Merchant of Death

November 16th, 2010

Lord of War, a 2005 film starring Nicolas Cage, tells the story of Yuri Orlov, a man born in Soviet Ukraine, but raised in America, who sells illicit weapons to terrorist groups, corrupt African leaders, and criminal organizations.  He describes himself as an “equal opportunity merchant of death,” selling to whoever and whatever side that is willing to pay.  Orlov becomes tangled up with several criminal men, including a Colombian drug lord who insists on paying him in cocaine and a West African Dictator, who compensates Orlov with blood diamonds.

Through a voice-over, Orlov describes one method he uses to ship his illicit goods—mislabeling.  He says “I had a number of methods for discouraging a search.  I routinely mislabeled my arm shipments as farm machinery and I have yet to meet the lowly-paid customs official who will open a container marked ‘Radioactive Waste’ to verify its contents.”

Though the characters and the plot lines in this movie are fictional, there is a basis of reality that forms the foundation of the story line.  For one thing, the illicit trade in weapons is a enormous global problem that fuels bloody violence in places where ethnic, political, and religious divisions have combusted into conflict.  Also the methods outlined by the movie, including trade mislabeling, fraudulent ship registrations and falsified end-user certificates, are very real. It also illustrates an important point about the interconnectivity of illegal trades—even an arms dealer who wants to be paid only in cash eventually finds himself entangled in the drug trade and up to his knees in conflict gems.

But the connections to reality run deeper.  The inspiration for Orlov’s character came from a real man named Victor Bout, who is a former Soviet air force pilot and is accused of funneling weapons to terrorists, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda; trans-national criminals; and armed combatants locked in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, including Angola, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Though Bout has claimed on a Russian radio program that he has “never gotten into the arms trade,” the United Nations and the Center for Public Integrity have discovered evidence that shows otherwise.  According to European intelligence sources and documents from an African country uncovered by the Center, Bout “ran guns for the Taliban on behalf of the Pakistan government.” UN monitors furthermore revealed Bout has shipped “contraband weapons to rebel movements in Angola and Sierra Leone and to the rogue regime of Charles Taylor in Liberia” and has also operated in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Libya, Congo-Brazzaville, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Uganda

Bout was arrested in Thailand in March of 2008 after an international sting operation led by American undercover agents posing as Colombian FARC rebels convinced the Russian businessman to sell them missiles and rocket launches.  The Justice Department quickly sought his extradition, claiming the weapons would have been used to kill Americans in Colombia.  A reluctant Thailand, not wishing to step on Russia’s toes, has refused the extradition request for the last two years.

This morning things changed for the better.  Thailand extradited Bout to the United States and a motorcade whisked him to Don Maung airport and onto 20-seat American aircraft.  Though Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement today calling Bout an “innocent businessman,” others have dubbed him the “Merchant of Death” for his role in arming conflicts worldwide.

Of course we will never stop or prevent wars and conflicts by arresting men like Bout.  But as fictional arms-dealer Yuri Orlov puts it “Without operations like mine, it would be impossible for certain countries to conduct a respectable war.”  Stemming the flow of weapons—and the finances behind them—is an important first step to reducing armed conflict, stemming the influence of transnational criminals, and cutting off funding for terrorist organizations.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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