At some point in November 2007, a plan must have been assembled in the United States to set a trap for Bout. A special unit of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) made contact with Bout through a middleman named Andrew Smulian, who knew the Russian well. Smulian proposed a lucrative deal to Bout. He told the arms dealer that the Colombian guerilla organization FARC wanted to buy $20 million worth of weapons: 700 surface-to-air missiles, 5,000 AK-47 rifles, several million rounds of ammunition and an unspecified number of landmines.
Bout was suspicious and, using a photo, tried to identify the FARC members supposedly involved in the deal. He had done business with FARC a decade earlier, when he dropped weapons over the jungles of South America. At the last minute, Bout decided not to appear at a meeting in Bucharest. The frustrated DEA agents, who were waiting at the airport in the Romanian capital, cursed Bout for his professionalism.
The agents decided to try again, this time in Bangkok instead of Bucharest.
Off on Vacation
Apparently greed trumped Bout's instincts the second time around. Convinced that nothing could happen to him in Thailand, he decided to fly to Bangkok on March 5, 2008 for a "vacation" in the country. After arriving on a night flight, he checked into a five-star hotel, the Sofitel Silom, in Bangkok's business district, where he had reserved a suite on the 15th floor. Before hanging the "Do not disturb" sign on his door, Bout booked the hotel's conference room for 3 p.m., and then he went to bed.
At the meeting, Bout spent two hours negotiating with the supposed FARC representatives. He discussed their weapons program and agreed to provide them with everything they had requested. When the undercover agents explained to him that the missiles had to be capable of shooting down American aircraft, he told them that he enthusiastically supported their efforts, and that he was always in favor of targeting Americans. That was when the men revealed themselves as US agents. Bout surrendered without resisting.
He was initially taken to a notorious prison for hardened criminals, where he was photographed in an orange prison jumpsuit, with his hands in handcuffs and shackles on his feet. At first, Bout was thrown into group cells together with murderers, rapists and child molesters. The other prisoners most likely included a provocateur or two who had been planted to encourage Bout to talk. But he kept his distance, and he was later moved to an individual cell.
"My cell is two by two meters," he told his wife when she came to visit him. She was only allowed to see and speak to him through a glass wall. The conditions at the prison were brutal: The food was miserable, the heat was unbearable and the place was infested with cockroaches.
A Liking for Paulo Coelho
Bout lost his excess pounds. He took advantage of the daily 40-minute exercise periods in the prison yard, and he learned new languages from the other prisoners. "Urdu, Farsi, Turkish -- please bring me dictionaries," he asked his wife. He spent time reading, and developed a liking for the work of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, author of "The Manual of the Warrior of Light." Ironically, the amoral businessman had become enamored of the esoteric bestselling author, who preaches tolerance and civic engagement.
Bout has been in pretrial custody for more than two years now. His wife Alla has since moved to Bangkok. She is everything but the typical trophy wife so often seen at the side of rich Russian businessmen. A petite redhead who used to run a clothing store in Russia, she is fighting like a lioness for her husband, often sleeping in taxis or in front of the prison gates. Determined to prevent the Americans from secretly picking him up and taking him to the United States, she says: "They have turned him into a monster."
Lak Nitiwatanavichan, Bout's Thai attorney, says: "They have no solid evidence against my client. Tape recordings made under false pretenses are inconclusive, and pure statements of intent are hardly punishable." The 74-year-old, with his thinning, snow-white hair and plastic sandals, is outraged.
High-ranking Russian officials have similar feelings about the Bout case. Foreign Minister Lavrov calls it "politically motivated" and has vowed to do everything in his power to bring the Russian citizen home. The Russian parliament, the Duma, adopted a declaration of support. And Moscow's pro-government press is portraying Bout as a martyr who deserves to be freed from the clutches of the CIA.