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The Merchant of Death Is Back in Action: Victor Bout returns home and starts a political career


Shortly after 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.”

“Yes. Yes. Yes,” Viktor Bout, the arms dealer, commiserated. “They act as if it was their home … Propaganda!”

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.”

It could have been the start of a beautiful friendship.

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, business, business.

Bout, a mustachioed, 41-year-old Russian 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.

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 Bout 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.

Bout 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.

Bout 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.

Bout offered the Colombians even more — instructors, advisers, technology. All this bounty, he said, for $20 million to $30 million, to start.

That was a whopping transaction, by conventional underworld standards, but Bout knew that despite their battered clothes and dirty fingernails, the guerillas were good for the money. He hadn’t dealt extensively with the FARC — 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 U.S. State Department, were known to be ardent capitalists.

In 2006, the U.S. 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Army special forces soldiers, regularly flew surveillance missions and mounted occasional lab raids — which is 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.

“Truth?” Bout replied. “We can find you the way to, to, uh, do it properly.” He recommended certain Russian banks.

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 Bout. But actually, the call was routed to Robert Zachariasiewicz, an agent with the U.S. 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. DEA had arrested Ricardo and Carlos years earlier, flipped them into cooperating insiders and trained them for undercover missions.

Photo:  Apichart Weerawong / AP / File

As Zachariasiewicz confirmed when he and his partners quickly downloaded and checked the covert digital recordings, Bout had made a string of incriminating statements that violated specific sections of U.S. 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.

Bout’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 U.S. radar installations in Colombia, so he could instruct the pilots of his cargo planes to avoid them.

It took four years and one month, but Bout 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, a WNBA star arrested and jailed in Russia for possession of a small amount of cannabis.


Even President Joe Biden has acknowledged that the swap wasn’t exactly fair, that at best Griner was an inadvertent criminal and Bout an experienced, lethal one. But in the days since the swap, what has most troubled the DEA investigators who brought Bout 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 Bout.

“Bout 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,” he told me last week. “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 Bout 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 nearly dozen years he has spent in the U.S. prison system.

“Anyone who thinks he’s washed up and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is not going to push him back into service, it’s beyond me,” Braun said. “People who believe that don’t understand how the real underworld works.”

Bout’s next move is far from certain, but widely feared all the same.

U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

The other day Victor Bout has already made public statements in Russia. For example, the former arms dealer supported the war in Ukraine and almost openly offered his help:

"We need to focus on solving our problems. We need to do everything in our power to achieve our goals in the special military operation that is now taking place. We need to support our warriors."

Photo: Press-service of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)/Handout via REUTERS

On December 12, Booth joined Russia's infamous pro-government LDPR party, suggesting his intentions to launch a new career as a Russian politician. From the looks of it, this will not be too different from his previous pursuits.

By the materials: POLITICO

Cover photo: AP

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