‘The Merchant of Death Is Back in Action’

‘The Merchant of Death Is Back in Action’

To Zarate’s frustration, Treasury sanctions didn’t faze Bout. Even the U.S. Department of Defense ignored them. In 2004, investigations by journalists from the L.A. Times found that some Pentagon contractors had hired Bout companies to move cargo into the Iraq war zone.

Maltz, whose brother, a U.S. Air Force special operations sergeant, had died in Afghanistan, took Zarate’s point. He sped back to the Special Operations Division, an unmarked building near Dulles International Airport, and summoned Zachariasiewicz. “You gotta get on this case,” he said.

Zachariasiewicz smiled. He’d opened an investigation two months earlier. He was already on it, but somehow, the boss hadn’t heard yet.

“I fucking love you, dude,” Maltz said.

Zachariasiewicz was good as his word. He moved the investigation with astonishing speed. Deep in central Africa, he and his partners located a British bush pilot named Mike Snow, who had once worked for Bout and fallen out with him and was more than willing to help end his career. Snow led the agents to Bout partner Andrew Smulian, a shady South African down on his luck. In January 2008, with the agents watching from behind tiki lights and bougainvillea, Snow and Smulian met at a beach club on the island of Curacao, Snow introduced Smulian to Carlos and Ricardo, onetime traffickers who were now on DEA’s payroll as undercover operatives. They proposed a multi-million-dollar arms deal. Smulian would get a big commission, but they had to meet personally with Bout.

Smulian flew to Moscow to put the proposition to Bout, who agreed to meet the “FARC reps” in Bucharest. To put Bout behind bars, the U.S. agents needed the meeting to take place in a country with an extradition treaty with the United States. Romania was one.

Zachariasiewicz, other DEA agents and the operatives spent three maddening weeks there waiting for Bout, who didn’t show. “It has gringo centers of operations, lots of big ones,” he told Smulian in a wiretapped call. He sensed that the Romanian capital was crawling with American spies. He was right. The CIA had a big station in Bucharest and a secret prison code-named Bright Light on the north side of Bucharest; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and other high-value terror suspects had spent time there.

Before long, Bout’s hunger for money and action got the better of him. He agreed to meet in Bangkok, which also had an extradition treaty with the U.S. When confronted with Thai police holding with handcuffs, with Zachariasiewicz, Milione and other DEA agents behind them, Bout didn’t try to talk his way out. He realized that he had talked too much already.

“You have all the cards,” he told the DEA agents.

But they didn’t have all the cards, and everybody knew it. Keeping Bout locked up in Thailand was a labor-intensive marathon.

In the back of the room at the Bangkok Sofitel stood the stage director of the three-continent take-down, Milione, Zachariasiewicz’s boss, head of an elite man-hunting unit within the DEA’s Special Operations Division. Milione had an unusual background: He’d been a professional actor who had studied at the fabled Circle in the Square theater school, acted under the direction of Joanne Woodward, got acting tips from Paul Newman, and played Will Smith’s lover in the film, Six Degrees of Separation.

Before and after Bout’s arrest, Milione became famous within DEA for organizing a string of successful lures of international bad guys, all without firing a shot, all meticulously designed to meet the requirements of U.S. courts and defendants’ rights. He never lost a case.

His superpower was an understanding of human psychology, possibly honed by his theater studies. Deception, he taught his agents, nearly always trumped force. For most career criminals, he played on their avarice.

Bout didn’t need the money from the Colombians, and he had been safe in Moscow. He was known to be tied to Russian intelligence services and the Kremlin, which protected his reign as undisputed king of the international arms trafficking underground.

Moscow’s support was evident when Bout’s extradition process got underway. A U.S. diplomatic cable, dated Feb. 13, 2009, and later released by Wikileaks, reported, “There have been disturbing indications that Bout’s … Russian supporters have been using money and influence in an attempt to block extradition.”

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