Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death” could spend the rest of his life in prison over charges relating to his alleged arms trafficking. For 15 years, investigator Kathi Lynn Austin was on his trail and her work helped bring Bout to justice. From her front-row seat in U.S. Federal Court in New York, Austin tells a tale of international intrigue and its lethal consequences.
Amid the clanking of teacups, sitting on a blue couch in the Mezzanine area of the swank Hotel Sofitel in Bangkok, Viktor Bout shares a recipe. The concoction appeals to Carlos Sagastume, seated next to Bout on the couch. As a DEA confidential source, he continuously prompts Bout to reveal all the secret ingredients. If Carlos can get Bout to describe the preparation in full, he stands to earn over $7 million dollars. This is the amount Carlos, a former Guatemala military officer involved in cocaine trafficking, earned for his role in a previous DEA sting operation in which he acted as a confidential informant.
Within several hours, Carlos gets what he is after. It is Bout’s special recipe for disaster–a formula that packs a lot of punch for enabling and fueling war.
Bout made the mistake of a lifetime in Bangkok when he tailored the recipe to add a local flavor. Believing Carlos and his associate, Ricardo, were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)–a group on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations–Bout stirred in surface-to-air missiles that could be used to kill American pilots presumed operating in support of the Colombian government against the FARC.
By this stage, the men had all moved to a Hotel Sofitel conference room on the 27th floor. U.S. and Thai authorities were lurking nearby.
Once Bout wrote out the prices, numbers and specifications for missiles, AK-47’s, C-4 explosives, fragmentation grenades and ammunition, among other items, on the Sofitel letterhead paper provided–and reiterated their use for furthering the Colombian war and killing Americans–Bout’s time was up.
The U.S. had what it needed to gain jurisdiction over the infamous arms trafficker who had eluded justice for decades. Over a dozen DEA agents, along with the Thai Royal Police, entered the conference room to bust Bout. After a sustained legal fight, he was eventually extradited to the U.S.
During Bout’s trial, now in its third week in a Manhattan Federal court, the secretly recorded conversations between Carlos, Bout and both their associates have been replayed. These include wiretaps from meetings in CuraÃ§ao, Denmark and Romania as well as telephone intercepts from Russia and the U.S. over the course of the six-month DEA operation.
As someone who has tracked Viktor Bout’s past activities in Rwanda, Congo, Liberia, Afghanistan and Colombia, I’ve seen the devastation of Viktor Bout’s formula for war up close: starving refugees, orphaned children, traumatized villagers, pillaged communities, and the piles and piles of corpses of innocent civilians.
But for anyone who doesn’t know how an illegal arms deal goes down, the exhibits entered by the U.S. prosecution during the Viktor Bout trial, [hyperlink here to posted tracking Bout transcripts] including transcripts of the surveillance tapes, are an object lesson. All the complex links that lead to arms ending up in the hands of groups like FARC or rogue government troops are laid out in black and white.
In my next blog, I will spill some more details on Viktor Bout’s tried and true recipe for disaster. It may well make your stomach churn.
Follow Kathi Lynn Austin on Twitter @kathilynnaustin.