The Merchant of Death Is in Chains

One of the world's most notorious arms dealers just landed in prison. Police in Thailand arrested Victor Bout, whose alleged client list reads like a who's who of tyrants and rebel leaders—Liberia's Charles Taylor, Zaire's Mobutu Sésé Séko, Angola's Jonas Savimbi, and the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

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One of the world's most notorious arms dealers just landed in prison.

Police in Thailand arrested Victor Bout, whose alleged client list reads like a who's who of tyrants and rebel leaders—Liberia's Charles Taylor, Zaire's Mobutu Sésé Séko, Angola's Jonas Savimbi, and the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan.

What actually tripped him up, however, appears to have been a massive shipment of arms to left-wing Colombian guerrillas. As investigative journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun document in their book on Bout called Merchant of Death, Bout's planes airdropped as many as 10,000 weapons to guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in the late 1990s. (Separately, the FARC has been  making headlines this week after the Colombian military killed the group's deputy commander in a cross-border raid into Ecuador. The incident raised tensions in the Andes after Ecuador and Venezuela protested and dispatched troops to the Colombian border.)

The sight of the 41-year-old Bout in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit being paraded before television cameras in Bangkok was an unexpected turn of events for the legendary figure. Although he has been accused of flouting international arms embargoes in numerous conflicts in recent years, he continued to do business.

The United Nations has concluded that Bout controlled a series of front companies and more than 50 airplanes operating around the world. In their book, Farah and Braun wrote that Bout's planes flew numerous missions in Iraq. But this time, they were flying indirectly for the U.S. military, after contractors like onetime Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc. hired them under subcontracts. In October 2006, President Bush issued an executive order barring Americans from doing business with Bout and his associates.

Before his arrest at a five-star hotel in Bangkok, Bout had apparently been under surveillance by Thai police for several months as part of a larger U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigation.

Kevin Whitelaw