Hunting the lord of war - Page 6

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 very impressed with the work she was doing and the kinds of results she was getting."

By then the UN had grown to understand the need for knowledgeable people on the ground who could travel across various war-torn African countries and gather evidence on who was vioutf8g arms embargos and how they were doing it. In the coming years, Austin served as a consultant and official expert on panels that investigated sanctions violations in Liberia, the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, and Sierra Leone with teams of other human rights investigators who'd long followed Bout's operations.

Her ex-boyfriend, Todd Ewing, a foreign economic development specialist and Bay Area native who began dating her in East Africa during the '90s, described Austin as intense and ambitious. While his own blonde hair and six-foot frame made him conspicuous in the region, he said Austin's "big brown eyes" and polite manner enabled her to slyly convince gritty characters to talk.

"Her MO at that time would be to just disappear for months [on fact-finding trips]," Ewing said. "I always liked to describe her as a sort of spy for the good guys."

Observers say that history handed the equally ambitious Victor Bout a perfect storm in 1991 at just 24 — an age when many Americans are looking for their first post-collegiate job.

The Soviet empire dissolved that year, ending the Cold War between Russia and the United States. Economic globalization expanded and gave every creative entrepreneur with good connections, criminal or legit, a chance to make a fortune. Aging Cold Warriors in the Beltway during the Bill Clinton era and later in George W. Bush's cabinet maintained a stark binary ideological view of the world and failed to take seriously the growing threat posed by transnational criminals who had exchanged ideology for profit.

After the Berlin wall fell, corrupt Russian oligarchs infamously plundered the country's assets as they were privatized following years of state control. Some robbed Russia's rich oil reserves. Bout sought its military installations and airfields containing rows of cheaply available and unused commercial planes, all essentially abandoned by the central government.

Profiles of Bout put him in Angola — and possibly Mozambique — working as a translator for Russian peacekeepers when the Soviet Union broke up. US officials say Victor Anatolijevitch Bout was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, a deeply impoverished former Soviet state, and speaks several languages.

Bout told the New York Times in a rare 2003 interview that he purchased three Antonov aircraft for next to nothing in 1992 and used them to exploit a gap in the transit market, at first ferrying innocuous cargo like flowers from South Africa to the Middle East.

But the mogul quickly fostered connections to old Eastern bloc manufacturing and storage facilities in places like the Ukraine and Bulgaria, which were filled with AK-47s — ubiquitous in the developing world — ammunition, tanks, helicopters, and other military equipment.

Over time, investigators say he erected a complex web of cargo and airline companies designed to throw off suspicion. If one firm faced too much attention from aviation authorities, another was created to hold the assets. Otherwise, bribery, fraud, and forged documents were used, according to a report on Bout created by the US Treasury Department.

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