U.S. and international authorities for years sought to capture notorious arms trafficker Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer known as the “Merchant of Death” for selling weapons to the Taliban, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Hezbollah, and to vicious despots, warlords and human rights abusers throughout Africa.
In 2007, U.S. national security officials turned to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and expressed concern about the threat Bout posed to the United States and allied countries. The DEA had been gathering information on Bout and launched a formal investigation.
In a matter of months, the DEA defied the odds by carrying out a bold undercover operation that led to Bout’s 2008 incarceration in Thailand, his 2011 conviction and 2012 sentencing in New York for conspiracy to sell anti-aircraft weapons and other arms to purported Colombian rebels with the aim of killing Americans.
At the center of this high-stakes undercover sting was Louis Milione, a seasoned DEA agent who together with colleagues gathered intelligence on Bout, conceived the plan, managed informants, oversaw the use of electronic surveillance and handled unexpected events as they played out on three continents. He coordinated activities with law enforcement and government officials in the U.S. and abroad, and provided assistance during the lengthy extradition proceedings in Thailand and the criminal prosecution.
“Lou Milione is one of the most tenacious and skilled supervisors at the DEA. It was his leadership that brought down this horrific arms trafficker,” said DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart.
Central to the success of the investigation were case agents William Brown and Robert Zachariasiewicz, who managed the information, processed the evidence and were intricately involved in all aspects of the undercover operations. Thomas Harrigan, the DEA’s chief of operations, said the investigation involved a large team that also included DEA supervisor James Soiles, who provided ongoing counsel and helped navigate sensitive international issues.
“But without Lou Milione, this case does not go forward,” said Harrigan. “His work was absolutely extraordinary. By taking Bout out of circulation, in my opinion, thousands of lives were saved.”
Milione said some federal agencies believed Bout was too sophisticated to fall into a DEA trap, and suggested “there was no way we would get him.” He said this attitude motivated him and his colleagues to pursue a man who “facilitated mass atrocities in West Africa and elsewhere in the world.”
Bout, the inspiration for the movie “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage, established an air freight empire after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and used the fleet of old Russian planes to earn billions of dollars by transporting machine guns, mortar bombs, landmines, C-4 explosives, rocket launchers and surface-to-air missiles to conflict zones around the world.
News reports and evidence on the public record have linked Bout to arms trafficking in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and throughout the Middle East and South America.
The United Nations passed a resolution restricting Bout’s movements after he sold arms to Liberian dictator Charles Taylor and other African rulers in the 1990s. The U.S. Treasury imposed economic sanctions against his companies in 2005, Belgian authorities had an outstanding warrant for Bout’s arrest, and he was wanted by Interpol, the international police agency.
The plan hatched by Milione and his DEA team involved enticing Bout out of Moscow with the prospect of a huge arms deal. The operation involved two undercover informants posing as representatives of the Colombian terrorist group and cocaine cartel known as FARC, who said they would use drug money to buy millions of dollars worth of weapons to fight the Colombian army and kill the U.S. military pilots working with them.
Over a number of months, the informants cultivated a relationship with South African Andrew Smulian, who got Bout engaged in the deal. The investigation involved meetings with Smulian and the informants in Curacao, Denmark, Romania and finally Thailand, where Bout came to finalize the transaction.
During the meeting, Bout told the fake Colombian rebels he could deliver 700 to 800 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 assault weapons, millions of rounds of ammunition, explosives and remotely piloted aircraft. When an agreement was reached, Thai police stormed the meeting room, accompanied by DEA agents, and Bout was put behind bars.
After a complicated two-year extradition battle in Thailand, Bout finally was sent to the United States to face trial. He was convicted by a jury on four charges, including conspiracy to kill U.S. government officers and conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. On April 5, 2012, Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
This medalist was the recipient of the Justice and Law Enforcement Medal. This medal was combined with the Homeland Security category in 2013, and renamed the Safety, Security and International Affairs Medal in 2020.