Dictators and disarmament: This week’s cover

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Here at the hyper-local Bay Guardian, we don’t get to write about international organized crime all too often, but it’s something we truly enjoy studying when we’re off the clock. Thankfully, we were able to hoodwink our editors into allowing us to examine the subject during precious work time for this week’s cover story. Suckers.

For those of you who appreciated our profile of human rights investigator Kathi Austin, we’ve got a wealth of additional material below for you to check out, some of it great stuff we hated having to pull from the story due to space constraints and some of it links to other highly informative stories and academic studies on small-arms proliferation in the developing world.

As for Victor Bout’s arrest earlier this year in Thailand, the Russian government has reportedly worked behind the scenes to have him delivered back to Moscow. But Washington’s relatively new attorney general, Michael Mukasey, emerged from meetings during a recent trip to Bangkok declaring that the case for his extradition was “very strong,” according to press accounts. Bout has an extradition hearing in Thailand on July 28.

He fled to Moscow several years ago, probably in 2002, evading an Interpol arrest warrant in the process. Russia doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States, but leaving his safe confines in Moscow and heading to Thailand made him vulnerable to the arrest that occurred in February.

A photo of the arms tycoon from Agence France-Presse – one of the few seen publicly – quickly circled the globe after his capture and showed Bout dressed in a polo shirt and moustache with trim, nut-brown hair. Two massive arms are stuffed into a pair of handcuffs as he glowers at the camera and his considerable size dwarfs the Thai policemen walking next to him.

We first learned about Austin’s pursuit of Bout after reading the definitive book on him published last year by two American journalists, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. The co-authors are Douglas Farah, a former West African bureau chief for the Washington Post, and Stephen Braun, a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. The duo thanks Austin for opening up her files during their research for the book, and Merchant of Death is a must-read for anyone interested in human rights and disarmament.

More after the jump.

Lord of War, 2005

Here’s what Braun told the Guardian about Bout’s arrest in an interview:

“It was a surprise that somebody got him and particularly a surprise that our government got him. The DEA had not been a major player when they first took a serious look at Victor in the late 1990s. They were brought in tangentially to help put together a profile. But even though the British and other countries suspected his organization of being involved in narcotics trafficking, the notion that [the DEA] would get involved was pretty surprising and they did a good job. You really have to give them a lot of credit. They did it skillfully and quickly and without tipping their hat and they nailed him. … He came to the fore at the exact moment when there was this whole generation of KGB agents and military officers [who] could see that communism itself was exhausted and things were being flung wide open. The attitude was ‘get mine.’ … What he pioneered was essentially the logistics of transnational crime and he got in on the ground floor, which is very difficult to do now. You can’t get those planes that easily. But he was able to do it at a time when they were just ripe for the taking.”

We also interviewed a former Clinton White House official named Jonathon Winer who now works in the private sector. Braun and Farah explain that there was a small community of bureaucrats in Washington who wanted to pursue Bout, but little momentum existed to coordinate the forces of several federal law enforcement agencies. Winer, who at that time was deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, was one of the exceptions who tried to make a case again him. Here’s what he told us regarding the arrest:

“It’s hard to do a good operation. They won’t happen that often. Something that’s as good as what [the DEA] did with Bout is unusual. It may have been because of some of the contacts he had with other terrorist groups that we started developing the operation, but he was operating out of Moscow for a long time. … That he was brought in by a sting operation rather than arrest I was astonished by. … This is a really important, symbolic case. There was nobody more visible than Bout.”

As for other newspaper reporting on Bout, one of the most extensive profiles so far outside of Merchant of Death appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Bout inexplicably agreed to meet with journalist Peter Landesman for a few days in Moscow where the two had drinks in a hotel and visited a posh, private sauna together. During their first meeting, Bout associate Richard Chichakli, who we mention in our story, went to work overhauling Bout’s image by telling Landesman that the simple man was a vegetarian and ecologist and “gives Unicef money.”

According to Landesman:

“The world of the arms trafficker often feels like the script of a bad Hollywood thriller come to life. At times you are tempted to laugh at the B-movie dialogue and cloak-and-dagger intrigue. But the political and financial stakes are high. And, as a Western intelligence agent in Moscow told me, this isn’t celluloid, and the dangers are of a much more complicated sort.”

In January of 2006, Austin co-bylined an article with Merchant of Death co-author Douglas Farah describing the continued use by the U.S. Defense Department of Victor Bout’s planes when massive amounts of reconstruction and supply materials were being ferried into Baghdad for the Iraq war. Here’s the LA Times story from late 2004, penned by Stephen Braun, that helped detail Bout-related contracts with the defense department in the beginning. A Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, Michael Schere, also reported on the defense department’s use of Bout-connected planes that year.

In May of 2002, Frontline/World on PBS aired a special called “Gunrunners” that profiled five different alleged arms traffickers and included a lengthy description of Bout. It also contains an interview with Belgian arms watcher Johan Peleman, a long-time pursuer of Bout. You can watch it online. (Peleman also wrote a great primer on weapons trafficking called The Arms Fixers in 2000.) The Frontline piece was created in part by the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting and received backing from the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco, which also financed some of Kathi Austin’s arms research.

We describe at length in our story Austin’s report for Human Rights Watch published in May of 1995 after she visited Rwanda and witnessed exiled Hutu genocidaires amassing weapons on the Zairian border.

Here is another report Austin completed in the spring of 2002 for the Fund for Peace in Washington. It was published in the Brown Journal of World Affairs. She elaborates on Bout and describes some of the severe weaknesses that exist in international law and enable widespread smuggling of all kinds of illicit goods including weapons, narcotics and rare minerals:

“Enjoying the adventure and ‘macho’ image of their business – as well as the prominence and grace conferred upon them by their high-powered clients – traffickers are not about to give up a lucrative (if illicit) trade on their own. Attracting clients with low prices and minimum red tape (or readily obtainable false documentation), the traffickers offer a competitive advantage over most manufacturing companies or state industries. More importantly, they seem to care little about the human rights background, criminal records, or ultimate use of the weapons that they peddle. Undaunted by fear of prosecution or retribution, nefarious brokers skilled in clandestine practices will continue to thrive. Whether operating on their own behalf or for official pay-masters, they will remain the mainstay of the illegal arms markets.”

A big part of Bout’s story revolves around the mass exploitation of privatized assets in post-Soviet Russia. It’s only available for a fee online, but if you’re interested in this sort of thing, we highly recommend downloading Lee Wolosky’s piece, “Putin’s Plutocrat Problem,” written for the influential Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, in the spring of 2000 (volume 79 – number 2).

Wolosky was a counterterrorism official in the Clinton White House and a key member of the team that tried to build a case against Bout. That effort fizzled after Sept. 11. He uses candid language in the Foreign Affairs article to describe what he considers to be a growing threat posed by organized crime syndicates in Russia and the deep corruption of its wealthy oligarchs who have bankrupted the federation’s citizenry. From the Foreign Affairs piece:

“The oligarchs dominate Russian public life through massive fraud and misappropriation, particularly in the oil sector. … Whole regions of Russia are being impoverished. … Widely publicized misconduct involving Russia’s largest companies and most prominent business leaders scares away international investors from all Russian companies – including those with no intention of defrauding anyone. … The oligarchs enjoy enormous political power, derived from their money, media control, and direct and indirect participation in decision-making at many levels of government. … The loyalty of lesser officials is routinely secured through bribes, kickbacks, and ‘charitable donations.’ A favorite scheme involves buying the allegiance of law-enforcement officers by donating motor vehicles. … In Moscow, $50,000 can stall a criminal investigation. … The Russian judiciary faces similar temptations. In cases involving the oligarchs, trial and appellate court judges are routinely bribed. … To be sure, big business interests infuse the political systems of many countries, including the United States. But in Russia, the political influence of the oligarchs is largely the fruit of criminal activity.”

In late 2006, Farah and Braun wrote an article on Bout for Foreign Policy magazine, not to be confused with Foreign Affairs, which is basically a convenient summary of what would appear later in their book. The piece contains some wonderful insights if you don’t have time to read the book. We liked these remarks:

“Perhaps the existence of the merchant of death says more about the world today than it does about the man himself. The halting efforts to disrupt his activities tell a chastening story of the failure of nations. Indeed, Victor Bout is a product of the convergence of history and opportunity, an entrepreneur who saw a chance to turn an incredible profit in a rapidly changing world. In the Cold War, each side was able to enforce adherence to ideological imperatives by controlling the supply and demand of just about everything. When the Berlin Wall came down, so did the controls, and the market was thrown open to those who could seize the moment. Bout grasped that his services could be useful to any party desperately seeking the weapons he could provide.”

One of the most important things we did for this story was examine 1,200 pages of federal court records stemming from the case of Richard Chichakli, a Syrian-born accountant and American citizen who served the United States in the first Gulf War. Federal and state law enforcement officials raided three of the Texas man’s properties in 2005 believing he was an American connection for Bout.

The raids uncovered faxes between Chichakli and Bout describing the creation of new companies, and there were wire transfer statements showing hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time being moved from Bout-connected companies in the United Arab Emirates, where many of Bout’s business operations were located, to Chichakli in Texas. There were also statements from credit cards managed by Chichakli listing Bout’s lavish purchases in Moscow.

Chichakli fled to Moscow after the raids possibly fearing criminal prosecution, but he defiantly directed his Texas attorney to sue the feds in an attempt to have a freeze of his assets lifted. (We tried to reach his attorney, Clay Scott, but didn’t hear back.) That prompted the Justice Department to return fire shoving into the public record hundreds of pages of court documents outlining some of Bout’s activities.

The file included a lengthy memo from the U.S. Treasury Department previously marked “official use only” that contains references to all of the fundamental evidence used to freeze Bout’s assets and bar Americans from doing business with him. Treasury officials targeted 30 companies and four individuals, including Chichakli, purportedly linked to Bout. According to the memo created in 2005:

“Bout operates his organization through front men and a web of interlocking, often interchangeable dummy corporations, in order to conceal his own involvement and frustrate scrutiny. These companies typically are officially registered in the names of, or ostensibly controlled by, close family members, such as his brother, Sergie Bout, or close lieutenants who have worked with Bout for many years. Where needed, Bout and his agents used forged documents, bribery, and fraud to protect and assist his transactions. If any firm (or even aircraft) becomes the subject of too much attention by local authorities, Bout can quickly dissolve or mothball the implicated company and shift assets to another front company; in some cases, the company may be dissolved officially in one country but its operations will continue uninterrupted, often in another country. They can also start or purchase new companies. Bout can also restructure his operations by resorting to a network of subcontractors and partners through which he continues his sanctions-violating activities. … One means that Bout uses to throw investigators off his trail is through sham sales of his aircraft. This way, he retains actual ownership at the same time as he creates a degree of separation between himself and the activities of the front company.”

One more thing. The fictional relationship between an African warlord and gunrunner in the 2005 film, Lord of War, is said to be based on the link between Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and Victor Bout. The Hollywood thriller really spent more time showing co-stars Nicolas Cage and Jared Leto doing cocaine and sleeping with prostitutes than explaining how one man could contribute so much to human carnage without anyone stopping him. Lord of War is still worth watching, and the film’s director has disclosed in the past that a plane used in the film was connected to Bout’s companies. But we’d recommend last year’s book in the end.

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