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.
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.
FOR SOMEONE SO POLITICALLY connected in so many places, Bout’s personal history, all the little pieces that make up the man, has remained the stuff of urban legend. He is variously described as having been born in the Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, or Ukraine. He is married and has a daughter who lives in Spain, as well as a brother named Sergei in Moscow, also believed to be active in the arms-smuggling business. He is known to hold as many as five passports in various aliases and speaks at least six languages, including Russian, Uzbek, Portuguese, French, English, and perhaps several African dialects. As a young man, his language talents were developed at the Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, a primary recruiting vehicle for the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence service. Whether Bout became a GRU officer remains unknown (there is speculation he joined the KGB), but his post-Soviet career bears a striking similarity to one of the GRU’s primary Cold War tasks: the provision of weapons to communist movements around the world. Bout, for his part, was unimpressed by Marxist politics, but the basic mechanics of moving large quantities of military equipment to remote locations he might easily have mastered while in the GRU’s employ.
After the Soviet Union’s implosion, Bout went into business for himself, using his connections to gain access to mountains of former Warsaw Pact weapons and ammunition and buying up the old military cargo aircraft required to move them. There were plenty of paying customers to be served, and in the years that followed, Bout served them all, often working for both sides of a conflict to double his profit. He armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia, UNITA in Angola, various Congolese factions, and Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic group in the Philippines. As recently as 2006, says Farah, the arms dealer was believed to be making shipments to the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia and Hezbollah in Lebanon, among many others.
Despite his success on the black market, Bout escaped notice for many years. “For a long time, nobody cared,” says Winer. “He had a decade-long period before there was a real understanding of what he was doing, and then we lacked the tools because it was all cross-border.” For Bout, the walls began to close in only in March 2001, when the UN included his name on a “travel ban” list for his dealings with Charles Taylor’s Liberia. In subsequent years, the Belgian government issued an Interpol “red notice” for his arrest, and the U.S. government, through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), incrementally tightened economic sanctions against Bout, ultimately placing him on its list of “Specially Designated Nationals,” freezing the assets of any companies or individuals found to have dealings with him.
Prior to Bout’s arrival in Thailand, there had been several failed attempts to apprehend him. In February 2002, British and Belgian police got word that the arms dealer was scheduled to fly into Athens, Greece, but Bout was tipped off at the last minute. Authorities picked up his trail again in March 2004, having learned that Bout planned to attend his daughter’s birthday party in Spain, but the Madrid train bombings caused him to cancel the trip. “Sometimes he’s been lucky,” says Galeotti. “Sometimes he’s been wily and thought, ‘Hang on, this doesn’t quite pan out right.’ Other times it may well be that he was tipped off. He’s got contacts in all sorts of places. The story is that he managed to get away with it for as long as he did.”
IT REMAINS UNCLEAR WHEN the DEA’s investigation of Bout began, but “it mushroomed and went operational in November,” says Sanders, the DEA spokesman. By that time, the agency was running a paid informant (confidential source 1, or “CS-1,” in the federal indictment), who was an old acquaintance of Bout associate Andrew Smulian—a contact the DEA would exploit to penetrate Bout’s inner circle. Little is known about Smulian, aside from that he is a British citizen who once served as an advisor to one of Bout’s airlines and had risen to become one of the arms dealer’s trusted lieutenants. At the DEA’s request, CS-1 emailed Smulian, explaining that he had a business proposition for Bout and requesting that Smulian meet him on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, a resort haven better known for scuba diving than arms dealing, where he would introduce his old friend to the prospective buyers. Smulian agreed but, making clear the financial and legal strains his boss was feeling, suggested taking precautions against surveillance. “Our man has been made persona non-G—for the world through the UN,” he wrote back. “All assets cash and kind frozen, total value is around 6 Bn USD, and of course no ability to journey anywhere other than home territories. Listed on US black list…. All access and communications monitored, and therefore we should not make use of any form of contact, and all existing and past comms are electronically interogated [sic], and copied. My new phone is OK, since I never call him on that.”
The meeting took place just after New Year’s in a Curaçao hotel room. CS-1 introduced Smulian to two men, “CS-2” and “CS-3”, both undercover DEA informants, who passed themselves off as representatives of the FARC. CS-2 played a lower-level FARC operative, while CS-3 adopted the title of “El Commandante,” indicating his supposed high rank within the organization. Together, they explained their desire to acquire large quantities of heavy weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. In demonstration of their “good faith,” they provided Smulian with $5,000 for his time and travel expenses, as well as a new cell phone, which they assured him was safe for his use. It was not, of course, and immediately investigators began monitoring Smulian’s communications.
In the days that followed, Smulian used his DEA-monitored phone to call another, apparently higher-ranking member of Bout’s network, named in the federal indictment as coconspirator 1 (“CC-1”). Smulian explained that he needed to visit Bout in Moscow to discuss some business and requested assistance assembling the necessary visas and travel documents. CC-1 happily complied, even suggesting some of the city’s better hotels. After checking in with Bout, CC-1 emailed Smulian, conveying their boss’ request to “confirm the list” of weapons before leaving for Moscow. Smulian replied that the desired shipment was well within Bout’s means. “Standard ground equipment,” he wrote. “Must be good stuff…no rubbish.”
DEA surveillance records based on remotely conducted phone and Internet traces indicate that Smulian met with Bout in Moscow on Monday, January 21. There, the arms dealer displayed a series of photographs of the FARC’s senior leadership and asked Smulian to identity the buyers from the pictures. According to Sanders, the informants were not members of the FARC and therefore did not appear in Bout’s photo file, a detail that perhaps should have caused him to think twice before moving ahead with the deal. How Smulian responded to Bout’s effort at due diligence is among the questions left unanswered by the federal indictment. “Maybe he convinced Bout that he was dealing with a lower level group than would have been in the pictures,” Farah speculates. Certainly, there was a financial incentive for Smulian to get his boss to accept the Colombians as clients. “I think Smulian wanted this thing to go through” and may have “lied to Bout about who they were,” says Sanders. Whatever happened, Bout was convinced enough to proceed, even extending an offer to launder money for the FARC (at 40 percent interest) and assuring Smulian that “any communists are our friends.” He instructed Smulian to arrange a meeting with CS-1, the informant posing as the lower-ranking FARC operative, and another unknown member of Bout’s network to go over the details of the purchase. Ever concerned with security, Bout directed Smulian before leaving Moscow to ditch his cell phones, SIM cards, receipts, and any other evidence that would “indicate where he had been and with whom he had been meeting,” according to Bout’s indictment.
From Moscow, Smulian proceeded to Copenhagen, Denmark, where CS-1, his old friend and original hookup on the deal, and the junior FARC operative were waiting. He relayed to them an offer from Bout. The Russian had “100 pieces” (surface-to-air missiles) available for sale, which he said could be “air dropped with great accuracy.” In return, Bout’s operation would accept payment, presumably in cash, to be picked up at a remote Colombian airstrip. Allowing for time to consider the proposal, the men agreed to meet again in a few days in Bucharest, Romania, to continue the negotiations.
By now, with the deal nearing its conclusion, all three DEA informants insisted on a meeting with Bout before finalizing the transaction. Bout, it seems, was also intrigued to meet his new clients. Bucharest was selected for this purpose, as it was a country to which he had traveled safely in the past. Still, Smulian was protective of his boss and urged the Colombians to agree to the deal without meeting Bout, explaining that the Russian was “a very high profile figure and risked arrest if he traveled to Romania,” according to the federal indictment. When the Colombians refused, Smulian called Bout directly and handed the phone to “El Commandante,” the senior FARC commander. The two men discussed possible meeting locations, considering Cuba, Nicaragua, and Armenia, but could not reach an agreement, probably out of the informant’s concern that local enforcement in those countries might not cooperate with DEA’s plans to arrest Bout.
Over the next several days, CS-1, the supposed FARC representatives, and Smulian continued to hold talks in Bucharest, during which Smulian further clarified the weapons to be included in the shipment. Bout would provide 100 Igla surface-to-air missiles, Smulian said, showing the buyers pictures and weapon specifications on his laptop. If desired, the deal could also include armor-piercing rockets and “special helicopters that can wipe out their helicopters,” he said, presumably referring to the Colombian military, as well as the training to use them. The gunships would be equipped with sophisticated missiles and launchers that could fire three rounds at a time, far outmatching any opposition the FARC was likely to encounter. The goods were currently in Bulgaria, Smulian said, and were ready for immediate delivery. The shipping cost alone would be $5 million. (The value of the weapons themselves has not been publicly released.) Smulian provided his FARC customers with a thumb drive containing pictures of the weapons systems he had described, as well as an article about Viktor Bout that included the arms dealer’s picture, presumably so they would recognize him at a future meeting.
Meanwhile, Bout was making arrangements to travel to Bucharest. On January 28, he called Smulian to say that it would be another five to ten days before he would have his Romanian visa. Smulian said he understood and emphasized how difficult it would be for the buyers to travel to Moscow. “You know the one guy, the one you spoke to, he comes from the jungle,” he told Bout. “You know, that’s a problem, and then the documentation they got is not suitable.” “I see, I see,” Bout replied. The next day, the men spoke again. Smulian assured Bout that everyone was willing to wait for him in Romania, as long as he really intended to come. “One hundred percent sure! One hundred percent sure! Wait for me max 10 days. I am there,” he said, adding, “Make sure that [the deal] is real.” To speed up the processing of his visa, Bout reached out to an associate (called “CC-2” in the indictment), the head of a Romanian airline who had had dealings with the Russian before. He said he could help Bout with the visa, but then advised him not to come. On Christmas Eve, a Romanian television news program had aired a segment linking the airline operator to Bout’s network. He told the arms dealer that Romania was now too dangerous to visit.
When after two weeks Bout had yet to appear in Bucharest, the DEA informants seem to have given up hope of luring him there. On February 7, CS-2, the informant posing as the junior FARC operative, called Bout on Smulian’s cell phone to say he and his partner were leaving Romania. “Our organization always needs friends like you that want to help us out,” he told Bout, and explained that he was leaving an email address with Smulian (firstname.lastname@example.org), which could be used to contact him in the future. Bout assured him he would be in touch in two to three weeks.
Bout’s email arrived five days later. It read, “Buenos Dias! This is e mail we can use for communication[.] Best regards[,] Friend of Andrew.” The DEA traced the message to a computer in Moscow. Perhaps not wanting to appear overeager, the informants did not immediately respond, instead waiting for the next contact. It came from Smulian, who wanted to confirm that Bout’s message had been received. “These days there can be confusion with all the spam coming in,” he wrote apologetically. By now, Bout was growing impatient to close the deal and broke protocol by calling CS-2 directly. The informant explained that he and “El Commandante” would be traveling to Thailand in the near future. Bout immediately agreed to meet them in Bangkok.
SITTING HANDCUFFED IN the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police’s Crime Suppression Division, Viktor Bout may have been remembering how his supposed FARC clients had not appeared in his collection of mug shots back in Moscow. He sat quietly without expression in the same orange polo shirt and tan slacks he had worn to the ill-fated meeting in the hotel earlier that day. A large man and overweight, his belly slopped over his belt as photographers gathered outside in the hall sneaked pictures whenever the door opened with the coming and going of excited police officers. His fate now lies in the hands of the Thai legal system, where police can hold Bout for up to 84 days without charges while they determine whether he used Thailand as a negotiating site for deals with foreign terrorists. If found guilty, he could face up to 10 years in Thai prison, most likely the one in which he already resides, Klong Prem, long the destination of foreign sex tourists and money launderers. The United States is seeking Bout’s extradition to stand trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on charges of conspiring to provide weapons to a known terrorist organization. He could serve up to 15 years if convicted. (Smulian, who was reportedly with Bout in Bangok, is currently in U.S. custody, though it’s unclear how he got there.) Meanwhile, Stephen Rapp, the UN’s chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, has expressed interest in prosecuting Bout for fueling the violence in that country with illegal weapons shipments in the 1990s. (Russia, which provided Bout with sanctuary and a secure base of operations for the last several years, decided against seeking his extradition. According to the Washington Times, however, the Russian government has appealed to the State Department for assistance in getting Bout released from Thai custody.)
Whatever happens to Bout, the sophisticated arms-trafficking network he assembled seems unlikely to survive his incarceration. “It’s hard to imagine his brother or any of his deputies having the wherewithal to manage the empire as adroitly and fully as he did,” says Whitney Schneidman, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Clinton years and one of the first people to recognize the threat Bout posed to the region. Even if he were released after only a few years, it’s a virtual certainty that by then others will have risen to take his place. “There are more small-time operators, and I wonder how long it is before one or two of them fill the vacuum,” says Galeotti, the Russian crime expert.
For the moment, however, a void has been opened in the black market for military weapons. “There’s no one quite like Viktor,” Galeotti continues. “There wasn’t really room for two Viktor Bouts.” To be sure, weapons will still flow illegally across borders, but the service Bout provided, the “one-stop shop,” is not known to exist anywhere else. “With Bout you were buying real capacity,” explains Winer, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement. “That was the game he was in: ‘You hire me, and I’ll get you the critical stuff you need to change the correlation of forces.'” It was a unique service and one that Bout used to corner the market. “Most operations, you have one guy do the weapons, another guy to find transport, [and] another person has to figure out where to land it,” says Farah. With Bout out of the picture, shipments will be “more costly, less efficient, and more time consuming.” But don’t expect the business of arms trafficking to suffer too much. As Galeotti notes, “Viktor Bout did not create the market. He was able very effectively to capitalize on it, but he didn’t create it, and where there’s a market, there will be other suppliers.”