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He is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.” In 2012, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New York court for selling weapons to the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). Today, he is about to be used by the United States — with the approval of President Joe Biden — as a bargaining chip to try to bring home two Americans “unjustly imprisoned” by Russia. He is Viktor Bout, one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers.
Bout was born in 1967 in the City of Dushanbe, in the former Soviet Socialist Republic of Tajikistan. He is a Russian national and considers himself a businessman.
His resume shows him as a former Soviet Air Force pilot, able to speak six languages. Bout studied at the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where Russian spies are trained.
His fame transcends borders, as he was singled out for supplying and driving several of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. He sold weapons in Africa, to the Taliban, to Al-Qaeda, and to other terrorist organizations such as the FARC. So he is probably the most valuable Russian prisoner the U.S. has today.
Indeed, at the time, the Kremlin called his detention and subsequent conviction “unjust” and “biased.” Since then, Russia has insistently called for his return home.
According to sources quoted by CNN, after months of analysis, the Biden administration agreed to send the “Merchant of Death” to Russia as a bargaining chip to secure the release of basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
Whelan has been held in Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage, while Griner has been held since February for drug possession, and could face up to 10 years in prison.
Bout, on the other hand, has been incarcerated for just over 10 years, but has yet to serve more than half of his sentence. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Wednesday that a substantial proposal to bring in Griner and Whelan was sent. He did not mention Viktor Bout directly but did assure that President Biden supported the deal.
According to CNN, Biden’s support for the “Bout for Griner and Whelan” swap overruled the Justice Department’s position, which is usually against prisoner swaps.
Viktor Bout and his dealings with the world’s biggest criminals
In a report dated June 2001, titled Crónica del comercio del terror [Chronicle of the Terror Trade], Viktor Bout is singled out by Amnesty International as one of the men responsible for supplying arms to parties involved in civil wars in Africa with his own fleet of aircraft. Four years later, in 2005, the same organization described him as “the most prominent foreign businessman” involved in arms trafficking to nations embargoed by the United Nations.
Liberia, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda were among the destinations for the “Merchant of Death’s” weapons on the African continent.
But Bout did not necessarily fall for selling weapons in Africa, but for dealing with criminal organizations that were in full conflict with the United States. One of those insurgent and terrorist organizations was the FARC in Colombia.
The dealer’s downfall starts in 2007, when the DEA devised a plan against Bout to get him out of Russian territory and offer him an arms deal that was hard to refuse.
According to CBS News, “The agency hired an undercover agent to contact a trusted associate of Bout’s about a big business deal.”
The deal in question involved alleged FARC rebels, who were actually undercover American operatives, asking Viktor Bout for weapons that would be used to attack American soldiers.
The meeting between Bout and his trusted associate, named Andrew Smulian, led to a meeting between the bogus Drug Enforcement Agency buyers and Smulian himself on the island of Curaçao.
The meeting was a success and an agreement was reached and presented to Bout in Moscow by Smulian himself.
Subsequently, according to CBS, “Smulian met with the undercover operatives two weeks later in Copenhagen, telling them that his business partner liked the deal.” Bout fell for the trap and agreed to leave Russia to close the deal with the fake FARC guerrillas in Thailand.
Then, in March 2008, in Bangkok, came the big blow against the “Merchant of Death”, when the Thai authorities — in close cooperation with American anti-drug agents — arrested Viktor Bout in a hotel in the undercover operation.
The arrest team was led by Police Colonel Petcharat Sengchai of the Crime Suppression Division, who said Bout was wanted for “procurement of weapons and explosives for Colombian rebels.”
Following his extradition in 2010, the Merchant waited nearly two years to hear his conviction, which materialized when he was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens and officials; and one count of conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft missiles and provide material support to a terrorist organization.
According to a 2008 New York Times report following Bout’s arrest, UK-based arms trafficking investigator Brian Johnson-Thomas said that the trafficker was “selling arms to the FARC for the last year to 18 months,” i.e., between 2006 and 2008.
According to Johnson, the weapons supplied by Bout to the FARC were mainly AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, and possibly some surface-to-air missiles, apparently from Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan.
According to the specialist, these weapons were delivered to the FARC first through Paraguay, and then through Argentina and Uruguay. The Briton, by that time, had recently traveled to South America to carry out research, and assured that those planes loaded with weapons from the “Merchant of Death” were returning from South America full of drugs to Africa to be later sent to Europe.
“It’s guns in, drugs out,” Johnson told the Times.
Ten years after his conviction, the “Merchant of Death” could return to Russia.
The problem of freeing Viktor Bout
The United States is already experiencing a critical moment in international relations. After the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US role as world leader has plummeted. Releasing the “Merchant of Death”, a man highly valued by the Russian regime, would be another fatal mistake of the current administration.
Since he was first arrested, Bout has had the support of senior Russian officials, who have pushed the narrative from Moscow that Washington is on the prowl to hunt down and capture “innocent” Russians based on false accusations. Exchanging the “Merchant of Death” for an athlete who was captured for carrying marijuana oil in her luggage would feed that idea spread by the Russians. It gives grounds for public opinion to wonder why, if all the accusations against Bout were real, and he is as dangerous as has been said, he is released in this way.
This possible exchange would also encourage the Russian regime – and all the regimes that pay attention to the case – to capture any American tourist whenever they want to blackmail the United States.
The dangerous relationship with the FARC
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are responsible for most of the drug production that takes place in Colombia and then reaches the United States for final consumption. The FARC, moreover, are a terrorist group connected to international criminals whose enemy is the United States, as is the case with Al Qaeda. These two organizations have been found exchanging arms and drugs.
The United States has historically considered Colombia its ally in the region and has worked with its various governments for years to confront the FARC, because the threat that this organization represents to the region and to the United States is clear. However, the Biden administration decided to remove the FARC from the list of international terrorists. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio recently introduced a bill to re-include the armed group on the list.
Viktor Bout would have been selling weapons to the FARC between 2006 and 2008. The release of the “Merchant of Death” would be a new action by the Biden administration that, contrary to curbing and punishing the actions of these drug traffickers, forgets and relieves both the FARC as its partner Bout.