Infamous Arms Dealer Faces Life In Prison

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was found guilty of conspiring to sell weapons to South American terrorists Wednesday. Host Renee Montagne talks to Michael Sullivan about the conviction of the so-called "Merchant of Death."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An infamous Russian arms dealer who came to be known as the Merchant of Death now faces life in prison. Viktor Bout's customers were said to range from rebels in Africa to al-Qaida. What he was convicted of yesterday in a federal court in Manhattan was conspiring to kill American citizens by agreeing to sell heavy weapons to men who said they were members of a Colombian terror group. Bout had spent two decades in the international arms trade when he was caught in Bangkok in 2008. Michael Sullivan has been following the case and joined us from Bangkok. And Michael, what was it about Viktor Bout that made him stand out.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Renee, this guy was the Costco of arms dealers. I mean, his reach, his whole setup was so big, his career so colorful, that they actually made a movie about him starring Nicolas Cage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LORD OF WAR")

NICOLAS CAGE: (as Yuri Orlov) Selling guns is like selling vacuum cleaners - you make calls, pound the pavement, take orders. I was an equal opportunity merchant of death. I supplied every army but the Salvation Army.

SULLIVAN: That's from the 2005 movie "Lord of War" that was based on Bout's career. And he really was an equal opportunity merchant of death, if you believe prosecutors as biographers. I mean, he sold to anyone - to the Taliban, to Gadhafi, to Charles Taylor in Libya, to Hezbollah. In fact, the guy would even sell to both sides in the same war. Doug Farah tells a story in his book about Bout about asking somebody on one side in an African conflict why they didn't just kill Bout for arming the other side, and they guy says you don't shoot the mailman. And Bout was the mailman - he delivered.

MONTAGNE: Now, Victor Bout had been in the Soviet air force. He was an officer. How did he get his start in the arms business?

SULLIVAN: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he saw as an opportunity. He saw lots of cargo planes abandoned at airports and lots of stockpiled weapons unguarded because the guards weren't getting paid. And he basically said, hey, this can work, and that was it. He had the planes, he had the guns and he'd fly anywhere. In fact, the U.S. even used Bout's planes to fly supplies into Iraq during the war because it simply didn't have enough of its own, and that was a little embarrassing. 'Cause on the one hand you had the Treasury Department, which was already after Bout for his role in arming groups in various conflicts; while on the other hand you have the DOD using his planes to mule supplies to Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And when he was captured in 2008, it took more than two years to get him extradited from Thailand. What took so long?

SULLIVAN: The Thais were getting leaned on pretty hard by the Russians, presumably because they didn't want him spilling any secrets he might have about their role in helping him arm these various groups around the world. But in the end, the Thais went with the U.S. - it's not clear why. Bout still maintains his innocence. He says he's simply a businessman who's been set up, but there don't seem to be many takers for that argument. The trial was over in three weeks and it took the jury only two days to find him guilty on all four charges.

MONTAGNE: Michael Sullivan speaking to us from Bangkok.

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