American DEA agents last year announced the capture of the worldís most feared international arms dealer. But Russia claims its citizen was framed, writes Aaron Mulvihill
“There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: how do we arm the other 11?” asks a cynical Nicholas Cage in the 2005 blockbuster Lord of War. Cage plays an astute Ukrainian immigrant to the United States who works his way up from selling Uzis to local gangs in New York’s Brighton Beach to running a global arms empire with his knife-sharp business acumen that leaves no room for politics or prejudice. The shrewd, smooth broker buys up ammunition left to rust after the fall of the Soviet Union and lands it on the shores of warring African nations, and peppers every negotiation with his warlord clients with pithy quips like “I sell guns to every army but the Salvation Army”. The film, which was was commended by Amnesty International for highlighting the global arms trade, is apparently a loose – like a freshman nursing student – adaptation of the life and career of Viktor Bout, an overweight Tajik-born former Soviet Army interpreter currently languishing in a Bangkok jail.
Tracking down the elusive entrepreneur took years of work and thousands of frequent traveller miles, as he was trailed from country to country by Interpol agents and the intelligence services of many of its 186 member nations. It didn’t help matters that his hunters occasionally also happened to be his best clients. Bout flew munitions into Baghdad for American troops in 2003 when no other dealers, illegal or otherwise, would dare go near the place. In 2006, four planes carrying 200,000 assault rifles bound for Coalition forces in Iraq mysteriously disappeared after taking off from a Bosnia airstrip – it later transpired that one of the carriers involved was owned by Viktor Bout. Meanwhile, allege American prosecutors, he was supplying insurgent forces with economy versions of the same weaponry. Even the Brits were left red-faced when it emerged in 2005 that Bout had been operating RAF charter flights for the Ministry of Defence.
The hardy former KGB officer was christened the “Merchant of Death” by Peter Hain. The nom de guerre stuck, as newspapers reported on his shady sales of helicopters, tanks and all manner of smaller weapons to terrorists and warring factions in Angola, DR Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Colombia and other bad neighbourhoods.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin defended his innocence. And Russia had an altogether different take on Bout – more ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ than ‘Lord of War’…
Viktor Bout was born in Dushanbe, the capital of the Tajik Soviet Republic (now Tajikistan) to Russian parents in 1967. He graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow and joined the elite 339th regiment of the Soviet Union Air Force as a translator. His regiment was based out of Vitebsk, Belarus and operated in Angola as part of a UN peacekeeping contingent until 1991. When the regiment was disbanded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bout moved to South Africa.
The young first lieutenant turned a page on his military career and began to put his skills to use in business. His mastery of languages, knowledge of Africa and experience with aircraft gave him a good grounding for a career in the aviation industry. The venture was perfectly timed: after the Soviet Union crumbled, thousands of rickety aircraft with ‘CCCP’ printed in big red letters on the fuselage were going cheap. Apparently he began his empire with the purchase of a single An-12 ‘Antonov’ turboprop transport aircraft.
As Bout himself likes to recall in interviews, his first regular trades were in the lucrative African and Middle Eastern flower industry. He bought frozen flowers in the Persian Gulf and flew them to markets in Europe. When he had saved up enough capital, he built a refrigerated storage facility in South Africa and began transporting tulips from there to Nigeria, and then expanded further afield. Like any good businessman, he realised the need to diversify, and was soon packing cargo holds with frozen chickens and pencils as well as his staple flowers. His enterprise quickly ballooned into a global airline network, with a chartering company in Florida, an aircraft repair depot in Dubai, and a fleet of aircraft large enough to make Michael O’ Leary hot under his check shirt collar.
Bout’s floral dreams were shattered, however, when in 2001 Human Rights Watch, seemingly out of the blue, accused him of providing Liberian warlord-cum-despot Charles Taylor with a planeload of AK-47s to prop up his new dictatorship. Taylor’s presidential campaign slogan was “He killed my Ma, he killed my Pa, but I will vote for him.” No, really.
Then the Americans accused Bout of keeping the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see above article) supplied with arms in exchange for precious minerals. His detractors in the United States would have you believe that Bout, far from transporting tulips, was actually flying guns to Africa and loading up the plane with diamonds for the return trip. Absurd, right?
This was all a little too much for Bout to handle, and he promptly fled to his native Russia, whose constitution protects its citizens from extradition to a foreign country. While charges against Bout mounted abroad, he lived in a plush apartment in Moscow, from where he continued to protest his innocence. In an interview with the radio station Echo Moskva, which introduced their guest as a “businessman”, Bout laughed at the “ridiculous situation” and said that, far from the numerous aliases and false documents that the UN accused him of keeping, he had “never hid anything from anyone, and never been a citizen of any country other than the Russian Federation.”
In the same interview in 2002 he said “As far the accusations of having dealt with Osama Bin Laden are concerned, it sounds more like a Hollywood action movie!” In fact he had to wait a full three years before he could see the Con Air star give a stylised rendition of his career. Meanwhile he was making plans to buy a helicopter and make nature films in the Siberian Arctic for National Geographic, he told the New York Times in an interview.
So far, so evil? At least most governments agree on the basic facts. He was a major in the KGB (or a lieutenant in the Air Force) who was discharged (or quit) after the breakup of the USSR. He bought a ramshackle old Soviet plane (or was given a military cargo jet) which he used to transport guns (or Dutch tulips) anywhere in the world for a price.
He fuelled bloody West African diamond wars (or the War on Terror) which led to thousands of civilians being killed (or protected by peacekeepers) in the calculating pursuit of profit. Well, at least everyone is on the same page about his motivations.
The gun runner, or, if you prefer, successful florist, was lured to Thailand in early 2008 by American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers posing as high-roller customers. Nobody outside the DEA had knowledge of the sting – the CIA, which usually handles cases like this, was apparently reluctant to pursue Bout because of his embarrassing dealings with the American military, so they were effectively shut out. The Bangkok meeting was the culmination of a series of negotiations which began on the Caribbean island of Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, moving to Denmark, then Romania.
In Bangkok, Bout was taken into custody by local police and the United States has since charged him with crimes ranging from terrorism to murder in an effort to extradite him to face trial in the U.S. Almost one year on, Viktor Bout maintains he never carried so much as a flare gun on his planes. He still gives occasional interviews from his Bangkok jail cell, and still claims he was simply a successful businessman who was framed by foreign governments to hide their own illegal arms deals.