Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout has been found guilty of trying to sell heavy weapons to Colombian rebels. In January of 2009, we profiled Michael Braun, the DEA bulldog who nabbed him with a daring sting that took five months and more than 100 agents.
Viktor Bout has been so good at concealing his past that American intelligence agents who have tracked him for years joke that his birth was an “immaculate conception.” Bout’s DEA file says he was born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, when it was still a part of the USSR. His mother was a bookkeeper and his father an auto mechanic. He graduated from Moscow’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages, a feeder for the GRU, Russia’s brutally effective military intelligence arm. He joined the Soviet military, attaining, as can best be ascertained, the rank of lieutenant.
As the USSR began its slow, ungainly implosion in the Afghan mountains, Bout spotted his chance to cash in on the motherland’s demise. Aging planes were available cheap, arms factories were desperate for customers now that the nation had drastically cut back on its defense budget, and bureaucrats and soldiers in the former Soviet republics could be had for small bribes. He realized that the countries and rebels who were previously supplied by the Kremlin would still need weapons, and that the end of the Cold War would spawn a whole new generation of coup-plotters and malcontents in the most chaotic corners of the globe. With his unparalleled connections in the Russian military establishment, Bout knew he could get them anything they needed.
Bout began by snapping up aging Russian transport planes — rugged models like the Antonov AN-12, capable of landing on badly maintained runways. He used his military contacts to buy new arms directly from factories in Bulgaria or stockpiles in Russia and elsewhere, and then Bout, fluent in six languages, began to sell them worldwide.
Africa became his El Dorado, as he made deals with seemingly all sides in every conflict — insurgents and dictators from Liberia to Rwanda as well as the factions fighting in the long-term civil war that ravaged the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing an estimated 3 million. (Perhaps his best moment in bipartisan dealing came in 2003, when he was paid by the U.S. to fly supplies into Iraq at the same time he was supplying the Taliban in Afghanistan.) Bout provided arms and services for a pantheon of Africa’s villains: Mobutu and Kabila in Zaire-Congo, Savimbi in Angola, and the irrepressible and bloodthirsty Charles Taylor of Liberia, now being tried in the Hague for war crimes. Bout sold them AK-47s, mortars, ammunition, even helicopters. From 1997 through 1998, his planes flew an estimated $14 million worth of weapons to Angola.
Bout’s business plan wasn’t unique or even particularly clever, but few illicit arms dealers had his pull or could offer the range of services he brought to the negotiating table. He found the arms, delivered the weapons to airstrips or in air drops, accepted payment in cash or diamonds, and even laundered money for clients. He ran a vertically integrated weapons superstore. The only thing he didn’t do was pull the AK trigger for you.
“Bout built the largest arms-trafficking organization in the world by far,” says Lee Wolosky, who as a director of the National Security Council pursued Bout during the second Clinton administration and part of Bush’s first term. “He could deliver anything to anyone, anywhere.”
And he made hundreds of millions doing it. He bought a mansion in Belgium, a luxury apartment in Moscow, and a charm bracelet of Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers. Through it all he denied selling arms, claiming he ran an air-freight business. Not that there was anything morally repugnant about dealing arms, he’d say. In a rare interview with the New York Times in 2003, Bout blithely echoed a beloved talking point of the National Rifle Association: “Killing isn’t about weapons; it’s about the humans who use them.”