“There was lots of waiting,” he said, “on stakeouts and listening to wiretaps. Lots of work to build the complex cases. It wasn’t just rushing out to arrest guys and working undercover.”
Milione, whose wire-rimmed glasses make him look more like a corporate lawyer than a globe-trotting drug investigator, oversees two squads of agents out of his barren and nondescript office in Northern Virginia. His units investigate international drug traffickers and narco terrorists, a job that has many challenges, not least of which is trying to capture the targets in far-flung countries that are not always on good terms with the United States.
In 2007, the DEA arrested a notorious Syrian arms trafficker by constructing a sting involving informants posing as representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel group that has been at war with the Colombian government for decades and has been designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. FARC also happens to be responsible for supplying more than half of the world’s cocaine, according to the DEA.
Later that year, Milione’s team decided to attempt a similar operation targeting Bout, a man who had long been on the DEA’s radar for supplying weapons to drug traffickers. Bout was more than just an arms dealer. He had a larger-than-life reputation fueled by profiles in books and newspapers. Nicolas Cage played a character based on him in the 2005 film “Lord of War.” Over the years, Bout had been sanctioned by both the U.S. government and the United Nations, prosecutors wrote in court papers, because his “ability to transport all manner of weapons to conflict zones in Africa was so destructive and destabilizing.”
Milione and his agents knew the odds were against them. The agents were told by more than one U.S. intelligence official that their pursuit was hopeless: They would never be able to lure Bout to a country where he might be captured and eventually extradited to the United States.
Even so, they relied on a tried-and-true investigative technique: targeting a middleman, Andrew Smulian, a South African associate of Bout’s. The agents enlisted two informants who pretended to work for FARC and a third who knew Smulian as part of a deal the middleman might take to Bout.
The first meeting took place in January 2008 at a tiki bar in Curacao, a Dutch island in the Caribbean. From a safe distance and dressed casually in shorts and T-shirts, Milione, Brown and Zachariasiewicz munched on sandwiches, sipped colas and kept an eye on the players as they discussed a potential deal involving AK-47s, sniper rifles and missiles. It was a busy few days in Curacao — in an effort to save U.S. taxpayers money, the agents were running a parallel and unrelated undercover operation out of the same hotel.
At first, Smulian was cagey about his source of weapons. But within weeks, Smulian pulled aside one of the informants, according to court papers, and said: “I’ll give you the name of my friend so that you know, but this is just between you and me. It’s Viktor Bout. He’s named the ‘Merchant of Death.’ ”
Agents were now sure they were on the right path, and their informants invited Smulian and Bout to Bucharest to consummate the transaction. The DEA selected the spot because Romanian authorities were sympathetic to U.S. law enforcement efforts.
Even after Bout’s no show, it was clear he still wanted to make a deal. Once inside the Bangkok hotel, Bout negotiated around a long, polished wood conference table with Smulian and the informants, who made sure to explain how they were going to use some of the weapons — to kill Americans aiding Colombian authorities. The surface-to-air missiles would be aimed at helicopters flown by U.S. pilots, they told Bout.
“We have a policy,” Bout replied, “gringos are enemies.”
After Thai police raided the conference room and arrested Bout, Milione and his two agents finally got a chance to sit face-to-face with their quarry. “The Merchant of Death” did not seem like a person worthy of Cage’s “Lord of War” character, Yuri Orlov. His hands cuffed in his lap, the arms dealer sat slouched in a chair, his large belly nearly bursting from a bright orange shirt. He simply shrugged when the agents explained the evidence against him, including the tape recordings of their meetings.
“If everything is recorded, then you have everything,” said Bout, according to the agents. “You have all the cards on the table.”