MANHATTAN (CN) – The comandante of a group of FBI informants who posed as Colombian guerrillas told how he snared Viktor Bout in a sting operation in Thailand, as witness testimony closed in the terrorism trial on Friday.
Ricardo, the informant, claimed he headed a group of militants from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which the United States has designated a terrorist group.
Ricardo and other undercover operatives set up what they claimed would be a multimillion-dollar arms deal with Bout at the Sofitel hotel in Bangkok on March 6, 2008. Thai authorities arrested Bout after the parties shook hands on the deal.
The sting was part of “Operation Relentless,” a U.S. quest to arrest Bout, a Russian national whose exploits allegedly inspired the Hollywood movie “Lord of War” and were the subject of the nonfiction book “Merchant of Death.”
The United Nations imposed sanctions on Bout, requiring member nations to seize his assets and restrict his movement, for his alleged arming of dictators, despots and warring factions around the globe.
In one wiretapped phone conversation with Ricardo, Bout discussed the effects of these sanctions.
“I have some problems myself with respect to traveling, so give me some time,” Bout said. He added: “Let’s go to Cuba. It’s a lot easier to go to Cuba.”
Ricardo said that meeting in Cuba would be “complicated” because of its political situation.
Defense attorney Albert Dayan balked at that during cross-examination.
“You understand that Cuba is an ally of the FARC, correct?” Dayan asked.
“I don’t know that,” Ricardo responded. He added later: “I said it because it was obvious that an American team can’t go to Cuba to do an operation.”
Ricardo denied Dayan’s suggestion that the excuse he gave was “absurd.”
“No, it was not absurd,” Ricardo said.
Born in Nicaragua, Ricardo said that he been to Cuba when he was a drug dealer in the late 1990s, but he did not deal drugs while he was there.
Dayan pressed him to agree that Fidel Castro’s stringent anti-drug laws kept him from dealing, but Ricardo denied that.
On the day of the sting operation, Ricardo said, he wore a white T-shirt, jeans and hiking books; Dayan said Ricardo wore a suit.
They agreed that Ricardo met Bout while waiting for an elevator to the conference room, and another informant introduced them to each other.
“My friend, this is the comandante,” the informant told Bout, according to Ricardo.
Once in the room, Bout quickly took out his briefcase, removed documents and put maps on the table, Ricardo said.
Audio recordings of the meeting captured zipper sounds and laughter.
“At that rhythm, oh, perfect!” Ricardo said, marveling at the speed that Bout sprang to business.
“It surprised me because he did it so fast,” Ricardo said.
He testified that Bout suggested he conduct the arms deal under the alias “Alejandro,” and that the parties discuss the countries involved in the trafficking through code numbers.
Throughout trial, defense attorneys have said that Bout may have humored the informants’ request for arms sales, but had been pushed out of the arms business by U.N. sanctions. The defense claims that Bout was prepared only to sell them two cargo planes for $5 million.
Dayan asked a series of questions suggesting that Bout, like Ricardo, was simply playing a role during the sting.
“On March 6, you were playing a role, correct?” Dayan asked.
Ricardo agreed that he did not know about Bout’s sincerity. He said that Bout never agreed to refund the $5 million for the planes if the arms sale fell through, and that Bout never gave him a firm time when the weapons would be sent to the purported FARC members.
The parties will summarize their cases this morning (Monday).