Hunting the lord of war - Page 2

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

"We were trying to change the whole field of human rights to philosophically say we should be going after these private perpetrators as well."

Austin has helped document Bout's convoluted network since about 1994, first as a consultant for Human Rights Watch and later as arms and conflict director for the Washington, DC–based Fund for Peace, for which she maintained a San Francisco office, before eventually working for the United Nations.

After returning to San Francisco in June from an 18-month UN mission in East Timor, Austin agreed to talk about her investigations of Bout over several hours of interviews near the North Beach apartment where she's been holed up writing material for the Paramount script.

Seeing Austin in a crowded coffee shop with clear features and wide, earnest eyes, it's not easy to imagine her charging through the world's hellholes: Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and other African conflict zones where the UN has imposed longstanding but ineffective arms embargos.

The work of Austin and others repeatedly helped show that death and destruction could continue indefinitely for the right price paid to savvy arms brokers like Bout, while the United States failed to regard the plight of civilian populations across Africa as vital to its interests.

As the world would learn in 2004, even the US military relied on Bout's planes to conveniently bring its partially privatized war machine down on Iraq, making this story about more than just Bout and his pursuers.

Following Bout's arrest in Thailand, federal prosecutors here charged him with conspiring to kill US nationals and attempting to illegally acquire anti-aircraft missiles.

In 1997 the United States designated FARC a terrorist group for kidnapping and murdering American citizens in Colombia. US officials also consider Colombia the globe's largest supplier of cocaine, a trade that's kept the leftist rebels afloat.

Bout allegedly told DEA informants that an ongoing, violent campaign by the FARC to counter America's cocaine fumigation efforts in Colombia was his fight, too, and that he could supply the guerrillas with everything they needed.

Days after this story goes to press, however, he's due for a court hearing in Bangkok, where a judge will decide whether to extradite him to the United States. That means Bout could face a criminal trial on American soil. To Austin, that's long overdue. She had lost hope that her country would subdue a top-tier enabler of gross human rights violations. A secret sting operation led by American narcotics agents was the last thing Austin believed would lead to Bout's capture — and for good reason.

She first became aware of his name in 1994, shortly after witnessing one of the brightest moments in contemporary African history. On April 24 of that year, Austin stood near the polling station as Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner of 27 years, marked his ballot in South Africa's first fully democratic election. She'd been invited to attend after working as a researcher in the Natal province documenting political violence and the apartheid government's desperate attempts to preserve decades of white control through upheaval and destabilization. No one was sure Mandela would reach the ballot box.

"We got up at three, four in the morning to load a bus," Austin recalls. "Nobody told us exactly where it was. We had to go under cover of darkness. When we got there, he voted just after the sun came up."

The inauguration party weeks later spilled out everywhere in Johannesburg. Austin mingled with foreign journalists and drank champagne. But one of the greatest parties of the century turned glum as vague reports mounted describing trouble in a nearby country, one smaller than Maryland and at the time unknown to most Americans: Rwanda.

"Nothing was really clear. It was all very ambiguous," Austin remembers.

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