Friday, March 7, 2008

The infiltration of a suspected criminal enterprise by two Drug Enforcement Administration undercover informants led to yesterday’s arrest in Thailand of an international arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” who was charged with supplying weapons to Colombia’s Marxist rebels.

Viktor A. Bout, 41, described by U.S. intelligence officials as the world’s most powerful player in illegal arms trafficking, was taken into custody by Thai police in his Bangkok hotel room — nabbed after talking with the undercover informants posing as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a designated terrorist organization.

U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia in New York said Mr. Bout, a former KGB major, sought to sell the informants millions of dollars worth of weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and was apprehended in the final stages of making arrangements for the sale and shipment of the arms.

“Today’s arrest marks the culmination of a long-term DEA undercover investigation that spanned the globe, and it marks the end of the reign of one of the world’s most wanted arms traffickers,” Mr. Garcia said.

According to a criminal complaint in the case, Bout associate Andrew Smulian told the informants during a series of recorded meetings in Romania that Mr. Bout had 100 surface-to-air missiles available immediately and could provide helicopters and armor-piercing rocket-launchers. In between the meetings, the complaint said, Mr. Smulian spoke to Mr. Bout over a cell phone provided to him by the informants.

“We were able to infiltrate his criminal organization, to gain access to some of his key associates, and from these key associates in numerous places throughout the world, undercover-type scenarios, we were able to introduce human cooperating sources into these key associates,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne in Washington.

Mr. Bout is suspected of having shipped weapons and explosives to terrorist and rebel organizations worldwide, including the Taliban, and is thought to have supplied arms to Iraqi insurgents in their fight against the U.S. military through a maze of front companies and cargo airlifts.

He is awaiting deportation proceedings and is expected to eventually stand trial in U.S. District Court in New York. FARC’s violent acts against U.S. targets have involved murders, kidnapping and bombings in Colombia of places frequented by Americans.

The criminal complaint said Mr. Bout and Mr. Smulian “unlawfully and knowingly did combine, conspire, confederate and agree” with others to provide “material support or resources” to FARC. It said Mr. Bout, Mr. Smulian and others agreed to sell to FARC weapons that could be used to protect their cocaine-trafficking business and to attack U.S. interests in Colombia, knowing that FARC has engaged in terrorist activity.

In an affidavit, DEA Agent Robert F. Zachariasiewicz said the agency directed a confidential source to make contact with Mr. Smulian concerning a business proposition for Mr. Bout in the purchase and shipment of weapons. During a meeting in Curacao, the affidavit said, the confidential source introduced two other DEA confidential sources to Mr. Smulian who identified themselves as FARC representatives interested in purchasing a variety of military-grade arms.

As a show of their good faith, the affidavit said the confidential sources gave Mr. Smulian $5,000 as compensation for his travel to meet with them.

Mr. Payne said that, eventually, Mr. Bout operated as if he was advancing the interests and objectives of FARC and that during several meetings, he schemed to provide weapons to “Marxists” — or anyone wishing to harm the United States.

Mr. Garcia said Mr. Bout and Mr. Smulian agreed to arm terrorists with high-powered weapons that “have fueled some of the most violent conflicts in recent memory.” He said, “Today, they face charges in the United States for agreeing to provide weapons to a terrorist organization that has threatened, and continues to threaten, American interests.”

FARC has been battling Colombia’s government for four decades and funds itself through kidnappings and the illicit sale of cocaine.

A 2005 report by Amnesty International, a British-based human rights organization, said Mr. Bout was “the most prominent foreign businessman” involved in trafficking arms to U.N.-embargoed destinations from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and other countries. The report also implicated Mr. Bout in transferring “very large quantities of arms” from Ukraine that were delivered to Uganda.

In May 2006, when 200,000 AK-47 assault rifles turned up missing in transit from Bosnia to Iraq, one of Mr. Bout’s airlines was the carrier. The U.S. Treasury Department seized his cargo planes and froze other assets in 2006.

Some of Mr. Bout’s suspected arms customers include the Northern Alliance and the Taliban in Afghanistan; Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist separatist group based in the Philippines; the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army that fought a failed 10-year insurrection in Sierra Leone; and Charles G. Taylor, who served as president of Liberia and was one of Africa’s most prominent warlords.

But he also played on both sides in some conflicts.

According to a book about Mr. Bout by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible,” one of his companies subcontracted to transport private U.S. contractors in Iraq. He is thought to have been a model for the arms dealer Nicolas Cage played in the 2005 film “Lord of War.”

According to the Treasury Department, his worldwide network of aircraft, reputed to number more than 50, gave him the “capacity to transport tanks, helicopters and weapons by the tons to virtually any point in the world.”

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