How illicit arms trafficker Viktor Bout’s business models works: ‘Africans can kill each other, I don’t care’

How illicit arms trafficker Viktor Bout’s business models works: ‘Africans can kill each other, I don’t care’


Notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout says one of the reasons for his success in Africa was that he built up a strong team of very competent people by paying them as much as he could afford, investing heavily in staff training and not allowing the company to become top-heavy.

“I only had 12 people in management versus around 600 pilots and ground-crew, etc. Many airlines nowadays have the opposite of this where the top management structures are littered with people, adding to the overheads instead of performing the critical tasks. When it came to my clients, I always went out of my way to provide holistic solutions to their problems, which requires a degree of open-mindedness that’s beyond the status quo,” he told defenceWeb.

In 1999 the United Nations made known that they were aware of Bout’s aircraft flying arms around Africa, but there wasn’t a legal way to prosecute him even though these flights were violating UN arms embargoes in certain jurisdictions. By the 2000s Bout’s empire was worth billions of dollars. He employed several hundred people and dozens of mostly ex-Soviet cargo aircraft.

The ability to source and deliver practically any product, without any political strings attached, started to worry certain countries and organisations, primarily in the West.

In July 2004, US President George W Bush signed a Presidential Executive Order declaring Viktor Bout (pictured) “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States,” and so the US started targeting him by seizing his assets.

For years, various international authorities attempted to stop Bout’s operations, with Interpol issuing an arrest warrant for alleged money laundering in 2002. Bout’s profile was further expanded in the public domain with the 2005 release of Hollywood blockbuster Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage. The movie was purported to be a screen adaptation examining Bout’s business empire, even though the script was entirely fictional.

By 2006 the United States and United Kingdom were making a concerted effort to shut Bout down. By this time Bout was described by the US National Security Council (NSC) as the world’s most notorious arms dealer, due to his ability to deliver weapons into civil war zones, with the complicity of the highest ranks of government and military in Russia. He was branded ‘one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth’ and nicknamed the ‘Merchant of Death’ by Western state institutions, politicians and the mainstream media.

Over the course of two years, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) set up an elaborate sting operation in a bid to entrap Bout and his associate Andrew Smulian, by posing as Colombia’s FARC rebel group (designated a terrorist organisation by the US government) that was interested in buying arms. After discussions in Curacao, Russia, Denmark and Romania, things came to a head in March 2008 when Bout agreed to meet the ‘FARC representatives’ in Thailand.

By not walking out of the meeting when a DEA agent said that he’d like to see Americans killed, this was deemed sufficient grounds to arrest Bout and Smulian. The US then embarked on a further two-year process to extradite him to the United States and stand trial there, despite severe protests by the Russian government.

The US Grand Jury indictment stated that Bout was an “international weapons trafficker” who, in order “to provide cover for his illicit arms transactions…developed an international network of front companies, and used his cargo airplanes to deliver lawful goods, such as food and medical supplies, in addition to arms.”

He was charged with conspiracy to kill US nationals; providing the FARC with weapons; and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to enable the FARC to attack US aircraft in Colombia. An additional charge of conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organisation was also added.

In October 2011 Bout was found guilty and in April 2012 sentenced to 25 years in a US penitentiary. Before his sentencing he said “I am innocent… If you gonna apply the same standards to me, then you’re gonna jail all those arms dealers in America who [are] selling the arms that end up killing Americans… It’s a double standard.”

Judge Shira Scheindlin, in imposing the mandatory 25-year sentence, noted that “but for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes.” She later said, “I’m not defending him… but he’s a businessman. He was in the business of selling arms.” After retiring from the bench, she was also quoted as saying that the sentence imposed was disproportionate.

Bout spent over a decade in the United States Penitentiary, Marion, in Illinois. After returning to Russia, he said the American prison system is “a corrupt set-up whereby middlemen get paid to facilitate government tenders for products manufactured by the prisoners. In the prison where I was incarcerated, the cables for Tomahawks and Abrams tanks were manufactured, for example. Private corporations use the prison system to manufacture their goods cheaply and since the budgets allocated are based on the number of inmates housed, there is a clear incentive to keep the prisons full.”

After years of back-channel negotiations, the Joe Biden administration agreed to exchange Bout for US citizen Griner on 8 December 2022. She’d been arrested in February 2022 for possession of cannabis oil and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. When the swap finally happened on the airport tarmac in Abu Dhabi, UAE, while the parties passed one another going to their respective planes to take them home, Viktor briefly greeted Brittney and said, “good luck” to which she replied, “you too”.

  • A Tell / DefenceWeb report
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