Bout was arrested in Thailand in March 2008 after being taken in by a DEA undercover operation, where the Russian thought he was selling sophisticated weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia FARC), a designated terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, and one of the world's largest cocaine production cartels.
Among the things he offered the undercover operatives in the final meeting in Bangkok, believing them to be FARC commanders, were drones to attack U.S.-build radar stations, surface-to-air missiles, and the usual assortment of assault rifles and ammunition.
His arrest in the hotel, after taking more than an hour to regale the agents with promises of how he could help the FARC kill Americans, looked to be the end of the story. Thailand and the United States have an extradition treaty, the arrest was conducted jointly with Thai police, and the Thai foreign minister certified everything was in order. But legal wrangling, Russian state pressure and overall fear by the Thai government of crossing either the Americans or the Russians, led to a long and convoluted process.
However, the Thai cabinet on Tuesday swallowed hard and bravely approved the extradition, after more than two years of tussle, and Bout was put on a DEA plane, wheels up, and heading to the United States to stand trial in the Southern District of New York.
The arrest is more than symbolic in importance. It targeted one of the master facilitators who, through exploiting the rapidly changing world order, was able to be of use to multiple non-state armed groups, including often arming both sides of the same conflict. Many of these groups (the FARC, Taliban etc.) are terrorists, and almost all were criminal.
His primary defense was the "taxi cab" excuse:A cab driver doesn't check the luggage of the passengers in his vehicle, he simply ferries them from point A to point B, providing a service. Of course, if one can see the AK-47s sticking out of the passengers bags as you pick them up, and overhear they are on their way to kill, rape and maim, the moral equation could change. But it didn't for Bout.
Dubbed the "Merchant of Death" by British parliamentarian Peter Hain, Bout had, as I documented with my co-author Stephen Braun in Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible helped fuel wars around the globe, particularly vicious wars in Western Africa.
As we chronicle, he also flew for the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and provided planes to the Taliban, flew for the UN on relief and peacekeeping missions, and for the US military in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.
His arrest is a tribute to a small group of men and women who kept the effort to bring Bout to justice alive across three administrations: the second Clinton administration, Bush and Obama. This includes a group in the NSC that got the ball rolling, a bipartisan cast of Congressmen who never relented, a group in the Treasury Department's OFAC wing who traced Bout's assets and aircraft, a hearty band in the CIA, and of course, the dedicated and resourceful DEA folks who pulled off the arrest.
A big tip of the hat to State, who never let the issue fall off the radar screen and made sure the Bout extradition remained a key part of all bilateral discussions with Thailand. All were aided by the stellar work of the United Nations Panels of Experts who did the groundbreaking work on Bout's activities in Africa.
So, on to the trial and the next chapter.
Makled was no small fish. He was designated a major drug kingpin by the Obama administration in 2009. But perhaps more importantly he and his brothers, owners of an airline and a major port, had saved the Chávez government in 2002, when the state oil company PDVSA went on strike.
After his arrest by Colombian police and DEA, Makled, who the Chávez government had suddenly turned on, decided to go public. In a series of TV interviews broadcast in Colombia Makled discussed his corrupt relationships with senior generals, the minister of interior (security) and other major figures in Chávez's inner circle. And, he had kept the evidence, including deposit slips in the banks, video recordings, audio recordings, etc. etc. For those of you who read Spanish, Teodoro Petkoff's TalCual summary here is very good.
According to the DEA's request for extradition, From approximately 2006 through August 2010 Walid Makled-Garcia operated and controlled several airstrips in Venezuela. These airstrips were used by different drug trafficking organizations in order to fly airplanes loaded with multi-thousand kilogram quantities of cocaine out of Venezuela to locations in Central America.
The supplier of the cocaine was the FARC in Colombia, according to Colombian police. Venezuelan sources say Makled was also the a key tie in the corruption and drugs world to the Shiite Muslim communities in Isla Margarita and the Guajira, groups that have a strong financial relationship with Hezbollah.
Chávez, not known for his concern for fellow citizens arrested abroad, became very interested in the Makled case. He raised it personally with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, and said Makled's extradition to Venezuela was a precondition to improving relations with his neighbor. He has regularly denounced Makled as a tool of "the empire" and part of a U.S.-led campaign to discredit his government. Makled himself warned that by the time he finished testifying, the United States would have enough evidence against the Chávez government to "intervene immediately." Chávez seems to think the same thing.
The United States, for its part, understands the importance both in terms of drug trafficking and the role of the Venezuelan state in sponsoring the criminal activity in conjunction with terrorist actors. It is requesting the extradition of Makled, in the hopes of cutting a deal to get the documentation they need to unravel the cocaine network in the Venezuelan government.
Chávez and the FARC have been at the drug game for years. Now, in desperation, Chávez is turning on his one-time supporters who he views as dangerous, while expropriating a record number of private businesses and having his military commander declare that, if the opposition won the next elections, the military would stage a coup.
(See for even OAS Secretary General's indignant response, to the statements. Chávez immediately promoted Gen. Henry Rangel Silva for his comments. It is worth remembering that Rangel Silva is the main sponsor of the FARC within the Venezuelan armed forces.
Colombia has not said what it will do. Desperate for better ties with Chávez, the Santos government also has led (very successful) fight against the FARC and has been a staunch U.S. ally. If Makled goes back to Venezuela, he and his evidence will vanish forever. If he has a chance to tell his story and be judged on the evidence, Chávez will be significantly weakened internationally.
Briceño was the architect of the FARC's transition from Marxist insurgency to drug trafficking terrorist organization in the early 1990s as a method of survival. It was Briceño who moved his Southern Front (followed by the rest of the FARC) into kidnapping and an almost-total dependency on cocaine trafficking. He targeted Americans, along with the hundreds of Colombian hostages he plucked off. He was remorseless about the human suffering he caused, viewing it as a cost of war. He was the architect of the FARC becoming a true terrorist organization.
Briceño, who commanded great loyalty among the FARC rank and file, was born into the FARC, and has a brother, German, who is also a senior FARC commander. German, who kidnapped and murdered three Native American activists with the consent of Jorge, has been identified by Colombian authorities as one of the FARC commanders under the protection of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in Venezuelan territory.
As a commander, Briceño pioneered the use bombs made of gas canisters that were used to incinerate rural villages, as well as inflict significant damage on the military. His troops operated with relative impunity in the late 1990s against a weak and demoralized Colombian army rife with corruption and more adept at killing civilians than guerrillas. At one point his front inflicted more than a dozen consecutive defeats on the military.
But the tide turned slowly against the FARC beginning in the early 2000s, in part due to policies engineered by the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, when he was minister of defense. Since March 2008 the FARC has lost four of its seven members of the secretariat, after having lost none in the previous 44 years.
But Briceño could be the most important. He was one of the few FARC commanders that commanded a deep loyalty. He had narrowly escaped several recent capture attempts because, unlike those protecting other senior commanders, his bodyguards maintained the security perimeters and died insuring his escape. He maintained a large, hard camp near the Venezuelan border that was finally destroyed in the bombing run that killed him.
Perhaps more importantly, he was the chief ideologue of the FARC's move to a criminalized force willing to do whatever necessary to keep the movement alive. His scorched earth policies against civilians, alliances with drug traffickers, and cold-blooded kidnapping campaigns marked the path the group followed as it moved ever further from the ideals on which it was founded.
While Alfonso Cano, the FARC's overall commander, is a respected ideologue, it was no secret that Briceño was the military leader of the FARC. His death should further weaken a movement that is largely sustained by cocaine and Hugo Chávez, but that cannot replace his leadership.
Bout not only supplied the Taliban and the FARC in Colombia, both designated terrorist organizations. He also helped arm some of the most murderous regimes and groups in Africa (Charles Taylor, Mubut Sese Seko the RUF, UNITA etc.) and the genocidal regime in Sudan. These actions are detailed in my book, with Stephen Braun, Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible (Wiley 2007).
Bout should be extradited in about a week, although the Russian government has already made clear it will do what it can to slow the process even further. There is, under Thai law, no further appeal allowed of this ruling.
Bout's extradition request is based on an elaborate and successful operation by the DEA's Special Operations Division, where informants posed as representatives of the FARC seeking to buy weapons to fight in Colombia, and specifically to kill Americans. Bout took the bait and arrived in Bangkok March 2008 with a laptop full of pictures of the toys he could deliver to them, including unmanned drones, RPGs and the promise of surface-to-air missiles.
When he finished his presentation and sales pitch he was arrested by Thai police, having said more than sufficient to build a case. He then spent the next 2.5 years fighting extradition to the United States, where similar cases, using similar tactics, have led to quick convictions.
Bout must be understood in the context in which he emerged as a singularly important purveyor of weapons. A gifted linguist and a businessman far ahead of his time, he married an aging Soviet air fleet with access to virtually abandoned stocks of weapons in Soviet bloc and built an empire as a one-stop shop for virtually anything. His ties to Soviet military intelligence, his personal skills in negotiating with some of the world's most brutal thugs, all helped him along the way.
His business sense, and willingness to fly anything licit and illicit (gladiolas, frozen chicken, food relief, AK-47s and RPGs), made him a pioneer in his field.
But he was enabled by a weak or non-existent international legal structure that allowed much of his activity, no matter how morally reprehensible, to remain legally in a gray area. Governments (particularly the U.S, British and French) and the United Nations used his aircraft long after it was known who he was and what types of business he was engaged in.
In the end, although more firmly attached back to the Russian intelligence structure, his willingness to deal with anyone cost him his freedom.
But only because an unusually dedicated, small group of men and women, stretching from the end of the Clinton administration to the Bush and Obama teams, made it happen.
The DEA, NSC, State Department, intelligence community and Pentagon all have members in that tenacious group that simply refused to let the matter go. A tip of the hat to that cadre, many whom I have had the privilege of knowing, for the commitment it took to make this day happen. It took more than a decade, but in the end it seems one of the really bad actors on the international stage, responsible for escalating the carnage in wars the world over, will finally stand trial thanks to your efforts.
What is striking, from my perspective, is that only two Latin American leaders are named: Hugo Chávez, weighing at number 17 of the 23 worst listed, and Raúl Castro at number 21. What is also striking is that their three primary allies outside of Latin America are also among the world's worst: Mahmoud Ajmadinejad of Iran at number 8; Basher al-Assad of Syria (recently jointly bashing Israel and calling for an end to the empire, meaning the United States) at number 12; and China's Hu Jintao, busying buying up all the natural resources he can, at number 10.
Sub-Saharan Africa, of course, has the most of the worst, including my personal favorite, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang (number 14), who has hired Lanny Davis and other prominent and once respectable people as lobbyists. Obiang deposed and killed his uncle before assuming power in 1979, and was well-loved for continuing his uncle's heart-warming custom of having his political enemies beaten to death with metal bars in the main stadium while the band played "Happy Days are Here Again."
But back to Latin America: One can tell a great deal about leaders by the company they keep and the alliances they build. Chávez, rather than embracing any government with a liberal democratic form of government, has gone for the most repressive. Not coincidentally, both Syria and Iran are among the world's foremost sponsors of terrorism. Cuba, toying with modest internal reforms, remains a formidably repressive state, and has been busy helping the Bolivarian states implant state of the art internal security apparatuses that are sure to improve their respective repressive capacities.
There is nothing subtle about the aims of the Venezuela-Iran-Syria axis. As Chávez stated while hosting al-Assad stated on his first trip to Latin America earlier this week, after declaring the "Syria-Venezuela axis" to be of "strategic importance":
Arab civilization and our civilization, the Latin American one, are being summoned in this new century to play the fundamental role of liberating the world, saving the world from the imperialism and capitalist hegemony that threaten the human species. Syria and Venezuela are at the vanguard of this struggle.
It would, of course, be interesting to see how many Syrians would stay "liberated" in Syria if they could freely leave, and how many other people acquainted with the regime would choose that sort of emancipation.
In return Al-Assad praised Chavez for standing up to the United States.
“There are few politicians who are courageous to speak out when it’s necessary,” he said. “Chavez has projected the image of a resistant Venezuela.”
Both Chavez and al-Assad defended Iran's right to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
'We believe that all countries have this right,' said al-Assad. 'It's part of our basic principles that all states have the same rights.'
It is easy to believe this is all theater with few real ramifications for the rest of the world. But all three countries (Venezuela, Syria and Iran) are going for nuclear technology. Syria has already tried to build a North Korean-style reactor, only to have it obliterated by Israel, and did so outside the world's nuclear regulatory framework. Iran has now been sanctioned four times by the United Nations for its lack of transparency. Chávez has vowed to build a "nuclear village" with the help of the major nations in violation of international agreements.
When you add oil money to the mix, and the presence of the FARC and Hezbollah as primary non-state actors at the disposal of the world's worst leaders, the danger should be self-evident.