ILLEGAL ARMS TRAFFICKING IN THAILAND, NORTH KOREA AND VIKTOR BOUT

ILLEGAL ARMS TRAFFICKING IN THAILAND

Thailand has been criticized for not doing enough to stop arms smugglers that use Thai territory and waters. Weapons smuggling through Thailand have ended up in the hands of insurgents in the Aceh province of Indonesia and Sri Lanka and have been used domestically o make exposlives and arm insurgents and thugs.

Describing the illegal arms trade in the Golden Triangle in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Robert Karniol wrote in The Straits Times: “Arms trafficking from Thailand fell under two categories: covert and criminal, with the two often overlapping. Covert activity involved supplies and support from the Thai security apparatus under a strategic policy in place until the early 1990s, to maintain buffer zones along border areas. Criminal activity was, of course, commercially driven. The weaponry and ammunition originated domestically or simply transited through Thai territory. Materials in transit were sourced from Cambodia ( reduced in recent years); from Viet Nam or the former Soviet bloc. There were also reports of involvement by middlemen based in Singapore. [Source: Robert karniol, The Straits Times, October 18, 2010*]

“Most of this war material went overland to insurgents in Burma and Laos, but some was destined for further afield, including to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and secessionist fighters in India’s north-east. But it is the domestic sourcing that is likely most relevant to the unsettled atmosphere now prevalent in Thailand. Weaponry obtained in Thailand and destined for the black market trade originated mainly from local military stocks or from unscrupulous arms dealers. At least one incident involved theft from an American stockpile maintained in the country for training use.*

“According to a Bangkok-based intelligence source,” I wrote in 2000, “one method of siphoning from Thai army stocks involves over-reporting the amount of ammunition consumed during training exercises.” The paper further notes: “Locally- sourced military equipment is largely purloined from Royal Thai Army stocks. This includes material simply stolen from storage areas and material obtained with the collusion of corrupt military personnel who over-report usage and siphon off the excess. *

“Some licensed arms dealers also support the trade, under-declaring the volume of legally imported material and selling the surplus stock so obtained to illicit arms traffickers. Published reports also suggest that some contraband war material confiscated during police raids has reappeared on the market.” However, conditions inevitably fluctuate. “One Bangkok-based intelligence source says that a single round of ammunition for the M-16 assault rifle is now selling in the Golden Triangle for 15 baht as compared with the previous price of five baht,” the paper states. “This indicates tight supply.” *

“And how does all this relate to events currently unfolding? Bangkok has been rocked by over 70 bombings since violent confrontations between the military and red-shirt protesters in April and May, and another 43 explosive devices have been defused by police. Thailand’s special investigations department, meanwhile, alleged on October 11 that a number of red-shirt militants have received weapons training in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which Phnom Penh denies. *

“Some 32 rocket-propelled grenades, 8,000 bullets for United States-supplied M-16 assault rifles and other weaponry disappeared from an army arsenal during September. A similar mysterious theft of 69 hand grenades and 3,100 bullets for assault rifles occurred at a different army depot in March, “ Bangkok-based journalist Richard Ehrlich noted. The siphoning of small arms and ammunition from Thai military arsenals has been prevalent for years and is not a new phenomenon. Neither has the local availability of this material posed a significant problem. *

North Koream Weapons Bound for Iran Seized in Bangkok

In December 2009, a plane originating from Pyongyang, North Korea, carrying 35 tons of missiles, grenades and other weapons, was impounded at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok. Five crew members were detained. It was later determined that the weapons were bound for Iran. Simon Tisdall wrote in the The Guardian: “A lethal cargo of rocket launchers, grenades and other weapons seized in Thailand may be just a glimpse of what US and UN investigators say is a global North Korean illegal arms smuggling network used to finance its proscribed nuclear weapons programme. [Source: Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, December 13, 2009+]

“Authorities in Bangkok said today it was unclear where the plane carrying the 35-tonnes of arms, an Ilyushin IL-76 registered in Georgia, was heading. But suspicion immediately fell on Iran, the destination of a previous illegal weapons shipment impounded in the United Arab Emirates in July. Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Thai government spokesman, said the plane had initially planned to refuel in Sri Lanka. For unknown reasons, the crew asked to make an emergency landing in Bangkok on Friday. Sri Lanka denied any knowledge of the arms shipment. There was also speculation in Bangkok that it was destined for Pakistan or Afghanistan. +

“Thai officials, who detained four crewmen from Kazakhstan and one from Belarus, said they acted on tip-offs from US and other unnamed intelligence agencies that the plane was carrying North Korean-made weapons in contravention of a UN security council ban on arms exports. The ban was strengthened in June, after North Korea's isolated regime test-fired ballistic missiles and detonated a nuclear bomb. The cargo, declared in the plane's manifest as oil-drilling equipment, was said to include rocket-propelled grenades, missile and rocket launchers, missile tubes, surface-to-air missile launchers, spare parts and other heavy weapons.” +

Viktor Bout, the Merchant of Death Arms Dealer, Arrested in Bangkok

In March 2008, Viktor Bout, a man dubbed the “Merchant of Death” for his arms smuggling activities, was arrested in a luxury Bangkok hotel in a sting operation by undercover U.S. agents posing as Columbian rebels. Thai police said they arrested Bout executing a warrant from a Thai court at the request if the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Bout, the inspiration for 2005 film “Lord of Death” staring Nicholas Cage, endured prison time and a long trial in Thailand before he was finally extradited to the United States on charges of conspiring to sell millions of dollars of arms, including 100 surface-to-air missiles, to Columbian insurgents. Six other people, including another Russian, were also detained by Thai police. Bout denied the charges saying he came to Thailand “to relax” and meet several Thai businessmen “who wanted to purchase airplanes.”

Dan Eggen wrote in the Washington Post: “Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was usually a careful man, dealing with customers through intermediaries and ordering subordinates to throw away cellphones, receipts and anything else that could be traced. After two buyers claiming to be Colombian guerrillas approached him, Bout tried to double-check their identities using photographs of known leaders of the group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, court documents say. "Our man has been made persona non-G- for the world," an associate wrote to one of the purported militants in an e-mail, explaining the need for Bout's security precautions.[Source: Dan Eggen, Washington Post, March 7, 2008**]

“Yet the prospect of a $15 million arms deal lured Bout from Moscow to Thailand for a final meeting with buyers. It turned out to be part of a four-month sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration with secret help from security officials in four other nations. Bout, dressed in scruffy khakis and an orange polo shirt, was arrested at his Bangkok hotel by the Royal Thai Police and was charged in New York with conspiracy to provide material support to FARC. **

“In the FARC case, he allegedly offered to move tons of arms from Bulgaria to Colombia after flying them over Nicaraguan and Guyanese airspace. The DEA is involved in the case because of past allegations that Bout engaged in drug trafficking, as well as concerns that FARC would use weapons to protect its cocaine business, either by shooting down fumigation planes or by harming U.S. personnel, according to the complaint released yesterday. In a similar DEA sting last year, international arms dealer Monzer al-Kassar was arrested at his Spanish mansion on charges of conspiring with FARC. **

“In the Bout case, a pair of paid DEA informants posing as FARC operatives held successive meetings with a Bout associate, Andrew Smulian, in Curacao, Copenhagen and Bucharest, Romania, the complaint said. The DEA monitored cellphones and e-mail used by Bout and his associates, until Bout agreed to leave the safety of Moscow for Thailand. He promised an immediate delivery of 100 Russian Igla missiles -- a standard item in the Russian army -- plus thousands of assault rifles. For $5 million extra, he agreed to drop the items into the Colombian jungle using several hundred combat parachutes, according to the complaint. Bout also promised, through Smulian, to provide helicopters "that could wipe out" other helicopters, flight training, and armor-piercing rockets, the complaint says. Several analysts familiar with his operation say he may have gone to Thailand because he preferred to deal with customers in person. Smulian was also arrested. **

Life and Career of Viktor Bout

Dan Eggen wrote in the Washington Post: “Bout's odds-defying career as an amoral arms merchant who sometimes supplied both sides in military conflicts has been the focus of journalistic exposes, a recent book and, loosely, a 2005 movie called "Lord of War." Bout, 41, has at least five passports, is fluent in six languages and has used numerous aliases and birthdates, authorities say.Emerging from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, Bout used military and intelligence connections to become the "FedEx of arms dealers," in the words of a U.S. arms sales analyst. Bout allegedly used front companies and fleets of military cargo planes to drop weaponry into war zones from Africa to the Middle East. [Source: Dan Eggen, Washington Post, March 7, 2008**]

“Bout, a former Soviet air force officer, “weathered international sanctions by hiding in plain sight in a luxury apartment building in Moscow, while Russian authorities deflected outside attempts to apprehend him. U.S. and European intelligence agencies have long suspected that Bout received assistance, particularly early in his career, from Soviet and later Russian intelligence agencies. Bout has denied it. "He took his Soviet military experience and used that to build a very lucrative business operation," said James A. Lewis, a former State Department expert on arms smuggling now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "His reputation was that he could deliver large quantities of weapons anywhere in the world. That was his competitive edge." The list of Bout's alleged customers since the early 1990s stretches across at least four continents, with a focus on Africa, Western law enforcement officials and human rights groups say. The Treasury Department accused him of supplying armaments to both the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, while also providing weapons to the opposing Northern Alliance. **

“In Zaire, now known as Congo, Bout allegedly supplied arms to rebels fighting then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, turned around and helped Seko flee the country, then flew humanitarian cargo into the devastated nation. "One of the most fascinating things is his ability not only to supply different sides of a conflict, but to live and tell about it with no one killing him," said Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter and co-author of a 2007 book about Bout, "Merchant of Death." Other alleged customers over the years have included then-Liberian despot Charles Taylor, Unita rebels in Angola and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. Cargo companies connected to Bout were also linked to hundreds of supply flights into Iraq for private contractors and the U.S. military early in the Iraq war. The complaint even states that, in the 1990s, Bout sought to drop "crates and boxes over Chechnya," the site of a bitter secessionist rebellion inside Russia. **

“The Treasury Department sanctioned Bout in 2004 for alleged war profiteering because of his ties to Taylor, and it froze the assets of 30 companies and four individuals linked to Bout in 2006. He is also accused of violating United Nations arms embargoes in numerous conflicts and has been subject to a U.N. travel ban. Smulian outlined the pressures on Bout in his e-mail message to the two DEA informants, which was detailed in yesterday's criminal complaint. "All assets cash and kind frozen, total value is around 6 Bn USD, and of course no ability to journey anywhere other than home territories," Smulian wrote. "Listed on the US black list. . . . All access and communications monitered." Bout has periodically granted media interviews to deny the voluminous allegations against him. In a 2002 interview with the Echo of Moscow, he said he does "aviation lifts. This is my main business." "It sounds more like a Hollywood blockbuster," he said of the al-Qaeda arms-sales allegations. He even critiqued the "Lord of War," which reportedly used a Bout cargo plane. "I am sorry for Nicolas Cage," he told MosNews in 20. **

Sting Against Viktor Bout in Bangkok

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The New Yorker: “Shortly after 10 A.M. Bout stepped out of the terminal at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, with a Lonely Planet guide to Colombia in his suitcase. The air was humid and sticky; he wore an orange polo shirt, khakis, and sneakers. He hailed a cab and headed toward the Sofitel. D.E.A. agents and their Thai partners arrived at the hotel throughout the morning; they came by ones and twos, to deflect suspicion. They converted a room on the twentieth floor into a command center. Presuming that Bout had indeed worked for the G.R.U., the agents thought that he would detect traditional surveillance techniques, so they didn’t follow his taxi. Instead, an informant observed near a toll booth, and another crouched beside a disabled car on the highway. Bout didn’t seem concerned about being spotted; he submitted legitimate documents to airport immigration officials. Was he being reckless? Or did he have deep connections in Thailand? [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker, March 5, 2012=]

“At the Sofitel, Bout found Smulian, Carlos, and Snow at the mezzanine bar. “Mucho gusto,” Bout said to Carlos, who was wearing a wire. Bout ordered a hot tea with lemon. “I’m very sorry to what happened a few days ago,” he said to Carlos—a reference to a Colombian military attack that had killed Raúl Reyes, a top FARC commander. Losing friends, Bout said, is “very serious.” He, Smulian, and Carlos took the elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, where they were joined by Ricardo. The four men entered a conference room with a floor-to-ceiling window, and sat around a long table with an arrangement of lilies at the center. Bout reached for a pen and pad. “Let’s make a list of your needs,” he said. Ricardo, who had been introduced as a comandante—a field commander for the FARC—said, “I need anti-aircraft missiles that I can operate against Apaches.” “How many?” Bout said. He jotted down weapons and quantities, in a mixture of Russian, English, and Spanish: a hundred Iglas; five thousand AK-47s; ten million rounds of ammunition; two hundred and fifty Dragunov sniper rifles; twenty thousand fragmentation grenades; seven hundred and forty mortars; two kinds of rocket-propelled grenades. =

“Carlos inquired about C-4 plastic explosives. “How many tons do you need?” Bout replied. Carlos and Ricardo said that a ton would be enough. “We have five,” Bout said. Gunrunners are full of bluster—what Bout’s lawyer later called “puffing.” Bout offered to supply the FARC with drones and with ultralight aircraft outfitted with grenade launchers, which were “very good to bring down helicopters.” When I described this to Mirchev, he laughed, calling the notion of an armored ultralight “bullshit from a technical point of view.” A drone was more plausible. But where would Bout have got one? “From me,” Mirchev said. At one point, Bout pulled a map from his briefcase and spread it out on the table. Bout told Carlos and Ricardo that they needed to find an official—perhaps someone from Nicaragua—who could sign an end-user certificate, make a payment, then “take out your things.” Bout said, “It’s a job that’s a bit political, a bit commercial, and a bit intelligent, you know?” If they didn’t proceed carefully, they were going to “create a scandal.” =

“Supposing that a Nicaraguan official could produce a certificate, and that the aircraft would fly there first, Bout leaned over the map and drew his finger southeast from Nicaragua, across Colombia, stopping in Manaus, a city in northern Brazil. After dropping the weapons into the FARC-controlled jungle, Bout explained, the plane would land in Manaus, and, as a cover, load up sacks of flour and crates of fruit. Ricardo reacted with delight. “Those gringo sons of bitches!” he said. “They’re not going to kill us in our sleep anymore.” “Gringos are enemies,” Bout agreed. “For me, it’s not business—it’s my fight.” He told them that he had been fighting the U.S. for “ten to fifteen years,” calling it “one person’s resistance.” The room erupted in laughter. =

Arrest of Viktor Bout in a Bangkok Hotel

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The New Yorker: Moments after Bout and Carlos stood up to shake hands and close the deal, Thai policemen and D.E.A. agents burst through the conference-room door, weapons drawn. “Hands up!” the Thais commanded. “You’re under arrest!” Bout raised his arms and was shoved against a wall, his legs spread. A few minutes later, Tom Pasquarello, the D.E.A.’s regional director in Bangkok, walked into the room and found Bout sitting calmly at the table. Pasquarello introduced himself and asked him if he knew what was going on. “The game is over,” Bout said. Pasquarello paused, unsure whether Bout was talking about his own career, the undercover charade, or something else. “I’ve seen people in these situations many times before,” Pasquarello told me. “Sometimes they are angry. Sometimes they are combative. Sometimes they are emotional. Viktor was relaxed. It’s a memory that still plays out in my head. Everything that had just happened—the D.E.A. agents, his life going up in flames—and he doesn’t break a sweat. It was like he was just sitting down to read the newspaper.” [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker, March 5, 2012=]

“Smulian was considerably less composed. Led to his hotel room, he watched Thai investigators inspect his belongings while Robert Zachariasiewicz, another D.E.A. agent, interviewed him and explained the charges he faced. The conspiracy to acquire anti-aircraft missiles alone carried a minimum mandatory sentence of twenty-five years. (There is no parole in the U.S. federal system.) Smulian, who faced the prospect of sharing a prison cell in Thailand with Bout, flipped, and agreed to testify against him in exchange for a lenient sentence. He boarded a plane for New York City shortly after midnight, and was placed under arrest when he arrived at J.F.K. (Some of Bout’s friends suspect that Smulian was working for the Americans all along. Smulian, as part of his plea agreement, is barred from speaking to journalists.) =

“A little after 5 P.M., Zachariasiewicz and two other agents questioned Bout at a Bangkok police station. Bout sat in a chair, his legs outstretched, his lips pursed, his bound hands folded in his lap. Zachariasiewicz told him that Carlos and Ricardo were undercover agents and had taped the conversation. “If everything is recorded, then you have everything,” Bout said. “You have all the cards on the table.” =

Viktor Bout’s Trial in Bangkok

Bout’s extradition hearing began in June 2008 but was repeatedly postponed and delayed as attorneys were changed and witnesses failed to appear. In a March 2009 trial hearing in Bangkok connected to his extradition Bout said he was a legitimate businessman and there was no proof showing he was the world’s biggest arms dealer. He characterized the trial as “theater” and said his hot, cramped prison cell was “worse than Guantanamo.” Among the arguments made by Bout’s attorney was how could he have sold weapons to Columbian insurgents when no Columbian insurgents were involved in his “frame up,” only DEA agents posing as them.

A Thai court in August 2009 originally rejected the U.S. Extradition request but the ruling was reversed in an appeals court in August 2011. The Russian government objected strongly to the extradition and whole chain of events. The extradition process was delayed further when the U.S. added money-laundering and wire fraud to the charges against Bout in a bid to keep him detained if the appeal was rejected. Tactic backfired, however, and only kept Bout in Thailand longer. In November 2011, ironically after the money-laundering and wire fraud charges were dismissed, Bout was finally extradited to the U.S., where he faced a trail on weapons charges.

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The New Yorker: While prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan debriefed Smulian, Bout spent his days in an overcrowded Bangkok jail cell. He made a point of not learning Thai; he feared that doing so would undermine his status as a foreigner in a Bangkok courtroom. Instead, he used the time to study Sanskrit, Hindi, and Persian. Meanwhile, he fought his extradition to the U.S.[Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The New Yorker, March 5, 2012]

“He had powerful supporters. The Russian government denounced the charges against Bout, and protested to the Thai Ambassador in Moscow. American officials became aware of more nefarious efforts to secure Bout’s freedom. In a cable released by WikiLeaks, Eric John, the American Ambassador to Thailand, wrote that there were “disturbing indications” that Bout’s “Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition.” In December, 2008, a Thai naval captain testified in a Bangkok courtroom that Bout had come to the city to assess the functionality of a submarine port. The captain, it was later revealed, had been put up to the scheme by a purported G.R.U. asset—the son of a retired Thai admiral. Facing pressure from the U.S. Embassy, the Thai Navy said that Bout had not come to the country on official business. =

“On December 22, 2008, nine months after Bout was arrested, he testified in court. Street hawkers squatted nearby, selling pirated DVDs of “Lord of War,” featuring a photograph of Bout, in prison garb, superimposed next to Nicolas Cage. Under oath, Bout told a Thai judge that Smulian had reserved the Sofitel conference room so that he could meet four foreigners interested in buying two of his used airplanes. About fifteen minutes later, Bout recalled, he was placed under arrest. (Bout, Smulian, Carlos, and Ricardo spoke for more than ninety minutes.) “No one clearly said that they were members of the FARC,” Bout told the judge. “There was no discussion of selling weapons.” =

“After more than two years of legal wrangling, the Thai court approved Bout’s extradition. On November 15, 2010, a team of D.E.A. agents arrived in Bangkok. Security was tight. Pasquarello, the D.E.A. agent, said, “The Russians knew we had Viktor’s laptop and knew all about his weapons-trafficking activities. And they had already spent considerable clout and resources trying to get him out of prison. Were they going to try and break him free on the way to the airport? Or try to assassinate him?” So the D.E.A. employed a decoy. On the morning of November 16th, a motorcade of police vehicles left Bang Kwang prison, where Bout was being held, and headed to Suvarnabhumi Airport. Reporters followed. Minutes later, a second convoy, without lights or sirens, drove to Dong Muang, a military airport. Bout sat, shackled, in the back seat of an S.U.V. with tinted windows, wearing a ballistic helmet. Once he arrived inside the terminal, American officials removed his helmet. Bout’s hair had grown moppish, and his mustache was caterpillar-thick. =

“As the agents ushered Bout toward the plane, he suddenly whirled around. “Where is Derek?” he asked, referring to Derek Odney, a Bangkok-based D.E.A. agent he had got to know. For the first time since the sting, Bout looked vulnerable. He spotted Odney and asked, “Are you going with me?” “I’m going with you—don’t worry,” Odney said. On the trip to New York, Bout borrowed a flight attendant’s iPod and listened to classical music: Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bach. The plane landed at Westchester County Airport at night. When Bout stepped off the plane, escorted by two D.E.A. agents, it was the first time that he had ever been on American soil. Cameras flashed. He squeezed into an armored car and made the trip to Manhattan. “They brought me into New York like I was an atom bomb,” he said. =

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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