Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants

Mee Moua Vang, with family in front of their makeshift home, near Vang Vieng, Laos. Her message to the world, "My husband and two older daughters were killed by the communists while foraging for food. My daughter Blee was attacked by the communists where her guts were sticking out and I was unable to help her so she died. I miss her very much. I am desperately suffering here with no help. I ask you to come in and save us. Bring us food."
Photo by Roger Aronold, WPN - June 28, 2006

“Often we do not realize the consequences of our actions until it is too late.”

Laos: a beautiful mountainous country rich in biodiversity located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Once so famous for its countless herds of elephants that it was called ‘Prathet Lane Xane’ (the Land of a Million Elephants). Home to the Lao, Yao (Mien), Khammu (Khmu), and Hmong: ethnic groups and tribes with histories rich in traditions and culture and struggles for survival that go back millennia.

Laos is also the tiny dirt-poor country that suffered the tragedies and atrocities of modern-day warfare during the 20th Century unlike any other land, except for its neighbor Vietnam. Civil wars, invasions, the opium trade, and a landscape littered with millions of tons of UXO (unexploded ordnance) 35 years after the end of the Vietnam and Laos wars.

“The United States military dropped more than 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War, more than the total used against Germany and Japan in World War II. An estimated 10 million unexploded submunitions or “bomblets” remain scattered across the country, killing approximately 200 Laotians per year. Since 1973, 5,700 Laotians have been killed and 5,600 injured by unexploded ordnance.”

Source: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress
‘Laos: Background and U.S. Relations’ by Thomas Lum, November 22, 2004.
Download (PDF)

The country is ruled by the Pathet Lao, the Communist military regime who defeated the Royal Lao Government established after the end of French colonization. Laos endured a fiercely fought civil war from 1962-1975, where military forces and intelligence agencies from many countries including North and South Vietnam, the U.S.A., and Thailand were involved in what is commonly referred to by military historians as the CIA’s Secret War.

But this post is not about a war from more than three decades ago; instead it is about the plight of several small groups of people still hiding in those inhospitable mountain jungles of Laos for the past 33 years who are at the verge of extinction. These desperate and hopeless people are mainly from the Hmong hill tribes, some of which were former fighters and soldiers in the Laotian civil war more than 30 years ago, and food and shelter and time is running out fast for them and their families. These people are being hunted down like animals by government soldiers, the Pathet Lao forces with the assistance of the Vietnamese military, and this is their story.

Latest News Update on the Hmong hill people from Al Jazeera Network

While viewing news programs this past weekend I came across a report on Al Jazeera English network about the “Lost Tribes: Secret Army of the CIA”. The award-winning British journalist Tony Birtley and his cameraman traveled to Laos to meet secretly with Hmong who had been living deep in the Laotian jungles, constantly on the run and fleeing for their lives since the end of the Vietnam and Laos’ wars.

The half hour video report shows Birtley arriving in a mountain village filled mainly with women and children, joined by old men and boys shouldering outdated M-16’s and AK-47’s. Almost all of the villagers are in rags and some of the children are naked, many people suffering from gunshot and shrapnel wounds, some with poorly treated injuries from landmines and mortars, no medicines, their eyes and bellies showing the tell-tale signs of severe malnutrition and near starvation. Their eyes showed something else: naked fear and terror and an almost total resignation that death was near, very near.

It took me a while to understand what I was watching, and then it struck me that these were the legendary fierce jungle fighters of the Vietnam War era, the Hmong. Some of the older men in the report had fought alongside American Special Forces in a CIA-supervised not-so-secret conflict in Laos from 1961-1973. I had thought for years that these fighters were long dead, killed in combat and/or murdered during imprisonment and “re-education” by victorious Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces more than 30 years ago. But there they were, alive, and with their wives and children and grandchildren all hiding in the jungle___ destitute, starving, afraid, and hunted like animals to this very day. I was devastated as I watched them beg for help, for mercy, for a way out of their never-ending nightmare___ crying and wailing at the feet of a British journalist, calling him “Father” as if he were some god come to save them. Their tears and wailing was heart-wrenching to hear and watch. These were human beings making a desperate cry to Heaven for mercy and for help.

Their story is complex and it is long, so I have provided below an excerpt from reporter Tony Birtley’s journal kept during his sojourn to the jungles of Laos, including the links to the 3-part video report at Al Jazeera’s channel. I have also included at the end of this post a long list of additional news articles and resources about Laos and the Hmong people.

I must break this article (blog post) down into 2-3 parts, so please read the article(s) and view the video reports while I work on the 2nd part of this story.


Village leader, Bila Shoua Her (center), holding an old American M-79 grendade launcher and surrounded by former Hmong fighters from the CIA's Secret Army,near Vang Vieng, Laos. Most of the men are from the surrounding CIA Lima Sites 363, 319, 90, and 74. The CIA established remote jungle landing strips in Laos called Lima Sites to provide aerial supply to their Secret Army. Ironically the Loa communist government now uses Lima Site 363 to supply its troops and to attack Bila Shoua Her and his men.
Photo by Roger Arnold, WPN - July 03, 2006

Tony Birtley’s field report Laos ‘Lost Tribes’ in Plea for Help' at
March 13, 2008

The dead of night - a rendezvous on a dirt road on the fringe of a dense jungle.

I couldn't see the faces of my guides, but I could see their guns and I could feel the apprehension as they ushered me into the undergrowth and the start of what would turn out to be an unforgettable journey.

There were six of them, all ethnic Hmong; a rugged, tough people used to harsh conditions. But a people, I was soon to discover, living in fear.

We hurried into the forest - not easy in the dark - down a steep slope, across a narrow bamboo bridge over a fast-flowing river, and then upwards.

When we talked it was in a whisper; when we walked we tried not to create noise. And we tried to avoid the danger, which they told me was all around.

The danger comes from the Laos army. They are everywhere, the guides told me and ambushes are common.

In the dark, with the occasional use of a torch, we weaved our way through the undergrowth.

The darkness creates fear and apprehension but it is also strangely comforting: if you cannot see the soldiers, then it is equally hard for them to see you.

The first five hours was straight up, no deviations, and no track. Sometimes clambering for something to hold and pull myself up, other times it was all I could do to stop from falling backwards.

No such exhaustion for the Hmong; this kind of hike was normal in this hilly highland terrain of northern Laos.

Five hours and numerous stops later we reached the peak of the hill and a chance to sleep for a few hours.

We walked for another two hours beneath the dense jungle canopy, then stopped for food.

The "food" was a plant root similar to a yam, tasting like dried potato and something I came to dread in the coming days.

After two days we reached our destination, Zu, meaning village in Hmong. Not so much a village, more a gathering of bamboo shacks. But the sight which greeted me could only have come from a Hollywood movie script.

Men, women and children were on their knees, hands together as in prayer. And there were tears, floods of tears.

I was the first outsider, the first Westerner, and the first foreigner they had seen in 32 years. For some it was the first time ever. Some of the weeping men cradled guns and had grenades on their belts.

I didn't realise it then but my visit had taken on a significance I was not prepared for.

A Hmong man with a video camera filmed me. A woman dressed in traditional colourful Hmong clothes paused her sobbing and looked at me.

"Oh father, we are just widows. Our husbands, wives and children are lost. We are poverty stricken, please help us. We have no one to guide us," she said.

Everyone was shouting out. Four young men were performing a welcome dance. A young fighter, grenade launcher on his back, grenades around his waste, played an out of tune guitar.

It was hard to grasp how desperate these people were, hard to understand the drama of the welcome, the depth of their hopelessness.

This would all become clearer in the coming days – more days than I intended to stay.

The group's tears and groans continued. I felt uncomfortable putting my camera close to them to record their desperation, but realised that the world had to see this - it was the whole point of making such a journey.

End excerpt___
Laos ‘Lost Tribe’ in Plea for Help at Al Jazeera – English website.

End Part 1 ‘A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants’ - Part 2 coming soon

Related articles and additional resources

Al Jazeera News Network – English
Laos ‘Lost Tribe’ in Plea for Help, 03/13/08
The Lost Tribes of Laos, 03/07/08
Laos denies Hmong persecution, 03/14/08
Out of the Jungle, 03/07/08

The Lost Tribe – Secret Army of the CIA by Tony Birtley, 03/10/08
The Lost Tribe program video @
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Al Jazeera News – 101 East program
Hmong Tribes, 09/13/07
Host Veronica Pedrosa interviews representatives from the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, and the Government of Thailand.
Hmong Tribes program video @
Part 1, Part 2

International Herald Tribune
A desperate life for survivors of the Secret War in Laos by Thomas Fuller, 12/17/07
Note: see interviews with Hmong war veteran Xang Yang and video and photo essays by Thomas Fuller

New York Times
Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos by Thomas Fuller, 12/17/07
Note: same feature article as appears in the International Herald Tribune
Arrest Uncovers Divide in Hmong-Americans by Monica Davey, 06/14/07
Note: article about the arrest of war veteran General Vang Pao for conspiracy to purchase arms for the overthrow of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
New York Times – Topics - Laos

The Digital Journalist magazine - Dispatches
Laos: Still a Secret War by Roger Arnold, October 2006
Still a Secret War Part 2 by Roger Arnold, August 2007
Still a Secret War video @ YouTube – narrated by Roger Arnold for WPN – personal website of the photojournalist Roger Arnold
Photo essay gallery – CIA Secret Army
Also see related articles and resources about the Hmong people of Laos

Rebecca Sommer – documentary filmmaker and activist – website for Hmong news, documentary films, and reports
Hunted Like Animals’, a groundbreaking documentary film by Rebecca Sommer about the persecution of Hmong and Lao tribes in the jungles of Laos. for the Amnesty International Film Festival Asia (TIME magazine online)
Welcome to the Jungle by Andrew Perrin, 04/28/03
Welcome to the Jungle photo essay
The Hmong Road Home, 08/24/07
The Last Battle of Vietnam, 03/02/07
(The aftermath of Agent Orange and dioxin poisoning in Vietnam)

ABC News
Hmong Refugees Fear Returning to Laos, 05/20/07
In Laos, Prized Elephants are in Decline, 03/16/08
Chinese Influx Stirs Age-Old Hatred in Myanmar, 03/12/08

The Washington Post
Hmong Refugees Fear Returning to Laos, 05/20/07

Frontpage Magazine
The Two Faces of Communist Laos by Michael Benge, 02/28/08

IPS – Inter Press Service news agency
Thailand/Laos: Hmong refugees starve to resist deportation, 08/19/07

Australian National University – Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies
New Madala (blog):
Slow rescue from Laos’ lethal harvest, 11/30/07
Note: this article reviews the highly-acclaimed documentary film ‘
Bomb Harvest

The Nation (Bangkok)
Concern over rough treatment of Hmong refugees, 12/06/06
(Thai newspaper reports on harsh treatment of Hmong refugees from Laos held in a Thai government Immigration Detention Center)

Civil and human rights groups working on behalf of the Hmong people

Hmong International Human Rights Watch
U.S.-based human rights advocacy group – official website of organization dedicated to bringing the plight of veterans of U.S. Secret War in Laos to the attention of the American people and the U.S. Congress

Center for Public Policy Analysis
Thailand, Laos Crisis:
Human Rights Concerns in Laos and Thailand (Congressional hearings in Washington D.C.), 02/11/08
Lao, Hmong Human Rights Forum to Discuss Plight of 8,000 Refugees, 09/28/07

Amesty International
LPDR: Hiding in the Jungle, Hmong Under Threat, 03/27/07
Human Rights Forgotten: The Hmong people, 05/25/04
Interview with documentary filmmaker Ruhi Hamid

Human Rights Watch – News
Thailand: Stop Deportation of Hmong Refugees to Laos, 12/12/06

News, history and culture information about Laos and the Hmong
People of Laos, Hmong, Lao, Khammu (Khmu), Yao (Mien)
Laotian Civil War, Air America

Center for Hmong Studies – Concordia University (St. Paul, MN. USA)

Personal website of Dr. Gary Yia Lee, Hmong Anthropolgist and Historian
Center for Lao Studies (San Francisco, CA. USA)
Refugees from Laos: historical background and causes by Dr. Gary Yia Lee

Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center
Hmong Studies Journal online (Hmong website based in the U.S.A.)

North by North East (an eco-tourism company specializing on Laos)
Laos History in brief
The Hmong: Legend and History Part 1 and Part 2 by J.G. Learned

UCLA International Institute – Center for Southeast Asian Studies
Hmong: An Endangered People by Rashaan Meneses, 07/07/04

IMCA – Project InForm
Hmong in Transition by Sheila Pinkel

Radio Free Asia – English edition
Radio Free Asia blog - Unplugged

New York Times – Topics - Laos

Voice of America News
EU Delegation Visits Hmong Village in Vangvieng District, 03/12/08
Laos’ news and features archive

U.S. Department of State
Country background brief - Laos
Profile for U.S. Ambassador to Laso Ravic R. Huso
U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos – official website
Laos Embassy in Washington D.C. – official website

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
CIA World Factbook - Laos

CIA - Center for the Study of Intelligence Library

Supporting the Secret War: CIA Air Operations in Laos (1955-1974) by Professor William H. Leary (University of Georgia Dept. of History)

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Viktor Bout, the Merchant of Death, captured in DEA sting operation

I woke up this morning to amazing and wonderful news that fits right in with my latest post about the Charles Taylor trial in The Hague. Viktor Bout, the most notorious of international arms dealers, was being paraded in handcuffs by Thai police before CNNI & BBC news audiences around the world. Viktor, nicknamed The Merchant of Death and the Lord of War, is arguably one of the most dangerous men in the world. He and his cronies are responsible for illegal arms and drug shipments that fueled bloody wars all across Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Angola, and Sudan), Asia (Afghanistan), and South America (Columbia).

A favorite son of certain high-ranking east European government leaders and officials, Viktor received protection and sanctuary within Russia for years while he evaded arrest and prosecution for his complicity in the deaths of millions of innocent people. His capture as the result of a US DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) sting operation in Thailand this week is simply astounding; an event that few experts who track and analyze international arms trafficking and drug smuggling networks thought they would ever see in their lifetimes. This is a Red Letter Day in international law enforcement and a major blow to illegal arms traffickers.

Viktor Bout has a lot to worry about while sitting in his high-security prison cell in Bangkok. Priority No. 1 for Viktor will be how to stay alive long enough to tell his side of the story. My guess is that he may never be extradited to the United States to face trial___ because he will not live that long. Any number of government intelligence agencies, military organizations, corrupt regime officials, and shady businessmen around the world are hard at work to quickly “silence the canary before he sings”.

The journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun published a book about the life of Viktor Bout titled “Merchant of Death”. Doug has also written extensively at his personal blog about Viktor. Following is an excerpt from a September 2007 interview with Douglas Farah at Mother Jones magazine online:

Meet Viktor Bout, the Real-Life ‘Lord of War’ by Laura Rozen, 09/13/07

Former Soviet military officer Viktor Bout, the inspiration for Nicholas Cage's character in the Lord of War, remade himself as an international arms dealer and blood diamonds trafficker following the break-up of the USSR. Using his air charter business to smuggle weapons into the world's conflict zones (circumventing U.N. embargoes), Bout traveled the world with a precious gems expert and accountant in tow, supplying arms to a notorious clientele: Liberia's Charles Taylor, a cast of Congolese warlords, and the Taliban, among others. More surprising, journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun report in their new book on Bout, Merchant of Death, is that the shadowy Tajik-born arms dealer has also provided his services to the U.S. military and several U.S. contractors in Iraq, including Halliburton parent company Kellogg, Brown & Root. Laura Rozen interviewed Farah via email.

Mother Jones: How did Viktor Bout get his start as an international supplier of arms, ammunition, and transport services?

Douglas Farah: Viktor Bout was a unique creature born of the end of Communism and the rise of unbridled capitalism when the Wall came down in the early 1990s. He was a Soviet officer, most likely a lieutenant, who simply saw the opportunities presented by three factors that came with the collapse of the USSR and the state sponsorship that entailed: abandoned aircraft on the runways from Moscow to Kiev, no longer able to fly because of lack of money for fuel or maintenance; huge stores of surplus weapons that were guarded by guards suddenly receiving little or no salary; and the booming demand for those weapons from traditional Soviet clients and newly emerging armed groups from Africa to the Philippines. He simply wedded the three things, taking aircraft for almost nothing, filling them with cheaply purchased weapons from the arsenals, and flying them to clients who could pay. His background is difficult to ascertain. He is said by U.S. intelligence officials to be the product of an "immaculate conception." He was not, and then he was. He has provided no stories of his youth, very few personal details. He was, according to his multiple passports, born in 1967 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the son of a bookkeeper and an auto mechanic. He graduated from the Military Institute on Foreign Languages, a well-known feeder school for Russian military intelligence, and is known to have a true gift for languages.

MJ: What is the evidence of a relationship between Bout and Russian military intelligence, the GRU?

DF: It is highly unlikely he could have flown aircraft out of Russia and acquired huge amounts of weapons from Soviet arsenals without the direct protection of Russian intelligence, and, given his background, the GRU seems the most likely candidate. He was providing not solely AK-47s and massive amounts of ammunition, as his competitors were, but attack helicopters, anti-aircraft systems, anti-tank mine systems, sniper rifles, and items that are much harder to acquire. The clearest, most recent direct tie came through an obscure investigation in the United States carried out by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Last year the ATF was investigating sales of $240,000 worth of night vision scopes and paramilitary gear from a small sporting goods store in Pennsylvania, and discovered that the items had been illegally shipped to a company that is controlled by an elite Russian intelligence counterterrorism group. The money was paid through a Bulgarian holding company controlled by Bout.

MJ: Your reporting indicates that Bout has supplied not only the Taliban, Liberia's Charles Taylor, and Congolese warlords, but the U.S. Army and its contractors as well. Can you describe how the U.S. government and U.S. contractors have responded to revelations about who they are doing business with?

DF: The U.S. government response to revelations of the use of Viktor Bout to fly for government contractors in Iraq (not just a few flights, but hundreds, and perhaps a thousand) has been mixed. Bear in mind most of these flights occurred after President Bush had signed an executive order making it illegal to do business with Bout, because he represented a security threat to the United States. The State Department, under a congressional inquiry initiated by Senator Russell Feingold, found it had used Bout companies, acknowledged it, and stopped. Paul Wolfowitz, while at DOD, did not respond to queries for nine months, then acknowledged that DOD contractors had subcontracted to Bout companies. Despite the public revelation, the congressional inquiry, the executive order, and a subsequent Treasury Department order freezing the assets of Bout and his closest associates, the flights continued for many months, at least until the end of 2005. The Air Force cut him off immediately, but other branches of the military continued to use him.

MJ: Any evidence that Bout is authorized by governments to play this murky role because he is as useful as he is dangerous?

DF: Bout, through an intermediary, approached the CIA and FBI immediately after 9/11, and offered his services in helping to oust the Taliban if he were paid tens of millions of dollars for his efforts. Negotiations were serious and lasted several months, but we do not know what, if any, parts of the deal he offered were accepted. There is no doubt he has benefited from the schizophrenic policies of the U.S. government (the Treasury and State departments going after him, while DOD pays him money to fly), but it is difficult to say whether that is the result of calculation or just sloppiness.

End excerpt___ Read more by following links in Mother Jones article below

Here’s an excerpt from the July 2007 Men’s Vogue interview with Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah about covering one of the world’s most dangerous men:

Men's Vogue: You've both covered some pretty treacherous territory in your careers. How risky was reporting on Bout?

Douglas Farah: When I was covering the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, I wasn't aware of him as a threat, although of course he was arming the people who were a threat. He and Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, put a contract on my life, and that made me nervous and I had to be evacuated with my family from West Africa. We had a few instances where Viktor's people were threatening people that were talking to us about him. In some cases, he knew who our sources were.

MV: They were in his organization?

DF:They were in and out, but he still had the facility to be aware of some of their movements. As far as we know, everyone is still alive, but I think it was hairier for them than it was for us.

Stephen Braun: On the other hand, Bout has long tried to present himself as just a simple businessman who does, at times, carry legitimate cargoes as well as contraband cargos. Having a foot in both worlds has made him reluctant to get his hands too dirty. If you want to do business with the U.S. government—as he ultimately did—you have to stay somewhat on the up and up.

MV: So how did you get people to cooperate when they had everything to lose, especially their lives?

DF: Some people, especially in the intelligence communities and the law enforcement communities in both the U.S. and Europe were incredibly frustrated by their inability to get him. There were feelings of bitterness and deep unhappiness that they had lost Bout—that he had ultimately won. Some of the people inside his organization in Africa were motivated by a revenge factor against him and Taylor. When they looked back after the wars were over, they were just really unhappy that their country had been destroyed—and they viewed him as an integral part of that.

End excerpt____ Read more by following links in Men’s Vogue article below

Related news articles and additional online resources

Douglas Farah’s blog
Viktor Bout Arrested in Thailand in a Perfect Storm, 03/06/08

The New York Times
Russian Charged with Trying to Sell Arms, 03/07/08

The Guardian (UK)
‘Lord of War’ arms trafficker arrested, 03/07/08

International Herald Tribune – Managing Globalization blog
A Very Globalized Arms Dealer by Daniel Altman, 03/07/08

CNN International
Thai authorities parade alleged Russian arms dealer, 03/07/08

Merchant of Death – official website for the book by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun

Counterterrorism blog, Global Policy Forum
Douglas Farah in ‘New Republic’ on Viktor Bout’s operations, 01/17/06
Full text (HTML) of the New Republic article “Air America: Viktor Bout and the Pentagon” co-authored by Douglas Farah and Kathi Austin, 01/23/06

Foreign Policy magazine online
The Merchant of Death by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, Nov/Dec 2006
Arms Around the World, Nov/Dec 2006

Excerpt from the Foreign Policy feature article “The Merchant of Death”:

Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout has made millions as the world’s most efficient postman, able to deliver any kind of cargo—especially illicit weapons—anywhere in the world. How was he able to build his intricate underground network? By exploiting cracks in the anarchy of globalization.

In many ways, Viktor Bout is a prototypical, modern-day, multinational entrepreneur. He is smart, savvy, and ambitious. He’s good with numbers, speaks several languages, and knows how to seize opportunities when they arise. According to those who’ve met him, he’s polite, professional, and unassuming. Bout has no known political agenda. He loves his family. He’s fed the poor. And through his hard work, he’s become extraordinarily wealthy. During the past decade, Bout’s business acumen has earned him hundreds of millions of dollars. What, exactly, does he do? Former colleagues describe him as a postman, able to deliver any package virtually anywhere in the world.

Not yet 40 years old, the Russian national also happens to be the world’s most notorious arms trafficker. He, more than almost anyone else, has succeeded in exploiting the anarchy of globalization to get goods—usually illicit goods—to market. He’s a wanted man, desired by those who require a small military arsenal and pursued by law enforcement agencies who want to bring him down. Globe-trotting weapons merchants have long flooded the Third World with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and warehouses of bullets and land-mines. But unlike his rivals, who tend to carve out small regional territories, Bout’s planes have dropped off his tell-tale military-green crates from jungle landing strips in the Congo to bleak hillside runways in Afghanistan. He has developed a worldwide network of logistics, maneuvering through a maze of brokers, transportation companies, financiers, and weapons manufacturers—both illicit and legitimate—to deliver everything from fresh-cut flowers, frozen poultry, and U.N. peacekeepers to assault rifles and surface-to-air missiles across four continents.

Arms Around the World

What would the global flow of weapons look like without Viktor Bout? Dozens of traffickers wait in the wings.

His client list for weapons is long. In the 1990s, Bout was a friend and supplier to the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, while simultaneously selling weapons and aircraft to the Taliban, Massoud’s enemy. His fleet flew for the government of Angola, as well as for the UNITA rebels seeking to overthrow it. He sent an aircraft to rescue Mobutu Sese Seko, the ailing and corrupt ruler of Zaire, even though he had supplied the rebels who were closing in on Mobutu’s last stronghold. He has catered to Charles Taylor of Liberia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Libyan strongman Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Bout’s customers are not exclusively corrupt Third-World leaders. He built his fortune by flying tons of legitimate cargo, too. These included countless trips for the United Nations into the same areas where he supplied the weapons that sparked the humanitarian crises in the first place. He’s done business with Western governments, including the United States. Over the past several years, the U.S. Treasury Department has tried to put Bout out of business by freezing his assets and imposing other sanctions on him, his business associates, and his companies. But the Pentagon and its contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have simultaneously paid him millions of dollars to fly hundreds of missions in support of postwar reconstruction in both countries. In an age when the U.S. president has divided the world into those who are with the United States and those who are against it, Bout is both.

International officials believe that Bout’s business practices—in particular, his refusal to discriminate among those who are willing to pay the right price—are, in fact, illegal. Peter Hain, then the British Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa, stood in Parliament in 2000 to lash out against those violating U.N. arms sanctions. He singled out Bout, dubbing him Africa’s “merchant of death.” But Bout’s deals often fall into a legal gray area that global jurisprudence has simply failed to proscribe. It’s not for lack of trying. His peripatetic aircraft appear in little-noticed U.N. reports documenting arms embargo violations in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, and Sierra Leone. U.S. spy satellites have photographed his airplanes loading crates of weapons on remote airstrips in Africa. American and British intelligence officials have eavesdropped on his telephone conversations. Interpol has issued a “red notice,” requesting his arrest on Belgian weapons trafficking and money-laundering charges.

Yet Bout has managed to elude authorities over and over again. Laws simply do not address transnational, nonstate actors such as Bout. His most egregious illegal acts have included multiple violations of U.N. arms embargoes, a crime for which there is no penalty and for which there is no enforcement mechanism. Today, Bout lives openly in Moscow, protected by a Russian government unconcerned by the international outcry that surrounds him and his business empire.

International man of Mystery

Much of Viktor Bout’s early history is either unknown or of his own making. He is married and has at least one daughter; that much is true. His older brother Sergei works for him. But any other personal information is clouded in mystery. Even his place of birth is unclear. According to his official Russian passport, Bout was born on Jan. 13, 1967, in the faded Soviet outpost of Dushanbe, Tajikistan. But during a 2002 radio interview in Moscow, Bout said he was born near the Caspian Sea in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. A 2001 South African intelligence report lists him as Ukrainian. He is known to carry more than one passport and use an array of aliases, including Vadim S. Aminov, Victor Anatoliyevitsch Bout, Victor S. Bulakin, and the sardonic favorite of his American pursuers, Victor Butt.

The deliberate obfuscation has made it difficult to track Bout, his partners, and his business. He says he was an Air Force officer and has acknowledged graduating from the prestigious Soviet Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow in the late 1980s. He reportedly speaks fluent English, French, Portuguese, Uzbek, and several African languages. U.N. officials say he worked as a translator for peacekeepers in Angola in the late 1980s. Several reports tie him to Russian organized crime. Although British and South African intelligence reports say that Bout was stationed in Rome with the KGB from 1985 to 1989, he has strenuously denied any intelligence background. But military language school was a known training ground for the GRU (or Main Intelligence Directorate)—the vast, secretive, Soviet military intelligence network that oversaw the Cold War flow of Russian arms to revolutionary movements and communist client states in the Third World.

Whether or not he was a secret agent, by the time the Cold War ended, Bout had struck out on his own and was ready to salvage the remaining scraps of the Soviet empire. The entire Soviet Air Force was on life support, as money for maintenance and fuel evaporated. Thousands of pilots and crew members were suddenly unemployed. Hundreds of lumbering old Antonov and Ilyushin cargo planes sat abandoned at airports and military bases from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, their tires frayed and their worn frames patched with sheet metal and duct tape.

Moving quickly, Bout acquired cargo planes destined for the junkyard. By his own account, Bout, then 25, bought his first trio of old Antonovs for $120,000, hiring crews to fly cargo on a maiden flight to Denmark, then on longer-distance routes to Africa and the Middle East. But his business and financial associates tell a different version. “The GRU gave him three airplanes to start the business,” said one European associate who knew Bout in Russia and worked with him in Africa. “He had finished language school, but he had learned to fly. The planes, countless numbers of them, were sitting there doing nothing. They decided, let’s make this commercial. They gave Viktor the aircraft and in exchange collected a part of the charter money.”

Bout’s initial stock in trade was the supply of guns and ammunition abandoned in arsenals around the former Soviet bloc. Many had airstrips built inside their compounds, making loading easy. Guards were often unpaid and their commanders were willing to sell the weapons for a fraction of the market value. This availability of weapons was married to an instant clientele of former Soviet clients, unstable governments, dictators, warlords, and guerilla armies clamoring for steady supplies across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. “He had a logistics network, the best in the world,” says Lee S. Wolosky, a former staff member at the National Security Council (NSC) who led the United States’ interagency efforts to track Bout in the late 1990s. “There are a lot of people who can deliver arms to Africa or Afghanistan, but you can count on one hand those who can deliver major weapons systems rapidly. Viktor Bout is at the top of that list.”

By the late 1990s, Bout had perfected his modus operandi—the ability to move his aircraft ahead of government efforts to ground them. To obtain permission to fly internationally, an aircraft must be registered in a country where its maintenance records and airworthiness are certified. Each country in the world has a series of call letters assigned to it, so the country of origin of any aircraft should be immediately identifiable by matching call letters on a plane’s tail. By repeatedly registering planes in different countries, Bout was able to avoid local aviation rules, inspections, and oversight. According to a December 2000 U.N. investigation, Bout often registered his planes in Liberia, a nation that had sold its aircraft registry to business associates who helped Bout set up the aviation and holding companies he used for arms trafficking. Run from Kent, England, the Liberian “Aircraft Registration Bureau” offered a full range of services, without anyone ever inspecting the aircraft. This included the “creation of a company name; air operator’s certificate (no restrictions); full aircraft/company documentation; ferry permits and crew validations,” the U.N. report noted. That same group controlled the registry of Equatorial Guinea, so when international pressure mounted on Liberia to decertify Bout’s aircraft, he simply reregistered them, a process that took only a few hours through a series of phone and computer transactions.Although Bout’s aircraft were registered and re-registered in far-flung corners of the world, they almost all operated out of Sharjah, a small desert sheikdom in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that serves as a central base for flights to and from the former Soviet bloc, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. There, Bout continued to muddle his company structures. The aircraft registered in Equatorial Guinea operated under the name Air Cess, and those registered in the Central African Republic flew for Central African Airlines. Although the two airlines had different addresses, they had the same Sharjah phone numbers.

Bout’s first known weapons flights were to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in 1992. Three years later, a MiG fighter jet, flown by the Taliban, intercepted a hulking freighter leased by Bout for delivery of several million rounds of ammunition to the government in Kabul. Taliban soldiers seized the aircraft’s cargo and imprisoned its crew. Bout negotiated with the mullahs for months. Finally, after a year, the crew pulled off what appeared to be a miraculous escape, outwitting their captors by flying the Ilyushin out of Kandahar. But skeptical Western intelligence officials and Bout’s rivals later suggested the crew’s release was tied to Bout’s secret work for the mullahs. After all, in 1995, Sharjah had established a free trade zone that soon became known for its lax oversight and close ties to Islamist radicals. Because the UAE was one of only three countries (along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Sharjah became the main shopping center for the regime, where it was able to purchase everything from weapons and satellite telephones to refrigerators and generators.

Soon, a covert business relationship was established between the Taliban and Bout’s network. Bout’s avionics and maintenance crews serviced planes flown by Ariana Afghan Airways, the national carrier then controlled by the mullahs. Starting in 1998, according to aircraft registration documents found in Kabul by Afghan officials, Bout’s operation and allied air firms based in Sharjah sold the Taliban military a fleet of cargo planes that was used to haul tons of arms and material into Afghanistan. U.S. officials concluded that the planes also ferried militant operatives, narcotics, and cash. It was a lucrative venture. Western officials estimate the Taliban paid Bout more than $50 million during the years it ruled Afghanistan.

End excerpt_____

Harper’s Magazine online
Six Questions for Stephen Braun on Gunrunner Viktor Bout, 07/26/07

Men’s Vogue – Black Book – July 2007 issue
Making a Killing: Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout runs guns and reaps millions
Interview with Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, co-authors of The Merchant of Death, about taking on one of the world’s most dangerous men

Mother Jones magazine
Meet Viktor Bout, the Real-Life ‘Lord of War’ by Laura Rozen, 09/13/07
Dealing with the Merchant of Death by Michael Scherer, 09/20/04

The New York Times
Arms and the Man by Peter Landesman, 08/17/03
(A detailed 9-page profile of Viktor Bout including personal interviews in Moscow)

John Fenzel’s blog (U.S. Army Special Forces officer, Naval War College)
Viktor Bout, the World’s Most Notorious Arms Merchant, 03/23/07
(John’s analysis of the Aug 2003 New York Times Magazine article Arms and the Man by Peter Landesman)

PBS - Frontline World - Rough Cut
Congo: On the Trail of an AK-47, China’s Calling Card in Africa (08/30/07)
Arming Africa by Benjamin Pauker,
Sierra Leone – Gunrunners (May 2002 special report)

Excerpt from “Congo: On the Trail of an AK-47”

In the spring of 2006, reporter Benjamin Pauker traveled to Congo to discover how small arms are still making their way into one of the world's most deadly conflict zones. Despite a UN peace treaty that officially ended a brutal war in 2003 — and despite a UN arms embargo on parts of the country — guns still show up inside Congolese borders, and violence continues to erupt in Congo's volatile eastern region. There is no shortage of machine guns for rebel hands in the east, but, as a UN expert notes in the film, there aren't any arms factories in Congo — "everything that comes in here is coming from the outside."

From a tour of a UN weapons cache full of dusty machine guns to the purchase of an AK-47 directly from rebel soldiers, Pauker crosses Congo to find the story behind the guns. What he learns is that more and more small arms arriving in Congo are not from Russia or ex-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, but from China. He also learns that Chinese conglomerates are buying up mining rights all over resource-rich Congo. Pauker's journey turns up a crucial connection: the link between China's small arms trade and its ever-quickening economic expansion.

China's involvement in Africa and across the globe is an increasingly important story — one that grabs international headlines, inspires analysis by economists all over the world, and raises concern in many human rights communities. As China scrambles to access resources outside its borders, it threatens to unleash a new wave of economic colonialism. The film takes on this global story through a local focus, and yields an unexpected and hard-hitting look at the dark side of the next superpower's expansion in one of the world's most fragile places.

End excerpt_________

Global Witness – Press Releases
Liberian Timber Industry and Sanctions Busting Under International Scrutiny, 03/22/05 (Arrest of Dutch illegal arms smuggler Gus Kouwenhoven)
War Crimes Trial of Gus Kouwenhoven to Commence in The Hague, 04/21/06

Howard French (New York Times bureau chief, Shanghai)
Congo’s Daily Blood: Ruminations from a failed state by Brian Mealer, May 2006

IANSA – International Action Network on Small Arms
IANSA and small arms at the UN
Control Arms – campaign for tougher controls on the arms trade

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