STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep with Renee Montagne. In 2005, Nicholas Cage played an international arms dealer in the movie "Lord of War."
(Soundbite of movie, "Lord of War")
Mr. NICHOLAS CAGE (As Yuri Orlov): There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every 12 people on the planet. The only question is - how do we arm the other 11?
INSKEEP: That film was based on the real-life story of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who's now in prison in Thailand. Mr. Bout is awaiting extradition to the United States. He was arrested in Bangkok after U.S. Drug Enforcement agents lured him there by posing as Colombian guerrillas in the market to buy weapons.
Russia's government also wants Bout, but for different reasons. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Bangkok.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN: For nearly two decades, Viktor Bout was perhaps the most successful arms dealer in the world.
Mr. DOUGLAS FARAH (Author, "Merchant of Death"): He came out of the Russian intelligence services after having spent time in Africa. And as the Soviet Union sort of disintegrated, he had a vision that no one else really did.
SULLIVAN: Douglas Farah is co-author of a book about Bout called "Merchant of Death." He says Bout's vision was to realize there were 1) lots of planes abandoned on the tarmac of airports all over the former Soviet Union; and 2) huge arsenals of weapons no longer being guarded because the guards weren't getting paid.
Mr. FARAH: And he saw the possibility of marrying those two things to feed the wars around Africa and elsewhere that were still raging. And there were clients lining up to buy these weapons. And he simply realized that he could make a lot of money marrying those two products together and providing a service that people wanted.
(Soundbite of movie, "Lord of War")
(Soundbite of gunshots)
Mr. NICHOLAS 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: The real life Viktor Bout, Douglas Farah says, armed Charles Taylor in Liberia, Mobutu in Zaire, and Savimbi in Angola. He armed the Taliban, the FARC in Colombia, and Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel. Even more amazing, Farah says, is that Bout often supplied arms to both sides in a conflict, at the same time.
Mr. FARAH: He was essentially a one-stop shop for them. They could come, he would deliver them, he would take care of the paperwork. And the reason when I asked people, for the book, why didn't one side or the other in the same conflict kill him and, you know, why would you allow the man to arm your enemy, and the guy said, you know, you don't ever shoot the mailman, you know. He was the postman. You don't shoot him. So his ability to arm both sides was not clandestine, it was fairly overt.
SULLIVAN: 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 placed on a sanctions list by the U.S. Treasury.
Mr. FARAH: One has to recognize the United States simply did not have the airlift capacity to carry out that war and prosecute it as they wanted to, so they were desperately looking for private contractors to fly in.
SULLIVAN: Douglas Farah.
Mr. FARAH: One of the problems U.S. contractors were having is that no one would sell them insurance to fly into Baghdad in the middle of a war. Viktor Bout had no concerns about insurance. He kept flying even as the Treasury Department in the United States was ratcheting up a series of sanctions on him and his companies. He would simply switch the names of his companies and keep flying into Iraq, where the military was happy to use him; and we calculated in our book that he flew well over a hundred - a thousand missions for the United States.
SULLIVAN: That relationship ended in early 2007, but Bout and his fleet of more than 50 planes were still in business until last March, 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 the one the DEA had used a few years earlier to nab another powerful arms dealer.
Mr. MICHAEL BRAUN (DEA): There was a lot of debate internally with respect to using kind of similar scenario, but suffice it to say that, you know, we were audacious enough to do it and the more we looked at it, the more we thought about it, we just felt strongly that Viktor Bout would not in his wildest imagination believe we would use the same scenario twice. So we rolled the dice and it worked out in our favor.
SULLIVAN: Bout's been in jail here in Bangkok ever since, awaiting extradition — a process complicated by the Russians' attempt to persuade Thailand to turn Bout over to them. Douglas Farah…
Mr. FARAH: They would like to protect him because he's done useful things for them, and he comes out of their services, and they are very afraid that if he decided to roll or were extradited and thought that he could maybe cut a good deal by discussing how the Russians move weapons and what they actually have and how they arm different non-state armed groups around the world, that it would be incredibly damaging for the Russians.
SULLIVAN: If Bout does go to Russia — instead of the U.S. — former DEA Operations Chief Michael Braun warns…
Mr. BRAUN: There's no doubt in my mind, he'll be back doing what, you know, he does best. And that is arm the potpourri of global scum with weapons that they need to keep their criminal enterprises and insurgent and terrorist movements operational.
SULLIVAN: Braun says he believes the Thais will eventually honor the extradition request. But "Merchant of Death" co-author Douglas Farah isn't yet convinced the Russians will lose.
Mr. FARAH: They're leaning on the Thais pretty hard and the Duma has issued a statement of support. The Russian military Web site has its little Free Victor icon up on their Web site, so clearly there's a lot of official interest. The judge clearly feels the strain of this and he has said that any way he goes, he's going to rupture important relationships. If he comes to United States, Russia will be angry; if he goes to Russia, the United States will be angry. So it'll be interesting to see what happens.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
SULLIVAN: Shackled Viktor Bout meanwhile shuffles to and from his extradition hearings in running shoes, black socks and orange prison-issued 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 they can just get him to New York. The next hearing in this lengthy extradition process is scheduled for April 29.
Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.
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