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Viktor Bout's Last Deal

How an elite DEA unit brought down the world's most notorious arms dealer.

| Tue Mar. 18, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
FOR VIKTOR BOUT, meeting clients in person—looking them in the eye, shaking their hands—was his preferred way of doing business, though it was not strictly necessary. As the fugitive leader of the world's largest and most lucrative illicit-arms-trafficking network, he had plenty of capable lieutenants to manage his affairs. But Bout, by all accounts, enjoyed his work and liked to be on location when deals were closed. So it was that on Thursday, March 6, he landed in Bangkok, Thailand, having flown all night from his home in Moscow.

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He had come to meet representatives of what he hoped would be his newest customer, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and to finalize an arrangement to deliver millions of dollars of military-grade weapons from Eastern European warehouses to the FARC's jungle outposts. It was a welcome new line of business for the 41-year-old Russian, who had chafed lately under U.S., European, and UN sanctions that had frozen his assets and severely curtailed his ability to travel. Thailand had remained one of the few countries in the world where Bout felt secure. It was known to have lenient immigration controls and no shortage of corrupt bureaucrats who could easily be bought off. Moreover, it was popular with Western tourists among whom the arms dealer could conceal himself without raising suspicion. It was not a country where Bout enjoyed the tacit security that came with knowing well-placed government officials, as he did throughout much of Eastern Europe and Africa, but it was many time zones removed from where his pursuers were likely to be hunting for him and, he must have thought, as good a place as any to conduct his latest transaction.

Bout arrived shortly before noon at Bangkok's five-star Sofitel Silom Hotel, a modern 38-story glass structure that towers above a traffic-congested, tree-lined street in the city's commercial district. He checked in at the front desk and made a 3 p.m. reservation for a conference room before retiring to his suite on the 14th floor. He remained there for several hours, perhaps taking the opportunity to catch up on sleep before rising at the appointed time to meet his FARC contacts. He took the elevator to the conference room on the 27th floor, where he and several other Russians, presumably the bodyguards Bout always kept close, watched hotel workers prepare food for the meeting and waited for their Colombian clients to appear. As is now well known, the FARC was nowhere to be found. Instead, as many as 50 Thai police, joined by special agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, had been staking out the Sofitel since 5 a.m. in anticipation of Bout's arrival. What he believed to be members of the FARC, a Marxist rebel army involved with drug trafficking that appears on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations, were actually undercover DEA informants. They had been stringing Bout along for several months with the false promise of buying sophisticated weapons systems from him. Police entered the conference room with weapons ready, but Bout and his men were unarmed and did not resist. Authorities handcuffed Bout and ushered him out the hotel's back entrance to a waiting vehicle. A Thai police officer who was there later told reporters that, upon being arrested, the Russian arms dealer said only, "The game is over."

THE CHAIN OF EVENTS that brought Viktor Bout to Bangkok that morning had played out like moves in a high-stakes poker game, albeit one rigged in favor of Bout's opponents. What follows is the story of how the "Merchant of Death," so named for his role in fueling Third World conflicts with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of weapons and ammunition, was brought down by a months-long international DEA sting operation. Drawing on information from a newly unsealed U.S. federal indictment against Bout, interviews with experts in and out of government, and journalistic accounts of Bout's activities, this portrayal offers a glimpse not only of the inner workings of Bout's organization, but of how other transnational criminal enterprises—such as the mafia, drug cartels, and terrorist groups—do business in the global free market. "Victor Bout is a symbol of the modern world [and] a product of this post-Cold War era," says Mark Galeotti, a historian who has advised the British government on Russian organized crime. "He engages himself in all kinds of activities that wander backward and forward across the boundaries of legality." Willing to work for anyone, Bout's business divorced itself from any political, philosophical, or moral constraint. It delivered military cargo with equal enthusiasm to terrorists, guerrilla insurgents, rebel warlords, embattled dictatorships, legitimate businesses, humanitarian aid groups, and sovereign governments, including the United States. Indeed, to the U.S. military's subsequent embarrassment, Bout-controlled airlines, working on subcontract for firms like KBR and Federal Express, were found to have ferried personnel and supplies into Iraq in the years immediately following the 2003 invasion—a detail sure to figure prominently in Bout's defense if, as U.S. prosecutors have requested, he is extradited to stand trial in an American court. "That's one reason he was so elusive and difficult to catch," says Galeotti, "because he was so useful to so many people."

The DEA unit that finally got the better of Viktor Bout is a relatively new creation. The agency had been chasing the FARC and other international narco-traffickers for years, but after 9/11, changes to federal law provided the drug warriors with greater latitude to run overseas operations against non-American targets. "We crossed over post-9/11 and actually formed a group" to pursue these types of investigations, says DEA spokesman Michael Sanders. (He declined to provide further information about the group for security reasons, but described the Bout sting operation as "guarded" and the number of people involved as "very small.") "We can reach out and get hold of somebody as far as drugs go, and they don't have to be present or have done something inside the domestic United States to be convicted for these drug crimes." Bout was known to transport small amounts of drugs between weapons transfers (he hated nothing so much as an empty cargo bay), and in that the DEA found a pretense to go after him. "We were presented with an opportunity, and we didn't pass it off," says Sanders. "We took it and ran with it."

The decision to use the FARC to target Bout's operation was not without precedent. In 2006, the same DEA unit nabbed Syrian arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar, the so-called "Prince of Marbella," at Madrid's international airport after ensnaring him in a bogus multimillion-dollar deal to supply weapons and explosives to the FARC. Al-Kassar remains in a Spanish jail, awaiting extradition to the United States. The sting that put him there was almost identical to the one that would later snag Bout. How could the Russian, renowned for the care he took in ensuring his own security, have fallen for the same trick? "If you were to do a movie script, you would see the similarities [because] they played out the same way," says Sanders, adding, "If something works, you might as well do it again!"

In Bout's case, another factor may have come into play, namely that the FARC really was trying to acquire the types of weapons and equipment he was known to provide. "What's fascinating about [the unsealed federal indictment] is how close it is, even though it's pure coincidence, to what FARC was actually looking for," says Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement during the Clinton administration, who was "present at the creation" of early U.S. efforts to capture the Russian. "They were seeking surface-to-air missiles," he said, citing documents seized in a cross-border raid by the Colombian military against a FARC hideout in Ecuador earlier this month. Even before the sting began, Bout may already have been reaching out to the Colombian guerrillas. "I've been hearing reports for the last six months that Bout was in fact trying to sell armored all-terrain vehicles to the FARC so the leadership could drive around," says Douglas Farah, coauthor with Los Angeles Times reporter Stephen Braun of a recent book about Bout's network. In all likelihood, agreed Winer, the DEA was simply capitalizing on actual developments in the black market. "My guess here is that there is a real FARC outreach to get weapons somewhere," he says. "It was not just a sting operation manufactured out of thin air."

Beyond that, the DEA "believed the FARC was an entirely credible option for him," Farah says, because Bout had already made at least one delivery to the group. Sometime in the late 1990s, he is alleged to have air dropped as many as 10,000 AK-47s into the jungle along Colombia's southern border with Peru. The experience may have given Bout confidence in his ability to operate there, but for one important detail: His customer at the time was Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, who had arranged the weapons deal as a favor to the FARC. "He didn't deal with the FARC directly," Farah notes. "He knew how to drop stuff there because he had done it, but he had never dealt with the FARC, so he wouldn't have known particular commanders"—including the men he later arranged to meet in Bangkok.

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