Sunday, November 13, 2011

Arms, The Man and Uncle Sam

Bout: Locked up. 
In his United States prison cell, Viktor Bout probably doesn't want to hear anything about Colombia.

Bout, a Russian nicknamed 'The Merchant of Death,' had been the world's most successful smuggler of arms, altho he also traded in drugs and legal products, including even humanitarian supplies.

But Bout tried for one deal too far - an arms sale to Colombia's FARC rebels, for which Bout left the safety of Russia for Thailand to seal the deal. But the supposed FARC representatives were actually informants working for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who got Bout arested and eventually deported to the United States for trial.

And perhaps it was appropriate that Bout was tried and convicted in the U.S., even tho his weapons killed mostly Africans, because it was the U.S. which, in lots of ways, created Bout. 

A Soviet soldier uses a surface-to-
air missile. With the Soviet
Union's collapse, its weapons
flooded the world. 
Bout flourished in the free-wheeling, uncontrolled illicit arms market, shipping mostly small arms to different warring groups, primarily in Africa. Bout cared only about money. In some conflicts, he sold weapons to both dictators and insurgents fighting them, single-handedly creating arms races. But Bout also shipped humanitarian and other supplies, and was even hired by the U.S. government to supply U.S. forces in Iraq.

Bout's planes also reportedly carried Colombian cocaine north.

Bout's business was successful, in part, because of the U.S. government's traditionally strong opposition to an international treaty regulating the trade in small arms. Those are the weapons which kill about 2,000 people every day, including many Colombians, in insurrections, gang battles and street crimes. Colombians, for example, murder each other at a rate more than double that of war-torn Mexico. The U.S.'s position has shifted somewhat during the Obama administration, but not enough.

The Merchant of Death may be locked up, but, like the drug trade, where there's money to be made, other merchants will appear to make it. And, even more than illegal drugs, weapons should be regulated and controlled. 

FARC fighters carry
black-market weapons. 
Bout had offered the supposed FARC representatives an arsenal of weapons including 100 surface-to-air missiles, armor-piercing rockets and even helicopters. The U.S. indictment focuses on harm to the U.S. and its citizens. But, if the FARC had actually gotten ahold of those weapons, they would have caused lots of carnage against both Colombian soldiers and civilians, even downing passenger planes. 

After Bout's conviction, campaigners called for a U.N. treaty controlling the arms trade. But the U.S.'s National Rifle Association, a paranoid gun-rights lobby which seems to have U.S. presidents terrorized, says that "In most cases, agendas for the elimination of private ownership of firearms are disguised as calls for international arms control to stem the flow of illicit military weapons." I'd like to see how a treaty blocking an African dictator or a Colombian terrorist group from buying a surface-to-air missile is going to take away a rifle from a deer hunter in Montana, but the NRA has apparently convinced itself of it.

And that's fundamental, because Bout is a small fish in the pond. The United States is the world's biggest arms merchant. And a recent U.S. sting operation showed that guns smuggled across borders go directly into criminal hands - including Colombian hands.

And while weapons (along with drugs) remain unregulated, terrorist groups will continue arming themselves and conflicts in Africa, Colombia and elsewhere will drag murderously on.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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