The big lie about Viktor Bout is that he escaped capture because he was hard to find. In recent years he did hide — the New York Times reports that during his two months in Bangkok he switched hotels often to avoid detection, landing finally at the swish Sofitel Silom — but during his previous two decades of international mischief he conducted himself with surprising openness. He didn’t get caught, because either through negligence or complicity, figures at the governmental level let him go, and let his business flourish.
Bout’s activities, chronicled well in a recent book, spanned four continents and required hundreds of landing strips for his fleet of Soviet-era cargo planes. He worked with Richard Chichakli (a Dallas CPA and fruit-plate enthusiast) in Sharjah, UAE, for years. He flew from a base in South Africa and ran a lucrative chickens-and-Kalashnikovs logistics business; he later resided unmolested in Moscow. He made heaps of money flying out of Oostende, Belgium, and out of Bulgaria. None of these places is a grass-strip, and someone must have read and stamped his planes’ general declarations of goods and cargo.
Most disturbing are reports that Bout has, at times, been within reach of U.S. authorities, only to change his plans abruptly and evade capture, almost certainly after being tipped off. We know Bout has been useful to American interests in the past, but one wonders whether some even darker purpose could explain why we have allowed his rolling international crime wave to continue as long as it has.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com