Busting the Merchant of War

The Bush administration finally nails a notorious supplier to terrorists—after he spent 30 years hiding in plain sight

"There are always people who come up again and again, in every conflict," he said. "And he was one of those people, sitting on a pile of steaming shit. . . . The perception we get is that a blind eye is turned toward regional African conflicts that don't have such a grand dimension, and there's a culture of impunity. But the Monzer case shows that's not always true. And maybe one day we'll get Viktor!"

The end of the Cold War may have eased tensions between superpowers, but it opened whole new vistas for gunrunners. As civil wars erupted in the Balkans and the southern hemisphere, Eastern European arms manufacturers found a new customer base to replace their own governments' dwindling appetites. International arms brokers, who once worked under the watchful eye of their superpower sponsors, now started selling arms to warlords and rebels alike, often trading in natural resources such as diamonds and timber. Between 1997 and 2004, according to a recent Amnesty International report, developing countries in the southern hemisphere imported 4,685 artillery units, 6,658 armored vehicles, 1,291 helicopters, and 13,547 surface-to-air missiles, to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of small arms and millions of land mines.

No one knew how to stop or even regulate the flood. There were no international treaties covering arms dealing, and a smart broker could spread guns all over Africa without committing a single crime. "What you're left with is a patchwork of national laws that may or may not exist," says Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst for the Center for Defense Information. "Less than 50 countries have any kind of national legislation that covers arms dealers, and almost none have extraterritoriality. It's very easy for an arms dealer to go to a country that has no laws."


Tune in: Talking with writer Chris Thompson

Even the American government is not above hiring these pariah brokers when it's convenient. In 2003 and 2004, for example, the United States military hired planes from a company owned by Viktor Bout to ship military supplies to Kuwait and Iraq. According to Farah, the Russian arms dealer may have made up to $60 million for his trouble. At the time, Bout was well known as the principal supplier of small arms to Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front, whose child soldiers routinely amputated the limbs of villagers unlucky enough to fall into their hands.

The only body that seemed to have the authority to do anything was the United Nations, which began slapping arms embargoes on conflict zones such as Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia. But everyone knew that with no enforcement or even a monitoring system in place, such embargoes were next to useless. In the late 1990s, the United Nations put into place a system of periodically studying and publishing reports on how arms brokers and less scrupulous governments violate arms embargoes. The first major report, a case study of Angola written in 2000 by Canadian diplomat Bob Fowler, shocked everyone with its level of detail—and made humans-rights investigators around the world realize just how precisely you could expose the operations of specific arms brokers.

The UN had placed an embargo against the UNITA rebel faction in Angola in 1993, but weapons flooded the country nonetheless. Traveling to the Angolan interior and interviewing high-level UNITA defectors, Fowler's group exposed the De Decker brothers, two South Africans who traded Eastern European mortar bombs, anti-aircraft weapons, and grenades for diamonds they would later sell in Antwerp (one of the De Decker brothers had learned how to price UNITA's diamonds through his work with the De Beers company). When the De Decker operation dried up, UNITA turned to Mobutu Sese Seko and his broker, a Belgian named Jacques "Kiki" Lemaire, until Mobutu was overthrown in 1997. After that, the rebels reportedly turned to officials in Burkina Faso, Congo-Brassaville, and Rwanda, who introduced them to Viktor Bout, among others. From interim transit ports all the way down to the make of the airplanes, Fowler provided details that no one had previously imagined possible.

"The Fowler report—that's a watershed," says Eric Berman, the managing director of the Swiss organization Small Arms Survey, which tracks the spread of weapons around the world. "He named and shamed in a way that hadn't been done before." Even so, Berman added, the Fowler report triggered blowback from a certain permanent member of the UN Security Council, and many members of Fowler's investigative team were passed over for promotions later in their careers as a result. Berman refused to name the country, but merely said that too many French-speaking African nations were implicated. "Let's just say there wasn't much enthusiasm among the permanent member states for this kind of robust investigation," he demurs.

Still, the floodgates were open, and investigators rushed to start new "name and shame" campaigns, parachuting into conflict zones and digging up dirt on arms brokers and the countries that accommodated them. If they could expose these operations down to the last detail, they reasoned, these host nations just might come under enough pressure to pass a law here or there.

Most of the time, it was just a matter of international shoe leather. "Colleagues would take pictures of crates of ammunition," says Lisa Misol, who used to run the small-arms investigative branch for Human Rights Watch. "They take pictures of the planes they come off of; you interview people at the docks or the airport; you look at their flight plans and trace the shipment back to its country of origin. So it's not rocket science, but it's very time consuming, and involves a lot of luck."

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