In 2005, Nicholas Cage played an international arms dealer in the movie Lord of War. The film was based on the real life story of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is now in prison in Thailand.
Bout awaits extradition to the U.S. after undercover agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency lured him to Bangkok — by posing as Colombian guerrillas looking to buy arms.
Bout is fighting his extradition. And so is the Russian government, which also wants him — but for different reasons.
Bout's Timely Vision
For nearly two decades, Bout was perhaps the most successful arms dealer in the world.
"He came out of the Russian intelligence services after spending time in Africa," says Douglas Farah, co-author of a book about Bout called Merchant of Death. "As the Soviet Union disintegrated, he had a vision that no one else really did."
Farah says Bout's vision was to realize there were lots of planes abandoned on the tarmac of airports all over the former Soviet Union — and huge arsenals of weapons no longer being guarded because the guards weren't getting paid.
"And he saw the possibility of marrying those two things to feed the wars around Africa and elsewhere still raging — and clients lining up to buy these weapons — saw he could marry those two things together, provide [a] service that people wanted," Farah says.
Arming Enemies Around The World
Bout, Farah says, armed fighters in Liberia, Zaire and Angola. He armed the Taliban, the FARC in Colombia and Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel, he says. Even more amazing, Farah says, is that he often supplied arms to both sides in a conflict — at the same time.
"He was essentially a one-stop shop for them. They would come, he would deliver for them, he would provide the paperwork," he says. "When I asked people for the book, 'Why didn't one side or the other in the same conflict kill him, why would you allow people to arm your enemy,' and the guy said, 'You don't ever shoot the mailman.' He was the postman. You don't shoot him. So his ability to deliver weapons to both sides was not clandestine, it was very overt."
And Bout counted among his clients the U.S. Department of Defense, which used his planes in the war in Iraq — long after Bout had been put on a sanctions list by the U.S. Treasury.
"One has to understand that the U.S. simply didn't have the airlift capacity to carry out that war and prosecute it the way they wanted to, so they were desperately looking for private contractors to fly in," Farah says. "One of the problems U.S. contractors were having, no one would sell them insurance to fly into Baghdad during war. Bout didn't worry about insurance. He kept flying even as the Treasury Department in the United States was ratcheting up a series of sanctions against him and his companies. He would simply change the names of his companies flying into Iraq where military was happy to use him — and we calculate he flew over a thousand flights into Iraq for the United States."
That relationship ended in early 2007, but Bout — and his fleet of more than 50 planes — was still in business, until last March. That's when he got sloppy leaving Moscow for a meeting with men in Bangkok he believed were Colombian guerrillas. They were not. They worked for DEA operations chief Michael Braun, who was using a sting remarkably similar to one the DEA had used a few years earlier to nab another powerful arms dealer.
"There was a lot of debate internally with respect to using [a] similar scenario, but suffice it to say, we were audacious enough to do it," he says.
To Russia Or The U.S.?
Bout has been in jail in Bangkok ever since and is awaiting extradition — a process complicated by the Russians' attempt to persuade Thailand to turn Bout over to them.
"They would like to protect him because he's done useful things for them," Farah says. "He could cut a good deal by describing how Russians move weapons ... it would be damaging for the Russians."
If Bout does go to Russia — instead of the U.S — Braun warns, "There's no doubt in my mind he'll be back doing what he does best. And that is arm the potpourri of global scum with weapons they need to keep their criminal enterprises and terrorist movements operational."
Braun says he believes the Thais will eventually honor the extradition request. But Farah isn't yet convinced the Russians will lose.
"They are leaning on the Thais pretty hard and the Russian Duma has issued a statement of support. The Russian military Web site has their 'Free Victor' icon up on their Web site, so clearly there's a lot of official interest," he says. "The judge in the case really feels the strain of this — has said any way he goes, he's going to rupture important relationships. If he goes to the United States, Russia will be angry, if he goes to Russia, the U.S. will be angry. So, it will be interesting to see what happens."
Meanwhile, a shackled Viktor Bout shuffles to and from his extradition hearings in running shoes, black socks and orange prison-issue shorts and shirt. He insists the man in the book — and the movie — is not him. He calls the extradition hearings "theater" and claims he is being framed by the Americans.
"If I am the biggest arms dealer, where is the proof?" he shouted to reporters last month. The U.S. government says it has plenty — if it can just get him to New York.
The next hearing in this lengthy extradition process is scheduled for April 29.