In the central March 2008 negotiations over the delivery of weapons by Russian arms merchant Viktor Bout to a Columbian terrorist group, the key players were two men identified as Carlos and Ricardo. They cunningly presented themselves as representatives of FARC, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a group known for kidnappings, drug smuggling, and access to lots of cash.
They did not hide their intentions. "We want to start ... start killing American pilots," Carlos bluntly told Bout, while asking for assault weapons, sniper rifles, and surface-to-air missiles.
As Bout abruptly learned when the deal-making sessions at the Bangkok Sofitel Hotel ended with his arrest, neither of the two men were actually with FARC. They were instead paid agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who once again had successfully posed as members of a group that has waged a brutal war against the Colombian government.
Lost in the attention surrounding Bout's sentencing last week to a 25-year prison term is the fact that the DEA has conducted not just one major FARC-related sting, but at least four in the past six years alone. That they have successfully used the same strategy over and over again suggests one of two possibilities: Those in the drug trafficking and arms smuggling world are less well-informed and more careless than their pop-culture images suggest, or the DEA is particularly good at fooling its victims with the convincing patter of anti-imperialist revolutionaries bent on hobbling a U.S. ally.
The cases all followed a similar pattern. The DEA set up agents or operatives and put them in contact with the arms dealer. Over a period of time, the dealer worked out a trade with the agents, often weapons in exchange for FARC manufactured drugs (the Justice Department says FARC produces over half the world's cocaine). Once a deal was reached, DEA agents grabbed the suspect and arranged his extradition to the U.S. to stand trial.
Among the other successful faux-FARC operations:
- Before 2008, the most high-profile target was Monzer al-Kassar, an arms dealer with a long history of supporting terrorists. The sting that nabbed him using false FARC representatives occurred in 2007, leading to his arrest in Spain and extradition. He eventually received a 30-year prison sentence.
- In February 2010, the DEA worked another sting operation to capture Paul Mardirossian, a Swede who agreed to sell agents posing as FARC members grenades and AK-47 rifles -- weapons the false FARC members claimed were for the express purpose of attacking a U.S. military base. Mardirossian pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced this May.
- Later that year, former Salvadoran army officer Hector Antonio Martinez-Guillen agreed to sell weaponry for an attack against Americans to a purported FARC representative he thought would supply him drugs in exchange for the arms -- and again, the man was working for the DEA. Martinez-Guillen was sentenced to 31 years in prison.
Why has the same gambit worked so well? It's something of a surprise to people, including Michael Braun, who helped coordinate the al-Kassar and Bout operations in his role as former Chief of Operations for the DEA.
"We had used [the FARC sting] for al-Kassar and it worked fine," he recollects. "When it came to Bout I was concerned - why are we using the same scheme again? What's the risk here? But as I talked to the agents responsible for moving the initiative forward, it made perfect sense to go ahead and use it again."
Part of that reasoning, he said, was that "no one believed that Bout would ever think we would use the same scheme again." According to Kathi Lynn Austin, head of the anti-weapons profiteer Conflict Awareness Project, testimony at Bout's trial revealed that both Carlos and Ricardo are drug trafficking veterans from Colombia and Guatemala; Carlos had already been employed by the DEA as a purported FARC official in the Kassar case.
Braun, now a managing partner with Specter Group International, left the agency in 2008 and so did not have a hand in the Mardirossian or Martinez-Guillen operations. But he believes that FARC is a logical patsy for the operations. "The reality is that they need and have always needed weapons," he says. "They need ammunition. They need explosives. They need air frames." And with their control of the drug trade, it is believable that FARC would have the cash on hand (or drugs to trade) needed to purchase such equipment.
Austin said the DEA is conducting such sting operations because it is "expanding its turf." In the past, she says, the DEA and CIA would often clash about who has jurisdiction over traffickers, with the CIA often coming out on top. "I think this is the DEA getting out from underneath other agencies and asserting itself."
Braun disputes that DEA and CIA have waged turf wars, saying that major operations like the Bout sting were cleared with "every three letter agency in the town." But he does believe that DEA has become a more important agency since the war on terror began in earnest, in part because state sponsorship of terrorism has "significantly" dropped, forcing terrorist networks to find other ways to sponsor their movements -- including, in many cases, turning to the sale of drugs.
"[DEA's] mission didn't change, but what they found happening post 9-11 was they were coming into contact with far more designated terrorism organizations than they had before."
Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA, said he couldn't say how many other sting operations have been FARC-related but noted that every operation the agency runs has a drug component. "DEA's mission is dismantling drug networks" he told the Center. "We don't get up in the morning and think we need to go get more weapons traffickers. We go where investigations and intelligence leads and in these cases ... we took an opportunity and fortunately we were successful."
DEA's use of informants in sting operations is also nothing new, according to Payne. "It's easy to think we've all of a suddenly stepped up our game on some of these individuals, but what I think what you're finding is these are just very high profile cases."
Sting operations don't get perfect results. Those targeted typically wind up getting arrested for planning new crimes, not crimes they may have committed in the past. In the Bout case, for example, he could only be charged based on that single attempted arms sale to the false-FARC agents, even though that particular case led to four distinct charges -- conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens, conspiracy to kill U.S. employees, conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles, and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group.
While the government could conceivably have brought other charges against Bout -- it complained about some past arms sales in its presentencing memorandum to the judge -- doing so without strong proof of illegal conduct could have harmed the sting case itself. The DEA opted for what it considered a safe conviction, like prosecuting a mobster for tax law violations.
Sting operations also mean that if there is a forfeiture of assets from the defendant, none of that money goes towards victims of their previous crimes -- so if someone's family was killed due to Bout's actions, they would not see a penny from any of his voluminous assets seized by the government.
Legally, the sting operations remain on solid ground -- in 2011 an appeals court upheld the use of such operations to capture weapons dealers. But there is a risk that such operations might be proving less impressive to judges. Austin noted that Bout got the minimum sentence, despite offering to sell significantly more weaponry than al-Kassar, Mardirossian or Martinez-Guillen. "The court system is getting tired of this pattern, of pursuing these criminals through sting operations," she says.
And then there is potential impact from all the publicity around the Bout case on future sting operations. "I think other arms traffickers will think twice before falling for the same kind of sting operation," says Austin, "and it will make them distrust potential clients."
This is fine with Braun. "There's a certain degree of psychological warfare going on in these cases," he says. "Think about it. If you were an arms dealer, would you want to sell arms to the FARC right now?"