Hunting the lord of war

SF-based investigator Kathi Austin helped expose a notorious arms dealer and awaken the world to a key human rights struggle
The intrepid Kathi Austin
Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker

Accused illegal arms dealer Victor Bout's long-awaited arrest by Thai police officers March 5 was an important victory against unchecked human rights abuses around the world, and a personal vindication for the San Francisco woman who helped bring Bout to international attention.

Bout arrived at the luxurious Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok believing he was to meet with two senior leaders of the Marxist guerrilla army known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. The men, it turned out, were paid informants operating on behalf of US drug enforcement officials.

Through an associate, the 41-year-old Bout allegedly promised to sell the duo large quantities of weapons to continue FARC's decades-old insurgency against the Colombian government. According to an April federal grand jury indictment filed in New York, the arms included surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s, C-4 explosives, land mines, and even people to help train FARC soldiers in using the weapons.

Among those most relieved — and surprised — at the arrest was a relentlessly determined human rights investigator who lives in San Francisco. Kathi Lynn Austin, 48, has been pursuing the notorious trafficker and war profiteer for more than a decade.

Bout, a former USSR Air Force officer, is widely reputed to be one of the world's most active criminal arms dealers, perhaps best known for his spectral presence on the African continent. There, he cultivated professional relationships with its litany of brutal dictators and helped fuel some of the most appalling human rights tragedies of the last century.

Austin and other investigators, as well as journalists and law enforcement officials in several countries, say that Bout expertly structured a business empire of shell companies, dubiously licensed cargo planes, and endless arms accumulations from former Soviet stockpiles — all of which were intended to minimize evidence linking his name to illegal weapons dealing.

But the work Austin did to penetrate that shell and expose Bout was so notable and dramatic that Paramount Pictures announced in December 2007 that superstar Angelina Jolie would play her in a drama inspired by Bout's infamous career.

It's a stunning achievement for someone who 15 years ago struggled to convince even her colleagues in the human rights community that the end of the Cold War and the globalization of organized crime made nonstate actors like Bout as much of a threat to peace as the tyrannical governments they'd been naming and shaming for years.

"A human rights violation is considered a violation that is carried out by a state actor," Austin told the Guardian.

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