MANHATTAN (CN) – On the day Viktor Bout was arrested on terrorism charges, he told a confidential informant for the DEA, “Let’s go to war,” as they waited for an elevator at the Sofitel Hotel in Bangkok, the informant testified at Bout’s trial Wednesday, in a session that featured secretly recorded transcripts of meetings.
Bout, a Russian national, allegedly armed dictators, despots and warring factions through arms trades around the world. His exploits are said to be the inspiration for the Hollywood movie “Lord of War,” and the subject of investigative journalist Douglas Farah’s book, “Merchant of Death.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration corralled him in a sting operation using undercover informants posing as members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla group.
The United States calls the FARC a foreign terrorist organization, giving federal prosecutors jurisdiction for criminal proceedings in the Southern District of New York.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan McGuire has been examining one of the informants, Carlos Sagastume, since Tuesday, playing hours of secret recordings. Sagastume, a native of Guatemala, has testified in Spanish through an interpreter.
Jurors followed the scratchy, barely audible tapes of conversations in several languages, referring to translated transcripts.
McGuire stopped the tapes repeatedly to have Sagastume clarify meanings hidden behind some of the comments.
For example, one speaker refers to “oro blanco,” or white gold.
Sagastume called the phrase a code word for cocaine, which the FARC allegedly sells to finance its operations.
At the Sofitel, three U.S. informants posed as Columbian guerrillas, but Sagastume said that Bout was the first to describe U.S. citizens as “gringos.”
Bout appeared well-informed about the FARC, he added.
Days after FARC commander Raul Reyes died, Bout allegedly said, “I’m very sorry [to hear] what happened … a few days ago.”
Bout’s attorneys argued that the informants shifted the conversation to weapons when he really wanted to talk about selling planes, but Sagastume said Bout talked about some of the merchandise unprompted.
In the tapes, he appears to offer people to train FARC militants, air drop systems, and ZU 23s.
Sagastume said he never had heard of the ZU 23 – a Soviet antiaircraft twin-barreled auto-cannon – before the meeting.
Prosecutors did not charge Bout with money laundering, but he allegedly offered those services as well, apparently suggesting on tape that the informants funnel money through Russia, Venezuela or Belarus.
When Sagastume told him that the FARC regularly replace burner cell phones, Bout said that was wise.
“No, that’s right. That’s right,” Bout said on the tapes. “With gringos here especially.”
In opening statements, defense attorney Albert Dayan described Bout as an apolitical salesman, whom his informant-clients “goaded” into an “anti-American chant” to prejudice him to a jury.
But Sagastume said Bout did not need much prodding to rant against Americans.
In one speech, Bout said that the gringos change only “by force,” citing Afghanistan.
“They go, but they don’t have the morale to fight,” Bout said. “Because they don’t have the mother country. They don’t have the … a national ideal. They don’t have anything, only have money.”
Sagastume said he made a “zero” gesture with his hand while making these remarks.
Another informant, “Ricardo,” pounded the table while railing against the “sons of bitches gringos,” Sagastume said.
“You understand?” Ricardo asked. “We need to move.”
Bout allegedly took out a map of South America to get to work.
Prosecutor McGuire displayed that map for the jury.
Testimony about the meeting will continue on Monday.