Under the Radar and on the Black Market with the World’s Most Dangerous Smugglers
By Matt Potter
Bloomsbury. 320 pp. $27
This book fascinates even as it annoys. Matt Potter, a veteran British print and television reporter, has a great subject: the free-wheeling, cheerfully amoral cargo-plane pilots from the former Soviet Union who, as he puts it, “fueled the growth of the global black market, the rule of warlords, and the rise of the mafia in Eastern Europe and far beyond.” Yet he goes way over the top, spewing out breathless, hyped-up prose that, over the course of the book, veers toward self-parody. And why is he packing a couple of guns in the author’s photo on the dust jacket?
But when Potter documents more dispassionately his 15 years of observing these smuggling operations up close, it’s great reading. Much of the book focuses on Mickey, a pilot on one of those giant Il-76 Soviet cargo planes that have turned up in practically every trouble spot of the past 20 years. The pilots might officially carry aid from an NGO to a disaster-stricken country, but stashed away in their planes’ many secret hiding places could be guns on their way to warlords or terrorists, drugs, illicit diamonds and the like. These pilots aren’t circumspect souls. Not to worry about such things as arming murderous thugs; the money is great, and they can go on living the life of the half-crazy danger junkie. In the end, Potter seems ambivalent about the pilots and the milieu in which they live. He can’t ignore the bad actors they deal with, but he clearly admires their chutzpah and derring-do. Maybe he should have talked more to their victims.