By: Victoria E. Collins, PhD
In September 2013, international arms trafficker Viktor Bout’s appeal was upheld by the US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York (Stempel 2013). As a result the Russian born arms broker will serve his 25 year sentence in US prison for the following crimes: 1) Conspiracy to kill US nationals, 2) Conspiracy to kill officers and employees of the US; 3) Conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles; and, 4) Conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (United States v Viktor Bout 2011). Given the serious nature of the charges, and Bout’s reputation for being the “McDonald’s of arms trafficking” (Freeze 2008: A3), at first glance the decision to uphold his conviction seems like a victory for the US and their efforts to combat transnational organized crime. Yet, under closer scrutiny the US-led sting, subsequent trial, and conviction of Bout reveals a much more complex reality that focuses on the prosecution of a ‘lone’ actor while distracting attention away from the complicity of states for the very same crime, that of the illegal trafficking of arms.
Consider that the DEA led sting – Operation Relentless – was orchestrated for the sole purpose of arresting Bout, and not for the purposes of bringing down the arms trafficking network of which he was a part. Operatives, paid by the DEA and posing as members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaires de Colombia or FARC, approached Bout with the intent of getting him to agree to sell them “gray items.” The US prosecution argued that Bout entered into a transaction with the DEA operatives with the goal of providing them with 700-800 antiaircraft (or surface to air) missiles, 5,000 AK47s, air transportation for the weaponry (two cargo planes), and the requisite end user certificates (EUCs) necessary for transportation (United States v Viktor Bout 2011). However, there were numerous actors caught up in the DEA-led sting that spanned three continents, involved several different law enforcement agencies, and ended when Bout was arrested in March 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand.
Of the seven actors implicated, including the arms manufacturer KAS Engineering, the only other person who faced criminal charges was 67 year old Andrew Smulian (Weiser 2012). The other six actors did not face any criminal charges. Additionally, Smulian turned state’s evidence and because of his cooperation with the DEA, was sentenced to five years in prison, and since he had been held in custody since his arrest in 2008, he served only one year. Bout on the other hand received the 25 year mandatory minimum for the same crimes (Weiser 2012). Here, the individualistic focus of neoliberal crime control policies has led to the singling out of one actor who has been held accountable for all of the actors involved in the network.
Also note, that in 2003 the US contracted Bout to fly weapons into Iraq (Huband, Parker and Turner 2004), something he continued to do until 2007. This was despite the Bush administration labeling Bout a “specially designated person” which froze his assets and banned all US business with him. This however, was largely symbolic as the US continued to use Bout, with estimates suggesting he was paid as much as $60 million to fly US supplies into Iraq despite the ban (Farrah and Braun 2007). The US has avidly denied their relationship with Bout, blaming any possible connection with Bout on the incompetency of US military contractors. This explanation has been met with considerable criticism, as there is evidence of direct contracts between Bout and the US military (Braun in Silverstein 2007).
The question then becomes, why would the US, having actively utilized Bout’s services, then launch an investigation to bring him down? The reason is related to the very nature of Bout’s business, in that his is a purely capitalist venture, and he is not affiliated with any particular group, state, or cause. The US-Bout relationship changed when the US found out that Bout had been arming Hezbollah in their 2006 conflict with Lebanon. Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist organization by both the US and Israel, and has a long history of conflict with Israel – a state to which the US is strongly allied. Furthermore, in July 2006, it was also revealed that Bout was supplying weapons to the Islamic Courts Union and Islamist militias in Somalia and Eritrea, groups who have been associated with Al-Qaeda (Farrah and Braun 2007). Bout was not only assisting the US, but was also simultaneously acting in direct contravention of US foreign policy – especially the “War on Terror” – leaving them with what can only be described as the proverbial “egg on their face.” In this context, Bout’s claim that he is a victim of “a political chase that has lasted many years” (Bout in Kozin 2010) holds some validity, as the US only actively pursued Bout after he was found to be arming their “enemies.”
By diverting attention away from the holistic nature of arms trafficking networks that include state and corporate actors, the US has singled out and held accountable Bout for the actions of all of the actors involved in the criminal behavior. Bout, very publicly has become the “bad apple,” and his prosecution not only shifts focus away from the reality of the crime, but also serves US state interests. The US is able to distract public and political attention away from Bout’s connection to the US, allowing for plausible deniability while still maintaining their agenda of fighting for international peace and security in the “global war on terrorism” (Chossudovsky 2013). This also allows for the maintenance of illegal arms networks that continue to be used by states, including the US, when such services are needed to advance their particular political, economic, and military interests.
This brief introduction to the reality of the US prosecution of Viktor Bout serves as a reminder that neoliberal crime control policies continue to be highly individualistic notwithstanding the large number of actors involved in the crime of arms trafficking. And like other such crime control policies, such as the “War on Drugs,” the trafficking of arms will continue unabated unless state complicity is not only acknowledged, but addressed.
I would like to note that the legality of Bout’s extradition from Thailand for prosecution in the US is problematic, as are the use of terrorism charges to facilitate that extradition. However, that is the focus of another project I am still currently working on.
Chossudovsky, M. (2013), ‘What Happened to the “Global War on Terrorism”? The U.S. is “Fighting for Al Qaeda” in Syria’, Global Research. (accessed 11 May 2014).
Farrah, D., and Braun, S. (2007), Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Freeze, C. (2008, March 7), ‘Merchant of Death’ arrested in Thailand; It took a coalition of forces to take down the global gunrunner, whose empire was toppled by a U.S. sting operation’, The Globe and Mail, A3.
Huband, M., Parker, A., and Turner, M. (2004, May 17), ‘UK snubs France over arms trafficker’, Financial Times, 5.
Kozin, V. (2010, August 26), ‘Ballyhoo Over Nothing’, The Moscow Times. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/tmt/413688.html#?1#?1#WebrootPlugIn#?1#?1#PhreshPhish#?1#?1#agtpwd (accessed 11 May 2014).
Silverstein, K. (2007, July 26), ‘Six Questions for Steve Braun on Gunrunner Viktor Bout’, Washington Babylon. http://harpers.org/blog/2007/07/six-questions-for-steve-braun-on-gunrunner-viktor-bout/ (accessed 18 May 2014).
Stempel, J. (2013, September 27). “Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout’s U.S. conviction upheld”, Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/27/us-usa-crime-bout-idUSBRE98Q0PG20130927 (accessed October 31, 2014).
United States v. Viktor Bout. (2011). The United States District Court, The Southern District of New York. New York, NY: Southern District Court Reporters, PC.
Weiser, B. (2012, May 23). ‘Conduit in Arms Sting, a Star Witness Apologizes for His Crimes’, The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/nyregion/andrew-smulian-star-witness-against-viktor-bout-gets-5-years-in-prison.html?_r=0 (accessed October 31, 2014).
This is part of a larger project funded by the EKU School of Justice Studies Research Program.