In 2008 the world’s foremost arms-dealer to rebel and terrorist groups was sentenced in a US court to 25 years without parole. For decades fugitive Russian Viktor Bout – better known as the Merchant of Death / Lord of War – had been hunted by an alphabet soup agencies. Why?
Bout was trading arms for gems and drugs, fuelling the global nexus of narcoterrorism. But more worryingly, Bout – former Soviet military and KGB/GRU agent – was at the forefront of the new Cold War, peddling Moscow’s power and influence, and fearsome Russian weaponry, to nurture the West’s foremost enemies.
Shielded from on high by the Kremlin, Bout seemed immune to capture. The NSC, CIA, NSA and MI6 had failed to nail the hugely intelligent and spy-craft-savvy Russian. Straight military-intel operations – like the ultra-secret Task Force Bloodstone – had failed. Something else entirely was needed. Something from left field; unexpected; a radically new approach.
No one was about to ride forth and capture Bout. Instead, those pursuing him would need to think and act – and plan – like the criminal and narcoterrorist networks he serviced. Bout needed to be lured out of Moscow – tricked out of his lair.
By the summer of 2007 all efforts to nail the Lord of War had ground to a halt. It was then that the White House approached Mike Braun, chief of the DEA’s elite Special Operations Division (SOD). Could the DEA nail Bout where all others had failed?
Braun studied the files. He read reports suggesting that Bout had built a six billion dollar global smuggling empire. By shipping tens of thousands of AK-47 assault rifles into the hands of rebels, he’d ‘transformed young, adolescent warriors into mindless, maniacally-driven killing-machines,’ Braun concluded, darkly.
But it went further. In Braun’s view, Bout ‘could not have acquired the weapons systems he did without the complicity of the highest ranks of government and military in Russia.’ In short, Braun concluded, Bout was ‘one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth’. He agreed that the DEA would have a shot at him.
To score the crucial breakthrough, the DEA needed to secure the services of someone Bout knew and trusted. Step-forward bruisingly-blunt and outspoken former Special Forces man and Africa bush pilot, Mike Snow. Known to all as ‘The Bear’ following his stint in the military, Snow specialized in flying ageing airframes around Africa’s war zones, delivering whatever was required. It was work that had of necessity brought him close to Bout.
In September 2007 Snow met with two of the DEA’s veteran operatives, Agents William Brown and Robert Zachariasiewicz, known to all as ‘Wim’ and ‘Zach.’ Former Marine Corps and US Navy respectively, Wim and Zach’s reputations preceded them. They served with an elite unit within the DEA – the Counter Narcoterrorism Operations Center, located in Chantilly, in northern Virginia. Wim and Zach’s role was to combat transnational drug cartels, high-profile international criminals, global weapons traffickers and terrorist groups operating across borders.
They rendezvoused with Snow in Copenhagen’s Radisson Blue hotel.
They proposed a plan as Machiavellian as it was daring: Bout was to be drawn into an arms deal with DEA undercovers posing as FARC terrorists, Colombia’s leftist rebels who financed their operations via kidnap and ransom, plus multi-million-dollar drug deals.
In exchange for the FARC’s narco-dollars, Bout was to provide a massive shipment of fearsome weaponry, including state-of-the-art Igla (Russian for ‘needle’) man-portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).
The plan to lure Bout out of Moscow with the such a lucrative arms deal had many upsides. Chief amongst them was this: it had the ring of truth. The FARC was cash-rich and they were seeking SAMs, to shoot down American helicopters flying anti-narcotics missions in Colombia. Plus the Russian State was known to be seeking to do such a deal with the fiercely anti-American insurgents.
To further OPERATION RELENTLESS – as the DEA mission was codenamed – Wim and Zach brought in Carlos Sagastume and Ricardo Jardeno – better known as ‘The King of Sting’ and ‘El Comandante’.
Once major drugs-and-arms traffickers, Carlos, a Guatemalan-American, and Ricardo, a Colombian, were former bad-boys-turned good: both now worked as undercover sources for the DEA. They would front up to Bout as the FARC’s banker and arms-buyer.
While Ricardo was new to such work, Carlos was one of the most long-lived and renowned of DEA undercovers. He was the safe pair of hands to oversee the DEA’s most costly and high-profile mission to date. The Bear, The King of Sting and El Comandante – these were the DEA’s A-Team. In a sting operation that spanned four continents they wove their web, drawing Bout into an ever-more-enticing trap.
The rollercoaster drama that unfolded ranged from horrific bloodshed and tyranny in the Congo to the steamy jungles of Colombia, and from the ice-bound streets of Moscow to a snatch operation like no other achieved against desperate odds.
In March 2008 the RELENTLESS team got their man: Viktor Bout was seized in Bangkok, by a heavily armed takedown team. He was at a rendezvous where he believed he was sealing a massive deal to ship a raft of sophisticated weaponry to the FARC. Following a New York court case hailed as ‘the trial of the century’ Bout is now serving twenty-five-years in a US penitentiary.
“OPERATION RELENTLESS“: The world’s most-wanted criminal; the elite forces hunt to catch him, by Damien Lewis, published 18th May.