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The International Crooks Now in Power

Glenny also shows how Nigeria’s culture of corruption—the most tangible result of its oil wealth—gave rise to a scam that he calls “one of the most exuberantly mischievous examples of crime in history.” Using fax machines (which later gave way to e-mail), a shadow army of con men posing as Nigerian Central Bank officials and the widows of African dictators would write polite letters to private citizens in Western countries requesting assistance to remove tens of millions of dollars from the country. In exchange for paying up front the “fees” required to execute the transaction—perhaps $10,000 or more—the respondent was promised a share of the assets. This ruse emptied the bank accounts of thousands of gullible, greed-driven Westerners who hoped for high returns on investments and then learned that they were turning over money to impostors.

Glenny also penetrates the sordid reality behind the façade of Dubai, which has positioned itself in recent years as a major Middle East trade and financial center. If you have any money, he writes,

few if any questions are asked about how you came upon it or what you want to do with it. Dubai’s discreet attitude to cash has enabled the city to attract leading figures from industries beyond sports and showbiz over the past decade. The Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, renowned as the Merchant of Death, used to park his planes in Sharjah, Dubai’s neighboring emirate ten miles away, while he received his checks for services rendered to warring factions through the Western banks there. The largest cigarette smuggler in the Balkans established his offices in the Burj al-Arab, the sail-shaped Arab Tower, the world’s first-ever seven-star hotel (with seven-star prices starting at $1,500 a night).

Glenny can be funny about his own adventures in the organized crime world. He recalls his regular patronage of black-market cigarette dealers during his days covering the Balkan wars, and wryly recounts his experience with sellers of pirated DVDs in Fuzhou, China:

I picked up a copy of Night at the Museum with dialogue only in Russian or Ukrainian (good practice for me, but a huge disappointment to my nine-year-old son), and Volver, the English subtitles of which bore no relation to Pedro Almodóvar’s heartwarming story about a single mother but instead a preposterous B-movie spy story.

The spread of organized crime and the violence and degradation of civil society that go with it, he makes clear, are caused as much by the voracious appetites of consumers as by the amorality and greed of the crooks. “Organized crime is such a rewarding industry in the Balkans,” he writes in an early chapter,

because ordinary West Europeans spend an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labor on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; and purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world.

The greatest strength of McMafia is also, however, its biggest weakness. Glenny traveled many thousands of miles and interviewed some three hundred people; he has mastered such little-understood matters as the mechanics of money laundering and the management techniques of Colombian drug cartels. Yet Glenny’s ambitious efforts to give his subject global heft can become dizzying. I sometimes found myself confused by many dozens of unfamiliar foreign names, while straining after the links between the various organized crime organizations he talks about. Characters appear, then disappear; most of the low-level criminals themselves blur together as a group of cocaine-snorting, muscular lowlifes. Indeed, the book often seems a sequence of separate articles or research studies, each one rich with observation and analysis, but lacking the larger analysis that could tie them together. Still, Glenny has done the hard and sometimes dangerous work of identifying the criminal syndicates that he estimates account for some 15 percent of world GDP. Whether there is any hope of controlling them or breaking their connections with one another remains a question beyond the scope of his book.

On March 6, 2008, Viktor Bout, the international arms dealer cited in McMafia, was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand, during a sting operation set up by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. He had been under a US indictment for supplying weapons to Colombia’s FARC rebels, labeled a terrorist organization in 2001 by the State Department. Bout’s story is recounted in Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun’s Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, which was published a few months before Bout’s capture. Farah, a former West African bureau chief for The Washington Post, and Braun, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times reporter, have assembled a careful, at times fascinating account of Bout’s career as a peripatetic opportunist who—through a network of business partnerships in many different countries—supplied weapons for conflicts in third-world countries and for nearly twenty years eluded the efforts of Western governments to arrest him.

Little is known about Bout’s early life. He was born in 1967 either in the city of Dushanbe, in the Central Asian Soviet Republic of Tajikistan; or in Ashgabat, near the Caspian Sea, in Turkmenistan. (He has claimed both as his birthplace.) He graduated from a military college in Moscow with degrees in foreign languages and economics, served in a military aviation regiment in Mozambique, may have done a tour with the KGB (Bout has denied it), and appears to have worked as a translator for Soviet peacekeepers in Angola in the late 1980s. Like many of the characters whom Glenny writes about in McMafia, Bout was able to make a fortune by selling the arms and other assets left behind by the breakup of the Soviet Union. According to Farah and Braun:

The bloated Soviet aviation fleet was suddenly on life support, and its massive assets—its planes—were up for grabs. Thousands of pilots and crewmen were suddenly unemployed. Funding for maintenance and fuel had evaporated. 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.

In 1991, using military connections he had made in Mozambique and Angola, Bout began buying these planes to fly weapons—mostly from Soviet arms dumps—to former client states in Africa. Bout’s transactions often violated UN arms embargoes, but he masked his activities by creating shell companies and registering his planes in countries with lax or nonexistent regulations such as Liberia. Bout earned tens of millions of dollars from his arms dealing, which he spent on expensive cars and “a far-flung real estate portfolio that included high-priced apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg and gated estates on the Belgian coast, in Johannesburg, and in a secluded enclave in Sharjah.”

In Sharjah—a city in the Arab Emirates with a large Russian expatriate community—his transport business became the center of an expanding operation that sold and delivered guns, ammunition, and spare military parts to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and a dozen conflict-torn countries in Africa. In 1997 he moved his operation to South Africa, where his Russian wife opened a clothing business and he attempted for a while to live as a legitimate businessman. But they were forced to leave after an attack on his heavily guarded Johannesburg mansion by Russian rivals using grenades.

Bout thrived by applying basic business school principles to his venture, never, for instance, flying home empty. Farah and Braun write:

Like Milo Minderbinder, the cheerily infernal war profiteer in Joseph Heller’s World War II novel Catch-22, who filled returning bomber planes with shipments of fresh eggs and Egyptian cotton, Bout often scheduled lucrative cargo pickups wherever his planes dropped off weapons shipments…. If an Ilyushin Il-76 was bringing helicopter gunship parts into Goma, it might leave with a consignment of coltan [a metallic ore], mining equipment, or blood diamonds. On a run of Kalashnikovs and MiG fighter jet tires into Kandahar, a load of lumber or carpets might be waiting for a flight out. RPGs or gladiolas, diamonds or frozen chickens, it made little difference as long as there was a profit to be made from one destination to the next.

Farah and Braun are painstaking reporters, and they’ve pieced together their account of Bout’s skullduggery from United Nations documents, the research of a handful of European and US investigators, and interviews with scores of Bout’s accomplices. They show how the arms dealer sold weapons to several dictators and rebels—including Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Angola’s Jonas Savimbi, and the limb-chopping thugs of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front. Some of Bout’s weapons probably wound up in the hands of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; his planes also appear to have been used as a kind of EasyJet for jihadis shuttling between Taliban territory and the Persian Gulf.

Neither politics nor ideology seems to have mattered to Bout. He sold guns both to the Taliban and to their mortal enemy, the Afghan Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud. He propped up the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo and the Rwanda-backed Tutsi rebels led by Laurent Kabila. (In one memorable scene, Bout dispatches an old Antonov aircraft to Mobutu’s palace at Gbadolite to spirit away the terminally ill dictator as the rebels close in. Mobutu’s bodyguards, abandoned on the runway, fire a hail of bullets at the departing plane, failing to puncture the armored fuselage. “We were lucky it was a Russian plane,” Mobutu’s son later remarks. “If it had been a Boeing it would have exploded.”) Thanks to his incessant, indiscriminate deal-making, the authors write, “Victor Bout had begun to alter the landscape of modern war.”

It’s a fascinating account; but it rarely rises above the level of an extended piece of newspaper journalism. Farah and Braun tend to delineate most of their characters with a couple of familiar adjectives. (There’s a “rumpled, cheerfully profane diplomat,” his “blunt, aggressive” colleague, and a “studious, bearded” CIA analyst.) Bout himself—a “stout, flint-eyed world traveler”—remains a cipher. The authors (who never managed to interview him) patch together a portrait of a sullen, overweight, and brusque figure who surrounded himself with Russian bodyguards and who burst in on ministers and presidents without an invitation, demanding immediate attention. Sometimes generous—lending planes to arms business competitors and even underwriting the charity work of a globetrotting Russian cyclist he met in Sharjah—he could also be “a hot-tempered control freak.” But we have little sense of his motives aside from his apparent love of money:

How do you describe Bout? He was a man with a big belly and a big mustache,” said one associate. “He was very friendly. He was quiet, he didn’t say a lot. He loved to hunt, to be outdoors. He is hard to describe. He was very smart. He had a real gift for languages. He was always everyone’s friend.”

One problem that Farah and Braun run into with Merchant of Death is similar to the one that Glenny encounters. It can be fascinating to watch rogues like Bout and his associates jet around the world and indulge their appetites for tastelessly decorated mansions and fast cars. But spending time with such unsavory characters soon grows tiresome, as do the continuous accounts of narrow escapes, shootouts, and offloading of grenades and antitank weapons at various third-world airstrips.

Farah and Braun describe how the US government closely tracked Bout’s movements. (By 2000, they write, the US had identified Bout as “the highest-ranking international target other than Osama bin Laden and his top tier of terrorist leaders.”) Richard Clarke, the official in charge of counterterrorism, considered arranging for Bout to be arrested in Uganda or South Africa and put on trial abroad. But after the September 11 attacks, the US and even European countries did not give his capture a high priority.

In fact, Bout was a direct beneficiary of the post–September 11 wars. Merchant of Death ‘s final chapters, the best in the book, chronicle in minute detail how shell companies owned by Bout, who was now living mostly in Russia, were hired by big US Department of Defense contractors in Iraq to fly in cargo to Baghdad International Airport for everybody from the US Army to DHL to Kellogg, Brown & Root. “The once-promising US campaign to scuttle the Viktor Bout network had devolved into bureaucratic schizophrenia,” the authors write.

While the State Department remained committed at least in principle to shutting down Bout’s global air transport operation, the Defense Department was enriching it with government contracts and American taxpayer funds.

Displaying the arrogance that became so characteristic of the disastrous US conflict in Iraq, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and his Pentagon underlings avoided answering queries about Bout from outraged senators and other government officials for months.

Following revelations of Bout’s subcontracts to fly supplies into Baghdad, the US Air Force withdrew refueling privileges from Irbis, Bout’s Sharjah air firm, making it impossible for his planes to gas up at Baghdad International Airport. FedEx then quickly terminated its contract with Irbis; but Braun and Farah report that Bout continued shipping some supplies into Baghdad through 2005. Meanwhile, other US departments, including the State Department, the DEA, and the Office of Foreign Assets Control, became more aggressive, pressuring authorities in other countries to arrest Bout; this culminated in his being seized in Thailand earlier this year. So far as I know, he is still there.

In the end, Farah and Braun conclude:

Institutional blindness, incompetence, corruption, and lack of sustained efforts often paved the rise of Bout’s global network. From the rapacious greed of the Eastern bloc’s newly liberated armaments industry to the flimsy contracting methods of the US military, officials had consistently looked the other way, either unwittingly or purposely, allowing Bout’s planes to keep on delivering their long, green crates. The shortsighted official paralysis that some cynics described as “superpower attention deficit disorder” seemed sadly fitting in a world that had made scant progress in instituting clear, strongly enforced international standards governing the global movement of weapons.

Neither Merchant of Death nor McMafia offers prescriptions for how to deal with Bout and people like him. As long as countries go to war and people have appetites for drugs, illicit sex, and other vices, the international criminal networks will flourish. Still, one of the most troubling examples of this booming international contraband trade, mentioned in Ron Suskind’s best-selling new book, The Way of the World,* was a recent scheme to smuggle three kilograms of enriched uranium from Russia into the virtually lawless Georgian enclave of South Ossetia—a marketplace for contraband ranging from duty-free cigarettes to counterfeit $100 bills. (Fifteen kilograms of enriched uranium is considered the minimum needed for a nuclear device.)

The smuggling scheme was broken thanks to a sting operation run by Georgian paramilitaries and Interior Ministry agents, who recovered 100 grams of highly enriched uranium and captured Oleg Khintsagov, the Russian smuggler, and three Georgian co-conspirators. The United States and Russia have put into place a nuclear-material detection center along Russia’s borders to prevent exactly this kind of scenario from taking place. In view of the recent hostilities, the future of that arrangement is now in question. But the episode underscored how a few rogue insiders—the material was undoubtedly provided by highranking Russian officials—exploiting instability in enclaves such as South Ossetia can undermine such serious efforts.

Governments are not entirely impotent. They can exchange information and scrutinize and restrict movements of currency. They can crack down on safe havens such as the Canary Islands, Lichtenstein, and Luxembourg, making it more difficult for syndicates to shuttle their assets around the globe. And when law enforcement agencies coordinate their operations, the results can be spectacular.

In late 2005, after a concerted effort between Israeli and US lawmen to pool resources and information, Ze’ev Rosenstein was extradited to Miami, tried, convicted, and sentenced to twelve years in prison for conspiracy to smuggle 700,000 ecstasy pills into the United States. Last year, after his transfer to an Israeli prison, he pleaded guilty in a Tel Aviv court to conspiring to murder two gangland rivals in 2001. He is serving his twelve-year sentence for this conspiracy concurrently with his twelve-year sentence for drug smuggling. In the world of increasing linkages and transnational alliances described by Misha Glenny, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the hit men whom Rosenstein hired for the job were Colombians.

  1. *

    Harper, 2008.

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