ON VIKTOR BOUT
August 23, 2010|By Marshall Kilduff
If there's a Hall of Fame for global bad guys, Viktor Bout would have a bust in the lobby. He's a Russian arms privateer, a no-scruples weapons peddler with a network of cargo planes and a menu of weapons.
His run may finally be over. A Thai court ordered Bout extradited to New York from a Bangkok jail cell, a decision that caps a two-year legal tug-of-war between American diplomats - who wanted him put away for good - and their Russian counterparts, who felt a countryman was unjustly accused.
Bout supplied the gasoline for a half dozen of the world's worst military bonfires. He shipped machine guns, grenades and rockets to civil wars in Africa. He's sold weaponry to both the Taliban and their foes in Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Bout briefly won a contract to haul military hardware to Iraq for the United States before embarrassed officials learned of his connection and canceled the deals.
His career drew attention. The Nicolas Cage movie, "Lord of War," was loosely based on Bout's life. A book entitled "Merchant of Death," by two American journalists, more precisely detailed his amoral dealings.
Bout never apologized or admitted to a thing. He was just an air transport executive who flew unknown cargo to dirt strips across the globe. Blood diamonds, child soldiers, civilians with amputated limbs? He never knew them.
In fact, he preyed on cynical, desperate landscape. Bout was a military translator who noticed after the collapse of the Soviet Union scores of cargo planes stalled on runways and weapons storehouses in Eastern Europe with no customers.
He went to work, lining up customers in Angola, Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands, if not millions, suffered and died from his work.
None of this escaped official notice. Intelligence agencies and governments facing Bout-supplied guns went after him. But he was never cornered, finding help from authorities he helped - and others who might need guns in the future.
He was finally caught in a sting operation mounted by U.S. and Thai agents posing as customers for anti-aircraft missiles.
He might wriggle free again. The Thai extradition order has a 90-day window, meaning Bout - like one of his weapons-crammed planes - could fly away again. Let's hope not.
Marshall Kilduff is a Chronicle editorial writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(C) San Francisco Chronicle 2010
NB - it is becoming clearer that neither sides in the international arms trade want the full story to come out. I would not be surprised if he has a terrible accident while in custody, and there is no doubt that Bout has been a freelancer and scapegoat of convenience for many players in the business. - including weapons for drug swaps that has been funding many USG covert operation.