,000 AK-47s and a mere ton of explosives. Bout was also volunteering some items, like the cannons, they hadn’t asked for at all.
Ricardo and Carlos weren’t newbies. Ricardo was a former Colombian soldier and weapons expert for right-wing death squads and their adversaries, Colombian cartels. Carlos, introducing himself to Bout as “the money guy,” was a doctor’s son who had turned his education to laundering drug money.
They rocked back in their chairs as Bout scribbled the numbers on a notepad: “AA = 100 + 700-800.” That meant, 100 SAMs immediately, then another 700 to 800 in later shipments.
He encircled the notation with heavy lines. As Ricardo well knew, terrorist groups the world over would thrill to get their hands on even just one or two of those light, potent killing machines. A team of fighters firing one of these small guided projectiles could prevent helicopters carrying special operations troops from landing to mount an attack on a remote jungle stronghold.
Viktor knew all that. He also knew that if FARC leaders chose, they could sell off some of their cache to other, crazier zealots like al Qaeda, to unleash chaos anywhere.
As an offensive weapon of terror, a SAM is breathtakingly effective. A tiny ragtag band could down a single passenger airliner, inflicting mass casualties, then claim that to have more missiles in position, near three or four major international airports.
The threat could be a lie, but how would the authorities know? A few suicidal, homicidal people with a SAM could paralyze international travel and commerce. For that reason, in 2004, the U.S. Congress jacked up the penalty for selling SAMs to a mandatory minimum of 25 years in federal prison and a maximum of life behind bars.
But Viktor was undaunted. As he pitched weapons to the Colombians, he coolly jotted down numbers, doodled a little ultralight, scribbled and boxed the letters “UAV,” referring to an armed drone. Today, remote-controlled armed drones are commonplace in the Ukraine war, but they weren’t in 2008.
The US DEA launched a narcoterrorism investigation of Viktor based on information that he was negotiating with the Colombian rebel army FARC to sell a large shipment of anti-aircraft missiles, explosives, machine guns, drones and other powerful military weapons.
Viktor offered the Colombians even more. Instructors, advisers, technology, support and most of all, sympathy. All this bounty, he said, for $20 million to $30 million to start. That was a whopping transaction, by conventional underworld standards, but Viktor knew that despite their battered clothes and dirty fingernails, the guerillas were good for the money.
He hadn’t dealt extensively with the FARC as most of his clients were African strongmen, but he did some research about Latin America on his laptop the night before the meeting. FARC leaders, though vaguely marxist and listed as terrorists by the US State Department, were known to be ardent capitalists.
In 2006, the US Justice Department had filed an indictment against 50 FARC leaders, accusing the organization of producing half the world’s cocaine and sending $25 billion worth of cocaine to the United States and other countries. Colombian National Police teams, often joined by agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration and US Army special forces soldiers, regularly flew surveillance missions and mounted occasional lab raids, hence why the guerillas wanted anti-aircraft batteries.
Ricardo and Carlos admitted that they had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it, especially in Europe, where cocaine was increasingly popular. “We can produce around 40 million euro in every month,” Carlos said. He asked for advice on how to launder the cascade of cash, which was becoming cumbersome. Viktor simply replied “We can find you the way to do it properly.”
After about two hours of fruitful business discussions, the Colombians excused themselves, allegedly to call the man who had kindly provided them the introduction to Viktor. But actually, the call was routed to Robert Zachariasiewicz, an agent with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, who had opened a criminal investigation into Bout in June 2007. He was with other DEA agents and a team of Thai policemen, in a room a few floors below.
The US DEA had arrested Ricardo and Carlos years earlier, flipped them into cooperating insiders and trained them for undercover missions. For this job, the agents had outfitted the pair with tiny audiovisual devices that had recorded the long conversation between the three of them.
Zachariasiewicz, hadn’t been listening in on the conversations because the devices didn’t transmit; their cover would have been blown if Viktor swept the room with an emissions detector. But when the operatives told the agent, “Hey, we got everything,” he knew what that meant.
As Zachariasiewicz confirmed when he and his partners quickly downloaded and checked the covert digital recordings, Viktor had made a string of incriminating statements that violated specific sections of US federal law.
That meant he could be indicted in the Southern District of New York, which handled most federal terrorism cases. The eventual charges – conspiring to kill Americans, to kill American officials in the performance of their duties, to support terrorists and to sell anti-aircraft missiles – carried a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life.
Viktor’s repeated, earnest references to killing American helicopter pilots were crucial, because prosecutors in New York could use them to defeat his potential defenses, that he was entrapped, that he was just blustering, that he was simply scamming the Colombians. On the tape, he sounded deadly serious. In the following days, the agents would find much more evidence on his laptop and in his bag to prove that he knew the arms industry well and that he intended to carry out the arms supply drops he described to Ricardo and Carlos. Importantly, he had a map that pointed out US radar installations in Colombia, so he could instruct the pilots of his cargo planes to avoid them.
The DEA team had a quick group call with prosecutors at the Southern District of New York to ensure that if they were able to get the Thai police to arrest Viktor and get him extradited, they would have a solid conviction.
But first, Viktor had to be arrested. The Thai cops burst into the conference room door, followed by Zachariasiewicz and other DEA agents. Viktor’s business partner, Andrew Smulian, was arrested as well, and the agents play-acted a fake arrest of Ricardo and Carlos. It probably didn’t fool Viktor for long.
It took four years and one month, but Viktor was extradited to the United States, convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. And then last week, the United States let him go, swapping him to secure the release of Brittney Griner, arrested and jailed in Russia for possession of a small amount of cannabis.
But in the days since the swap, what has most troubled the DEA investigators who brought Viktor down is the consequences of his release going forward.
Several are convinced he’ll soon reemerge as a player, helping Russia sell and acquire weapons in violation of international sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine and earlier human rights violations.
“The Merchant of Death is back in action, with more hatred against America and with greater motivation to fuel conflicts and support Russia in its outrageous and disastrous war with Ukraine,” says Derek Maltz, who as head of the DEA Special Operations Division oversaw the undercover investigation of Viktor.
“Viktor was a master,” says Mike Braun, DEA chief of operations at the time. “There was no one who came close to his ability to move any type of armaments around the world and deliver them with absolutely precision, with air drops, landing on unimproved air strips, using old Soviet heavy cargo aircraft.”
Zachariasiewicz says he’s worried about the signal the United States has sent by swapping him for Griner. “I think American citizens everywhere just got made a commodity. We just told bad actors everywhere that it’s good business to falsely detain or kidnap American citizens, and the best bargaining chip you can have is an American citizen. We just told them we will negotiate, so you better have some equity in your back pocket.”
Braun disagrees with those who argue that Viktor is a has-been, that his network has frayed and his business model collapsed. If anything, Braun says, Bout has probably made valuable contacts over the ten years he has spent in the US prison system. “Anyone who thinks he’s washed up and Putin is not going to push him back into service, it’s beyond me. People who believe that don’t understand how the real underworld works.”
The Bout case grew out of DEA’s mission, launched after the al Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, to hunt down narcoterrorists, meaning, people who used drug profits to finance terrorism and war. The definition covered FARC, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Afghanistan’s Taliban, and numerous smaller actors and groups.
Zachariasiewicz initiated the DEA investigation of Bout in June 2007, based on information from the joint DEA-Colombian investigation that Chepe Boyaco, a notorious gunrunner and cocaine transporter for the FARC, was negotiating with Viktor for large quantities of heavy military-grade weapons, including surface-to-air missiles.
Zarate had been tracking Bout for some years. In 2004, when he was in charge of a US Treasury unit that sanctioned bad actors, Zarate saw to it that Bout was blacklisted for supplying arms to Charles Taylor, a warlord whose rebel army in Liberia and Sierra Leone drugged and recruited children as soldiers, carried out atrocities and imprisoned women as sex slaves.
Taylor would eventually be convicted of war crimes and is currently imprisoned in the United Kingdom.
At that time Bout’s air cargo fleet was known to be delivering weapons to strongmen in other African countries, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The Treasury investigation charged that Bout’s companies had moved $50 million in arms to the Taliban regime, prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan a few years earlier. With the US engaged in Afghanistan in a long and ultimately failed war with Taliban insurgents, any arms trafficker with contacts to the Islamic extremist movement was in Treasury’s sights.
To Zarate’s frustration, Treasury sanctions didn’t faze Bout. Even the US Department of Defense ignored them. In 2004, investigations by journalists from the L.A. Times found that some Pentagon contractors had hired Bout companies to move cargo into the Iraq war zone.
Maltz, whose brother, a US Air Force special operations sergeant, had died in Afghanistan, took Zarate’s point.
Zachariasiewicz was good as his word. He moved the investigation with astonishing speed. Deep in central Africa, he and his partners located a British bush pilot named Mike Snow, who had once worked for Bout and fallen out with him and was more than willing to help end his career.
Snow led the agents to Bout partner Andrew Smulian, a shady South African down on his luck. In January 2008, with the agents watching from behind tiki lights and bougainvillea, Snow and Smulian met at a beach club on the island of Curacao, Snow introduced Smulian to Carlos and Ricardo, onetime traffickers who were now on DEA’s payroll as undercover operatives. They proposed a multi-million-dollar arms deal. Smulian would get a big commission, but they had to meet personally with Bout.
Smulian flew to Moscow to put the proposition to Bout, who agreed to meet the FARC reps in Bucharest. To put Bout behind bars, the US agents needed the meeting to take place in a country with an extradition treaty with the United States. Romania was one.
Zachariasiewicz, other DEA agents and the operatives spent three maddening weeks there waiting for Bout, who didn’t show. He had sensed that the Romanian capital was crawling with American spies. He was right. The CIA had a big station in Bucharest and a secret prison code-named Bright Light on the north side of Bucharest; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and other high-value terror suspects had spent time there.
Before long, Bout’s hunger for money and action got the better of him. He agreed to meet in Bangkok, which also had an extradition treaty with the US. When confronted with Thai police holding handcuffs, with Zachariasiewicz, Milione and other DEA agents behind them, Bout didn’t try to talk his way out. He realized that he had talked too much already.
Following Bout’s arrest, the Russian government denounced the charges and summoned the Thai ambassador in Moscow.
Moscow’s support was evident when Bout’s extradition process got underway. A US diplomatic cable, dated Feb 13, 2009, stated “There have been disturbing indications that Bout’s Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition.”
Moscow then covertly deployed money and influence in an attempt to scuttle Viktor’s extradition to the US. The first Thai court that heard the case ruled against extradition. A higher court overruled it and extradited Bout to New York in November 2010.
He was convicted on four counts in November 2011, and in April 2012, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. To the frustration of the prosecutors and agents, federal Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected the prosecutors’ request for a life sentence, saying no arms had actually been delivered. While this was true, agents contended an actual shipment of lethal goods was too risky to attempt.
It was Bout’s greed that seduced him to that fateful meeting at the Bangkok Sofitel. Like many super-rich underworld barons, he had an insatiable itch for more. Just more. Milione and his agents understood that peculiar psychology. So did Bout’s business rivals.
One of those was Paul LeRoux, a South African arms-and-drugs merchant based in Manila. LeRoux had one of those “All About Eve” moments when he heard of Bout’s arrest. He didn’t drink, so he opened a Diet Coke, and celebrated with an aide, a European mercenary he called Jack.
Once Bout landed in the bribe-resistant US prison system in Marion, Ill., the Kremlin turned to seeking a swap. Various Americans ran afoul of Russians authorities in the years Bout was in US custody, but none of his stature. With the arrest of Griner, a celebrity athlete with a devoted following, the Russian government finally had the leverage it sought.
Bout’s next move is far from certain, but widely feared all the same.
US authorities do not know how much money he has stashed in Moscow and other bolt holes, but they believe he is highly motivated to strike back at the US and support Russian Vladmir Putin’s Ukraine war.
Some Africa specialists fear that Putin will press him into service to advise Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, and his mercenary force, the Wagner Group, which is playing a key role fighting on the ground in Ukraine and has been implicated in some of the worst war crimes attributed to Russian forces. Prigozhin and Bout are both believed to be linked to Russia’s military intelligence agency known as GRU, and may well have crossed paths in Africa where they were both working after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Analysts say that even if Bout steers clear of the war in Ukraine, he can still do a lot of damage in Africa as the Wagner Group expands Russia’s presence, trading in timber, minerals and other natural resources.
Wagner is Russia’s coercive tool in Africa. While the numbers that are deployed in Africa may seem small, in fact, they’re having very far-reaching political effects to keep regimes that are supportive of Moscow in power. This has wide-reaching geostrategic implications for Russia’s involvement in Africa. Wagner is helping prop up some of the more destabilizing forces on the continent. Russia’s engagement is making them even more unstable.
Africa is a great profit center for the Wagner Group, Bout’s logistical skills, contacts and discipline, far superior to those displayed by Wagner Group, could really help solidify Wagner’s footprint in Africa and make it harder to dislodge.
Senior FBI agents specializing in domestic terrorism, take the view that Putin’s play is more likely aimed at stirring up political division inside the US, in part by refusing to include a former Marine, Paul Whelan, in the swap for Griner. Taking Paul Whelan off the table is strategic on Putin’s part.
Reaction in many camps has been to attack the administration. Republican leaders, who have already said they are going to stop payments to assist Ukraine, are outwardly attacking Biden and making continued Ukraine support more difficult. Putin released Griner to continue efforts to inflame the Right against the Left in the US. The end result, he hopes, is less support to Ukraine and to continue his efforts to divide US population. Score one for Putin.
The US DEA worked with six other agencies, other countries and ministers of justice, heads of law enforcement agencies and a number of three-letter agencies. The foreign counterparts cooperated with us because they knew how dangerous this guy was.
They believed in our judicial system and believed they could never accomplish in their countries what we could, to get Bout locked behind bars, the next time we have one of these situations, they’re going to be questioning what the real outcome could be, down the road.