Sheer greed may have lured the world's most notorious arms dealer, the Russian Viktor Bout, to his own capture in Thailand Thursday, under a U.S. criminal complaint for conspiracy to provide weapons to a Colombian rebel group.
Bout, who has been dubbed "The Merchant of Death" and allegedly fueled wars and violence in conflict zones around the globe in Africa, Central Asia, Europe and South America, was arrested by Thai authorities in conjunction with agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after a months-long sting operation.
He was charged with conspiring to sell weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Colombian rebel organization that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
For years Bout, who has openly lived in Moscow since at least 2002, has been wanted by authorities worldwide for his lucrative business. He was arrested after an associate named Andrew Smulian began arranging a deal that the two allegedly believed would provide FARC with Igla surface-to-air missiles, attack helicopters and armor-piercing rocket launchers.
Smulian is also facing charges in the United States, according to the criminal complaint.
Bout, originally from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has profited by allegedly providing weapons and transport into the world's most hostile environments, including civil wars in the Congo, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Bout allegedly profited from U.S. contracts in Iraq when the United States unwittingly used some of Bout's pilots to fly supplies into the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In 2005, the Treasury Department noted that Bout earned $50 million by supplying arms to the Taliban .
According to law enforcement officials, Bout now was allegedly looking to make a profit in Colombia, a region that has endured years of fighting between the Colombian Army and FARC rebels. The current deal was initially to be for $5 million in weapons, and according to court documents Bout was looking to unload more than 100 tons of weapons.
"He was offering the arms and the transportation," a senior law enforcement official told ABC News on Thursday. "Moving anything, anywhere, anytime … he believed he was facilitating trade with narcoterrorists."
Asked by ABC News why Bout agreed to take a chance on the Thailand meeting, leaving Russia after refusing meetings in Europe because of warrants seeking his arrest, the official said, "Greed … he believed it was a legitimate meeting."
Through the use of confidential sources, agents from the DEA's Special Operation Division devised a sting that ultimately led to Bout's capture.
The DEA used paid informants and a series of meetings that spanned the globe — from Curacao, Netherlands Antilles off the coast of Venezuela, to Denmark and Bucharest, Romania — to take down Bout and Smulian.
Using wiretaps and surveillance, DEA agents were able to intercept alleged communications by Bout signing off on the plan to provide the weapons to the FARC rebels.
During a Feb. 7, 2008, meeting in Bucharest with Smulian and one of the confidential sources associated with FARC, Bout, who was believed to be speaking by phone from Russia, allegedly said, "It's a really good plan to do … I think it will work because what you told me that they [the FARC are] very excited, this most important."
U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia said the sting had established the suspects' criminality. "For Bout and Smulian the arms deal was very real," he said. "They demonstrated their willingness to both support a terrorist organization and their capacity to do so. They knew the weapons they agreed to sell were destined for a terrorist organization."
Federal prosecutors will seek to extradite Bout to face charges in the United States, and earlier Thursday Russian law enforcement officials told the official Russian state news agency RIA Novosti that Russia may seek Bout's extradition as well.
Although Bout has been wanted by many countries, Russia has never investigated him. Russia is reluctant to allow the extradition of its citizens to other countries, and the move could hamper the Justice Department's efforts.
The DEA has had recent success in tracking down some of the world's most prolific arms traders who have tried to sell weapons to the FARC.
The Bout apprehension follows the June 2007 arrest of alleged arms dealer Monzer al Kassar and two of his associates by the DEA, along with the Spanish National Police. Kassar, known as the "The Prince of Marbella," is believed to be responsible for numerous arms deals across the Middle East, including some with elements of the Iraqi insurgency, according to U.S. officials.
"These are the engines that have fed the mayhem around the world for years and years," a federal official involved in the investigation of Bout said.