Viktor Bout was convicted of conspiracy to sell weapons to Colombian rebel group the FARC after a DEA sting operation -- but why did the seasoned arms dealer believe his bogus guerrilla contacts?
One of the world's most notorious arms dealers, Viktor Bout, has been found guilty by a New York court and could face a 25 years to life sentence. Drawn in by an elaborate sting operation carried out by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bout had attempted to sell a vast arsenal of arms to men he thought represented the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Russian-born Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” agreed a deal with two men, who he was led to believe were top FARC commanders, to sell a huge shipment of arms including 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 machine guns and five tons of explosives.
Bout, who claims he is nothing more than a businessman operating an air freight company in conflict zones, was convicted by a jury of four charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. government officers and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. In a statement released shortly after the conviction, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, said “justice has been done and a very dangerous man will be behind bars.” Viktor Bout, he said, had attempted to sell the FARC “a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries.”
Viktor Bout is a somewhat mythical figure whose meteoric rise from Soviet Air Force Officer to billionaire arms dealer is said to have provided the inspiration behind Hollywood movie “Lord of War.” He served as a Soviet military adviser in Africa in the 1980s and, upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, went on to establish an air freight empire. He used this operation to illegally transport weapons sourced from Soviet stockpiles to conflict zones around the world. According to Michael Braun, the former chief of operations for the DEA, he is “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth."
In court, Viktor Bout’s former trusted associate and co-conspirator in the deal to sell arms to the FARC, the South African Andrew Smulian, admitted that the pair believed they were establishing a relationship with the Colombian rebel force. Investigators uncovered an email sent by Smulian to Bout in January 2008, in which Smulian suggested a relationship with the FARC had the potential to develop into “a nice ongoing program.” Smulian, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to supply arms to the Colombian group, claimed Bout displayed great enthusiasm about a possible deal with them, even suggesting he could arrange to provide instructors to teach FARC members about “bush fighting and military affairs.” Indeed, according to Smulian’s testimony, Bout went as far as to consider the possibility of arranging to seek out political support for the FARC.
Smulian and Bout did not realize that the men they were in contact with were not FARC members but undercover DEA agents, working on a highly elaborate sting operation codenamed "Operation Relentless." Speaking to CBS’s "60 Minutes" program, the man in charge of Operation Relentless, Louis Milione, described how events unfolded. The first step, Milione said, was to make contact with Andrew Smulian, and arrange a meeting on the island of Curacao, in the southern Caribbean Sea. There, DEA agents posing as FARC leaders and going by the names of "Eduardo" and "El Comandante,” told Smulian they were interested in purchasing significant quantities of arms. Eduardo and El Comandante were, in fact, agents Carlos Sagastume and Ricardo Jardenero. Both are former drug traffickers, who served in the Guatemalan and Colombian armies respectively. To Smulian, they made convincing FARC rebels, and he informed them that he would fly to Moscow to arrange the deal with a man known then only as Boris, but who the DEA were certain was Viktor Bout.
Eventually, the fake FARC members managed to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Bout in Bangkok, Thailand. There, they told Bout they required weapons for the explicit purpose of shooting down U.S. aircraft assisting the Colombian military in counter-narcotics operations. “We're fighting against the United States,” they told him, to which Bout responded “we are together in this … they are my enemy also.” A deal was agreed to supply weapons and money laundering services to the FARC, and, according to Milione, Bout referenced having “a shared ideology of communism.” After the deal had been agreed, evidence collected and Bout had firmly implicated himself in a plot to arm the Colombian rebels, Thai police stormed the meeting room, accompanied by DEA agents.
What the jury in Bout’s trial was not told was that Viktor Bout had a previous relationship with the FARC dating back to the late 1990s. Arms trafficking expert Kathi Lynn Austin claims that in 1999, five separate shipments of 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles were airdropped to the FARC over Colombia. She says that evidence she has gathered indicates that Viktor Bout’s freight operation was used to transport the rifles. The drop was allegedly facilitated by the former head of the Peruvian intelligence service, Vladimiro Montesinos.
Indeed, the fact that Bout has dealt with the FARC in the past may have contributed to the DEA’s decision to use the FARC as a cover during this operation. Douglas Farah, co-author of a book detailing Bout's arms dealing activities, says the DEA "believed the FARC was an entirely credible option for him.” His previous interactions with the FARC may have given him confidence to deal with them once again but, crucially, his previous arrangements with the rebels were allegedly made via Vladimiro Montesinos, meaning Bout had no direct contact with FARC commanders.
The DEA cover story was given more credibility by the fact that FARC were really attempting to acquire precisely the type of weaponry the DEA operatives were requesting. Documents seized by the Colombian military during a raid at a FARC camp in Ecuador prove that the group was seeking to acquire surface-to-air missiles at the time of Operation Relentless. Furthermore, according to news organization Mother Jones, Douglas Farah has said that even before the DEA sting began, there were suggestions that Bout had attempted to contact FARC leaders and had been “trying to sell armored all-terrain vehicles to the FARC.”
Nevertheless, it remains surprising that Bout, a man many regarded as untouchable, so readily believed that he was dealing with the FARC. After all, this is not the first occasion that the DEA has used the FARC as a cover story in an operation against a prominent arms dealer. In 2006, the very same DEA unit involved in the operation against Bout, posed as FARC representatives in an operation which led to the arrest of Syrian arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar, who is currently awaiting extradition to the U.S., accused of conspiring to supply weapons and explosives to the FARC. And in August 2009, another Syrian arms dealer, Jamal Yousef, was caught in a similar sting after allegedly trying to sell 18 surface-to-air missiles to DEA agents posing as FARC members.