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Arms Trafficking

Abstract and Keywords

This essay provides a brief overview of arms trafficking, its participants and enabling partners, and the prospects of a reduction in arms trafficking through various legal mechanisms. It looks at two prominent arms traffickers—Viktor Bout and Leonid Minin—to illustrate these discussions. The trade in arms becomes arms trafficking when the deals undertaken violate existing laws on the movement of arms. These laws usually take the form of domestic licensing requirements or international arms embargoes. Arms trafficking is a complex multifaceted crime, and it can involve numerous discrete crimes over and above breaking arms sanctions, including, but not limited to, fraud, corruption, money laundering, smuggling, intimidation, and murder. Arms trafficking is undertaken in the context of the global trade in arms, made up of the formal world of legal trade and the “shadow world” of illegal transactions. Often actors operate in both worlds, and both can be mutually supportive in various ways. The number of collaborators involved in assisting arms traffickers means that successful prosecution of these traffickers is incredibly rare: of more than 500 United Nations arms embargo violations, only one participant has ever been convicted. The prospects for an end to arms trafficking are bleak. Not only are existing legal mechanisms flimsy, there seems to be little political will to develop an international framework that would help legal authorities pursue law-breakers. In addition, many countries are already awash in arms, providing ample opportunity for individuals to easily establish themselves as arms traffickers.

Keywords: arms trafficking, arms trade, shadow world, corruption, revolving door, undermine democracy

I. Introduction and Literature Review

This essay examines arms trafficking and the organized manner in which this criminal activity takes place. The essay is organized as follows: section II provides a quick typography of the arms trade, identifying two “worlds” that the trade inhabits—the formal trade and the shadow world of illicit and clandestine deals. Section III identifies the main methods by which arms trafficking has been criminalized to date. It is important to note, here, that arms dealing only becomes trafficking if transactions are conducted that violate national or international law. Section IV focuses on two notorious arms traffickers—Viktor Bout and Leonid Minin—to illustrate points raised in earlier sections. Section V provides a brief discussion of how arm traffickers are able to find collaborators in many key areas, notably in the intelligence and black-ops communities. Section VI looks at the success (or lack thereof) in tracking, arresting, and prosecuting arms traffickers to date. The final section addresses the prospects for whether arms trafficking can be effectively brought under control.

While much has previously been written about the global arms trade in the academic literature, few books or middle-size to long pieces have been written about the trade in the past 25 years. The most comprehensive study of the trade and arms trafficking is Anthony Sampson’s definitive The Arms Bazaar, which was first published in 1977 (Sampson 1977). The Arms Bazaar was a global best-seller and did much to publicize the more controversial aspects of the arms trade. As such, it served as an inspiration and guide for The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, published by one of the essay authors (Andrew Feinstein) in 2011. The Shadow World is the first global study of the arms trade and weapons trafficking since The Arms Bazaar. Much of this essay draws from material included in The Shadow World or discovered during the research process. Additional material was also drawn from an article written by Andrew Feinstein, Paul (p. 445) Holden, and Barnaby Pace published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Feinstein, Holden, and Pace 2011).

This is not to suggest that the arms trade is entirely uncovered by academic analysis. Special mention should be made of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which publishes an annual yearbook on the arms trade as well as other subject specific reports, and Amnesty International, which publishes well-researched reports about weapons trafficking. Nevertheless, due to the relative paucity of academic focus on arms trafficking, the following essay is drawn largely from contemporaneous media reportage, relevant United Nations (UN) reports on the monitoring of arms embargoes, documents emanating from court proceedings, and primary resource material that was gathered during the research for The Shadow World.

II. A Typography of the Arms Trade

Global defense spending is substantial. In 2010, for example, an estimated $1.62 trillion was dedicated to military expenditure, of which over $700 billion was spent by the United States alone (SIPRI 2011).1 This is equal to 2.6 percent of global domestic product and equals roughly $235 for every person on the planet. Expenditure on conventional armaments constitutes only a small portion of this total: an estimated $60 billion per year (Roeber 2005).2

The arms trade is home to a range of activities stretching from legitimate government-to-government contracts to arms trafficking involving nonstate actors in some of the world’s least developed countries. While arms industry executives are often keen to emphasize the difference between the two realities, there is substantial evidence to suggest the existence of a continuum of unethical behavior and illegality that characterizes the arms trade in all its manifestations to varying degrees. There are, in effect, two worlds, each interlinked and involving players that move from one reality to another.

The first world is the “respectable” world of state-sanctioned government-to-government contracts. Usually this involves the production, sale, and distribution of larger conventional weapons such as aircraft and naval systems, although there is also a robust trade in small arms and ammunition to both governments and individual end users. Unfortunately, this world is not without its own problems. In particular, the formal and legitimate trade is often inflected with bribery and corruption.3

This is clear in the example of BAE Systems, the second largest defense manufacturer in the world. BAE admitted, during criminal proceedings with the US Departments of Justice and State in 2010 and 2011, that it had created a sophisticated network of “consultants” and “advisors” who were paid roughly £135 million in thousands of transactions via a highly secretive mechanism based in the British Virgin Islands (US Department of Justice 2010). BAE Systems acknowledged that the payments were made “even though in certain situations there was a high probability that part of the payments would be used (p. 446) in order to ensure that BAES was favoured in the foreign government decisions regarding the sales of defence articles” (US Department of Justice 2010).

What we call the “Shadow World” is constituted by deals conducted in the “gray” and “black markets.” Deals in the “gray market” are undertaken by individuals associated with (or directly employed by) state security and intelligence agencies. While some of these trades are not illegal, they are undertaken in secret as exposure may have political ramifications. Gray market deals often involve the illegal sale and distribution of weapons to embargoed parties. Perhaps the best known example of this form of trade is the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the United States secretly sold weapons to the Iranian government in anticipation of a deal to release American hostages. Part of the proceeds of the sales were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, a rebel group whose funding by US intelligence and security agencies was specifically prohibited by Congress (see Walsh 1997). The “black market,” meanwhile, consists of deals that are illegal in conception and execution and are usually undertaken by arms dealers in a manner that violate international conventions and embargoes. Arms trafficking is predominantly the preserve of the “shadow world,” although it must be acknowledged that actors in this world can and do work in aid of the formal trade.

Arms trafficking can be defined as the sale and/or distribution of military matériel in violation of national and international law or binding international conventions and agreements. While some legislation allows for prosecution for arms trafficking, it is useful to acknowledge that arms trafficking involves a repertoire of offenses depending on the nature of the deal undertaken. Most typically, as we describe in more detail next, arms trafficking can and usually does involve the following crimes:

  • Fraud (falsifying permits, bills of landing, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests, among other documents)

  • Corruption (bribes paid to warlords and other actors to secure business or, in more unique scenarios, bribes flowing in the opposite direction)

  • Theft (where arms are procured from producers or military agencies without their knowledge or permission, usually facilitated by collusive and corrupt employees)

  • Money laundering (where the true nature of illegal payments made and received by the trafficker is disguised and reintroduced into the formal banking system)

  • Intimidation, assault, or murder (usually in instances where officials or other individuals attempt to obstruct the progress of a deal)

As this suggests, arms trafficking is a relatively sophisticated crime, especially when arms are delivered across large distances by air or sea in violation of international monitoring. As such, arms trafficking relies on the input and collusion of a large number of individuals operating in a coordinated manner, suggesting that it should be considered a form of organized crime. Activities of members of arms trafficking organizations would range from acting as middlemen or go-betweens between the arms producer and the buyer; pilots or captains employed to transport cargo by air or sea; individuals responsible for money laundering and the securing of forged documents; collusive state (p. 447) employees willing to provide such documents or other forms of assistance (including nonenforcement of mandated duties); and “muscle” provided to protect the organization from nonpayment or other threats.

III. Criminalization

Although it might sound tautologous, the trade in arms only becomes arms trafficking, by definition, when such trade is specifically outlawed by national legislation or international agreement. Thus, deals that may be considered unethical and make use of criminal elements are not considered arms trafficking unless that activity has been specifically criminalized.

The criminalization of arms trafficking takes two prominent forms in the international arena. The first—and the one with the longest historical roots—is country-specific embargoes put in place by individual governments. These are often, but not always, implemented by means of overarching legislation that allows governments to identify prohibited recipients in terms of the founding legislation, as well as seek the prosecution and conviction of offenders.

One of the best known pieces of such legislation is the Arms Export Controls Act (AECA). Passed in the United States in 1976, it served to integrate a series of disparate laws that spoke to the issue of controlling arms exports (US Department of State 2012b). The Act “provides the authority to control the export of defense articles and services, and charges the President to exercise this authority” (US Department of State 2012b). Chapters and sub-chapters can be added to the US legal code identifying companies or recipients who are forbidden from importing US defense equipment: one such example is a sub-chapter outlining comprehensive sanctions against Iran. The law often operates in conjunction with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) that is frequently updated by the US government (US Department of State 2012a).

The Act mandates the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) to regulate arms export (GAO 2005). In order to export arms, the state or any private manufacturer or reseller has to apply for a license that permits the export of equipment. If the deal for which a license has been applied does not meet the criteria and sub-chapters included within the AECA and/or ITAR, the issuing of the license is to be denied. If, however, the company or individual who has been denied the license continues with the transaction, they are guilty of violating the AECA and/or ITAR and can be prosecuted and sanctions imposed as determined by the AECA. In addition, if an individual or company that exports arms from the United States without seeking a license in terms of AECA and/or ITAR, they are considered in violation of both acts and can be prosecuted accordingly.4 According to ITAR, any individual or company who violates the provisions of the regulations “shall upon conviction be fined for each violation not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”5

(p. 448) The second form of criminalization is regional and international agreements that prohibit the export of defense articles to individual companies or armed groups. The most notable of such agreements are mandatory UN arms embargoes. These are brought into force by means of resolutions issued by the UN Security Council. UN member countries are expected to integrate such resolutions into their national legislation so that law enforcement activities can be undertaken by the relevant national body—this is necessary as the UN has no criminal enforcement mechanisms and relies on individual governments to prosecute individuals or companies that violate the terms of the UN arms embargoes.

The use of mandatory UN arms embargoes was limited until the fall of the Berlin Wall, partially due to the fact that the Cold War and the use of vetoes by permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) often led to deadlock and disagreement. Only two mandatory UN arms embargoes were put into effect before 1990: UNSC Resolution 232, which placed a mandatory arms embargo on Rhodesia between 1966 and 1979 (UNSC 1966), and UNSC Resolution 418, which placed a mandatory arms embargo on apartheid South Africa between 1977 and 1994 (UNSC 1977).

Since 1990, however, there has been a veritable explosion of UN arms embargoes. Between 1990 and 2006, for example, the UNSC agreed to 27 mandatory arms embargoes and 2 additional voluntary embargoes (Fruchart et al. 2007, p. xiii). Currently,6 there are 13 active mandatory UN arms embargoes in place.

It should be noted that the other notable arms embargo mechanism—mandatory embargoes for European Union (EU) members—currently has additional embargoes in place against countries and parties. Those currently7 under EU arms embargoes that are not under UN embargoes are Belarus, China, Guinea, Myanmar (Burma), South Sudan, Syria, and Zimbabwe (Table 22.1).8

Table 22.1 Mandatory UN Arms Embargoes

Target Party/Country

Date Imposed

Establishing Document

Al-Qaeda and associated individuals

January 16 2002

UNSCR 1390


January 16 2002

UNSCR 1390

Cote d’Ivoire

November 15 2004

UNSCR 1572

Democratic Republic of Congo (nongovernment forces only)

July 23 2003

UNSCR 1493


December 23 2009

UNSCR 1907

Iraq (nongovernment forces since 2004)

August 6 1990



December 23 2006

UNSCR 1737

Lebanon (nongovernment forces only)

August 11 2006

UNSCR 1701

Liberia (nongovernment forces since 2009)

November 19 1992



February 26 2011

UNSCR 1970

North Korea

October 14 2006

UNSCR 1718


January 23 1992


Sudan (Darfur region)

July 30 2004

UNSCR 1556

Source: Extrapolated from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Embargo Database.

IV. Two Traffickers in the Post–Cold War Era: Viktor Bout and Leonid Minin

Viktor Bout is perhaps the best known modern arms trafficker. Bout was born in the small town of Dushanbe in the USSR in 1963 (Daly 2008). He was remarkably proficient at languages and enrolled in the Soviet Union’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages (Bout 2009). By the time the Berlin Wall fell, he was fluent in six languages.

Bout was masterful in taking advantage of the chaos into which the post–Cold War Soviet militaries were plunged by rapid transition. In 1991, he moved into the field of air freighting, acquiring hulking transport planes on the cheap from Soviet army officials looking to cash in during the tumult of the early 1990s (Farah and Braun 2007, pp. 32–36). His first purchase was three transport aircraft for the meager sum of $40,000 each (Farah and Braun 2007). Due to the fact that Russian officials often declared planes as scrap—despite being fully operational—to raise funds for themselves, (p. 449) Bout was able to grow his fleet to 50 planes (Coalition for International Justice 2005, pp. 16–22).

By 1992, Bout had entered the world of arms dealing. His first client was the Northern Alliance, which had taken power in Afghanistan following the USSR’s withdrawal (Farah and Braun 2007, p. 45). In 1996, Bout’s pilots were captured by Taliban fighters, and he was forced to negotiate their release. His negotiation skills seemed to impress the Taliban, for whom Bout began delivering arms. Using his base in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Bout was responsible for delivering an estimated $50 million worth of arms to the insurgents (Farah and Braun 2006).

But Bout’s most lucrative market was to be Africa. Between 1994 and 1998, he won $325 million worth of contracts to supply the Angolan government air force. At the very same time, Bout was supplying the Angolan government’s main civil war opponent, UNITA. Bout’s planes made 37 deliveries of weapons to UNITA from Bulgarian arms suppliers (Bowcott and Norton-Taylor 2000; see also UNSC 2000a). UNITA, at the time, was subject to a UN arms embargo.

In 2000 and 2001, Bout supplied perhaps his most notorious client—Charles Taylor, the warlord-president of Liberia. Liberia had been subject to a UN arms embargo since 1992. Taylor’s military endeavors were notoriously violent and included supporting (p. 450) the brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone, which rose to international infamy through the use of child soldiers known as “Small Boy Units” (Gberie 2005).

Bout was able to ply his trade by establishing convoluted front companies and aircraft registries. His planes were registered in various semi-failed states that allowed him to effectively evade detection. One such registry was Liberia itself, where Bout’s business partner, Sanjivan Ruprah, was appointed by Taylor as the “Global Civil Aviation agent worldwide for the Liberian Civil Aviation Register” (UNSC 2000b). And Bout was always able to rely on pliant officials to provide him documents that were necessary for ferrying weapons to the world’s most dangerous inflicts.

Bout sourced most of his weapons from the Ukraine—a go-to state for any arms trafficker who needed weapons without facing questions. In 1992, Ukraine’s stockpile of weapons was valued at $89 billion. Over the next 6 years, an estimated $32 billion worth of arms, ammunition, and sophisticated weapons systems were stolen and resold (Traynor 2001). One parliamentary investigation into the thefts eventually ground to a halt in 1998 after producing 17 volumes of evidence (Traynor 2001).

Bout went underground from 2001 on as he was pursued by numerous law enforcement agencies around the world. Much of his success in evading capture was due to his closeness to more than one country’s intelligence and security structures, as we discuss in more detail later.

Bout can be considered a typical post–Cold War arms trafficker, displaying many defining features of the illegal trade in arms. First, he was able to establish complex front companies and aircraft registration schemes. The latter was due to the opaque and disorganized nature of many aircraft registries in less-developed countries. Second, Bout was able to source a considerable amount of weapons from the old Eastern Bloc, which after 1990 became the primary source of cheap stockpiled weapons for many arms dealers. Third, he had a truly global reach due to both his aircraft infrastructure and the globalized nature of the arms trade.

Another notable—and typical—arms trafficker to emerge in the last decade is Leonid Minin. Minin was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1947. First operating under the name Leonid Bluvstein, Minin moved to Israel and then to a more permanent location in the town of Norvenich, near Koln in West Germany (Comando Generale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri 1996). It is unclear what Minin did to secure his finances in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the early 1990s he had come to the attention of investigators in Italy and elsewhere. In 1992, for example, Russian police investigated him for involvement in smuggling art works and antiques (Comando Generale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri 1996). In 1997, he was arrested on charges of drug possession, after which he was denied entry into Monaco, where he had established numerous enterprises (Comando Generale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri 1996).

According to a Russian criminal intelligence investigation, Minin had by the mid-1990s become a major player in organized crime and mafia circles in Ukraine, which controlled, among other things, the export of oil and natural gas. It was reported that by early 1990, 67 percent of all oil exports from Odessa (the country’s main oil refining (p. 451) and exporting port) was controlled by the Odessa Neftemafija (oil mafia) (Comando Generale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri 1996).9 The Russian investigation determined that Minin was “one of the most important” members of the Neftemafija as his companies, Galaxy and Limad, were central to the trade. The mafia members who fell under Minin were also “involved in international arms and drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion and other offences” (Comando Generale dell’Arma dei Carabinieri 1996).

In 1998, Minin left Ukraine after rumors circulated that individuals with Russian mafia associations had ordered his assassination (Monza Public Prosecutor’s Office 2001). After a chance meeting during a stay in Ibiza, Minin agreed to go into business with Fernando Robleda, a Spanish businessman involved in logging in Liberia (Monza Public Prosecutor’s Office 2001). The Ukrainian, after flying to Liberia to meet Taylor (and allegedly offering arms and bribes to the president for additional forestry concessions [Central Examining Court 2000, 2002; Monza Public Prosecutor’s Office 2001]), became a director in Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprises (ETTE 1998). Over the next few years, Minin would make a decent profit from logging activities in Liberia, despite international approbation about abuses in the Liberian timber industry. Minin conducted his first delivery of armaments only a week after convincing Taylor to sign over additional concessions to ETTE. Minin apparently sourced the weapons from Ukraine and had them ferried to Niger (UNSC 2000b, p. 35, para 2011). From the Niger town of Niamey, Minin oversaw the transport of 68 tons of ammunition and arms in his own BAC-11 personal jet. Once unloaded, the weapons were transported across the Liberian border by Taylor’s forces into the hands of the RUF (UNSC 2000b).

In 1999, Minin conducted two further deals. The first was typical of many arms trafficking transactions. Minin had sourced 715 boxes of ammunition, cartridge powder, antitank missiles, RPG launchers, and missiles from the Ukrainian state arms manufacturer, Ukrspetsexport (Isenberg 2004). An end-user certificate was provided, fraudulently, by the Ministry of Defence in Burkina Faso indicating that the weapons were to be used by the Burkina Faso government (Amnesty International 2006). Once the weapons landed in Burkina Faso aboard an Antonov 124, a portion of the arms were transported to the town of Bobo Dissoulou, where they were transferred on to Liberia by Minin. For supplying the end-user certificate, the Burkina Faso government retained a share of the weapons (Amnesty International 2006).

Minin was eventually arrested while staying in a hotel in Italy in 2000. The police had been called after somebody who was also resident at the hotel reported a ruckus from Minin’s room. When the police entered the room, they found him comatose, surrounded by drugs, diamonds, money, and four prostitutes. It was only after the police searched his effects and discovered a panoply of documents that they realized they had stumbled on a major arms trafficker.

Minin was, like Bout, a variation of the typical post–Cold War arms dealer. Like the Russian, Minin was able to source considerable amounts of weapons (and transportation) from former Soviet states (notably Ukraine). And, like Bout, he was easily able to procure fraudulent documentation to give a legitimate sheen to his activities. Unlike Bout, however, Minin was also involved in natural resource exploitation: an activity that (p. 452) has also marked the post-1990 period. Many arms traffickers are either directly involved in smuggling both arms and minerals for their clients or are paid in funds raised by militias who have seized control over such resources. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, nongovernment forces have used their access to arms to seize control over lucrative diamond mines (UNSC 2002a). The militias use forced labor to extract the diamonds, which are then sold on the international black market (UNSC 2002a). The funds that are raised in this way are used to purchase additional arms to carry on their part of the war. Arms trafficking and mineral smuggling thus become part of a self-supporting system: a criminal and devastating vicious circle.

V. Protectors and Collaborators

Successful arms trafficking deals are only possible due to the involvement and collusion of numerous actors, four of whom are the most prominent. The first of these collusive protagonists is the security establishments (in particular the intelligence and “black-ops” divisions) of many countries. These security entities serve a number of functions, including, but not limited to, providing market information as to prospective clients, sourcing weapons from surplus stock for use by arms traffickers, and, perhaps most importantly, providing protection from prosecution and conviction. In return, they get gray deals done and, on occasion, information.

Many intelligence and security agencies in the developed world have made use of arms traffickers for deals that may be illegal and certainly unpalatable if publicly linked to the organizing state. The case of Victor Bout is instructive. In 2002, Belgium, which had investigated Bout for years, issued an Interpol “red notice” demanding his arrest by Interpol members. In late February 2002, firm intelligence was provided to Belgian and European authorities (operating under Operation Bloodstone) that Bout was due to fly from Moldova to Athens aboard his personal plane. Operation Bloodstone operatives planned to arrest him as he landed in Athens (Farah and Braun 2007, pp. 102–203). When Bout’s flight departed, British field agents sent an encrypted message stating that the “asset” was en route. Minutes later the plane disappeared from radar, reappearing 90 minutes later far off course. When the plane eventually landed in Athens, Bout was nowhere to be found. One European investigator claimed that Bout’s evasion could only have been achieved with US complicity (perhaps in anticipation that Bout could provide useful intelligence on his erstwhile clients, the Taliban): “There were only two intelligence services that could have decrypted the British transmission in so short a time. The Russians and the Americans. And we know for sure it was not the Russians” (Farah and Braun 2007, p. 203). Bout eventually settled in Russia, where he was portrayed as the victim of a US conspiracy by powerful political players and protected from extradition.

Another example with a longer historical pedigree is that of Gerhard Mertins. A decorated former Nazi (Silverstein 2000, p. 111), Mertins became a figure of ill repute when his company, Merex, engaged in a number of shady deals. Merex had been propelled into business at the behest of Gehlen Org, the German postwar intelligence agency that (p. 453) would eventually morph into the official intelligence agency of West Germany, the BND (Ascherson 1972). Gehlen Org was staffed with a number of prominent ex-Nazis with whom Mertins was familiar.

In 1966, Mertins arranged a deal to sell surplus German F-86 aircraft to Pakistan, then under a NATO embargo due to tensions between Pakistan and India. When the details of the deal were leaked to the media, Mertins faced considerable criticism in his new homes of Switzerland and America. Remarkably, it later emerged during legal proceedings that Mertins’ Pakistan deal had originally been approved and arranged by German intelligence (Spiegel 1975, 1987; Silverstein 2000, p. 120).

Nevertheless, US congressional hearings were constituted to investigate the deal. At the same time, the FBI investigated whether Mertins and his company should be declared “foreign agents” as he was working for the German government. However, it emerged that Mertins had been working closely with US Army Intelligence, which intervened to prevent Mertins being listed publicly as an agent as it could “jeopardize his continued use” (Silverstein 2000, pp. 123 and 130). Mertins thus had both been prompted to go into business as an arms trafficker and had his identity protected by two of the most powerful intelligence communities in the developed world.

The second prominent collaborator is organized crime, in particular those elements of organized crime involved in international smuggling. Smuggling by its nature involves the transport of goods in a manner that evades detection. Arms traffickers can, if need be, turn to existing smuggling networks to assist in transporting weapons. In addition, organized crime networks often possess sophisticated means of laundering funds raised from illicit activity, helping arms traffickers both reinject their earnings into the formal economy and raise “clean” money for further arms purchases.

A good example of the link among arms trafficking, organized crime, and the secretive world of intelligence is that of International Business Consult (IBC). IBC was a multifunctional front company set up in 1992 by Roger D’Onofrio and Michele Papa (Regione Carabinieri Campania 1995). D’Onofrio held joint US-Italian citizenship and was widely considered to be a CIA agent who had retired from service by the late 1980s. Michele Papa, meanwhile, a lawyer based in Catania, had made his name by acting as a semi-official representative for Libya in Italy (Magnuson, Thomas, and Ogden 1980; Le Monde 1984). In the late 1970s, Papa became a household name after it emerged that he had tapped up Billy Carter, the brother of then US President Jimmy Carter, to provide lobbying services for Libya in Washington. Carter was so aggressive in his lobbying efforts that he was forced to register as an agent of the Libyan government. When it was discovered that Billy had been given a loan of $220,000 from Libya, it prompted fierce disapproval, coming to be characterized as “Billygate” in the United States (Magnuson, Thomas, and Ogden 1980).

In 1992, D’Onofrio traveled to Liberia, where he met with Charles Taylor and suggested to him that IBC could be of service. To cement the relationship, Taylor and the RUF warlord Ibrahim Bah were given 50 percent of the shares in IBC (Regione Carabinieri Campania 1995; Republic of Liberia 2009, para. 113–115). IBC was soon involved in smuggling diamonds out of Liberia at Taylor’s request, as well as importing weapons for the RUF and Taylor’s forces.

(p. 454) To assist in turning diamonds into money that could be used to purchase weapons, IBC turned to Dennis Anthony Moorby, who ran a company by the name of Swift International Services in Canada.10 Moorby, who was incidentally named by German authorities as an agent of Gerhard Mertin’s Merex, was suspected by Italian and Canadian police services of being a prominent money launderer for the infamous Gotti family and the Gambino clan (Regione Carabinieri Campania 1998, p. 308). In one deal, IBC made use of the diamond money laundered by Moorby to purchase arms from the Bulgarian company Kintex. Using existing smuggling networks, the weapons were transported into Liberia disguised as a load of oranges and olives.

The third collusive group is the formal arms trade. Arms traffickers are all too easily able to source weapons from producers who are considered to be “legitimate” defense enterprises. In certain instances, there is no distinction between production and trafficking: individuals have been known to wear both “hats.” Heinrich Thomet is one such individual. In 1991, Thomet entered into business with Karl Brugger to form Brugger and Thomet (B&T) Switzerland.11 B&T won licenses to produce a range of weapons and act as a sales arm for companies in need. Thomet eventually sold his shares in the company. More recently, he has been accused of smuggling arms into and out of Zimbabwe and was once under investigation by US authorities, who suspected him of transporting weapons from Serbia to Iraq (Lawson 2011). Thomet is currently on the US State Department’s Defense Trade Controls watch-list and has relocated to Montenegro.

In addition, arms traffickers and brokers are frequently employed by members of the formal defense trade to act as a conduit into markets where less salubrious sales methods are expected and delivered. This provides arms traffickers both an extra stream of income and a further entry into the cozy environment populated by the defense industry and government security agencies. John Bredenkamp and BAE, Viktor Bout and Joe der Hovsepian and US contractors are examples of this practice (Feinstein 2011).

The last collusive group is the global banking system and, in particular, banks and company registries operating in offshore tax havens. These havens provide the necessary secrecy for arms traffickers to launder funds and disguise their activities. In addition, they provide a firewall that often presents an insurmountable obstacle for investigating authorities as traffickers develop a web of obscure and misleading company structures around the world. Indeed, the existence of offshore tax havens, and the failure of banks to properly disclose suspected criminal activity, is perhaps the primary reason why so few arms traffickers are ever successfully arrested and convicted.

VI. A Shocking Track Record: Law Enforcement and Evasion

Despite the high-profile nature of the arms trade and the infamy of notable arms traffickers, the track record of law enforcement is exceptionally poor. This is particularly (p. 455) clear with reference to mandatory UN arms embargoes. Despite around 502 violations of embargoes being tracked and reported by UN monitoring teams, only two cases have ever come to court, with one successful conviction to date.12

Law enforcement officials who seek to prosecute arms trafficking face an uphill battle for a number of reasons, three of which are most notable. The primary difficulty is that of jurisdiction, which frequently prevents national governments from prosecuting their own nationals as the criminal activity has occurred abroad. The case of Leonid Minin is illustrative. As we saw, Minin was arrested in 2000 in a seedy hotel in Italy in possession of hundreds of incriminating documents that detailed his deals in Liberia. After being successfully prosecuted for drug possession, Minin’s prosecutor, Walter Mapelli, turned to the arms trafficking charges, for which he had mountains of evidence: enough to have Minin retained in pretrial detention.

However, in 2002 Minin successfully appealed to have the pretrial detention overturned (Amnesty International 2006, pp. 60–63). The matter was appealed all the way to Italy’s highest court, which ruled that the Italian court had no jurisdiction over the matter. Minin was not Italian (despite living there for years), no negotiations had taken place in Italy, and the arms had not transited the country. The UN arms embargo against Liberia did not suffice as a framework for prosecution, indicative of how some countries often fail to integrate mandatory UN arms embargoes into their national legislation (Amnesty International 2006). Mapelli complained, after losing his final appeal, that “jurisdiction is one step behind criminality today, because criminality is operating globally and continues to do so all the more. Whereas each state is very jealous of its own sovereignty and its own prerogatives within its borders, the consequence of this is that each state only sees one little segment of the whole business” (Brunwasser 2002).

The second problem is that the close relationship between many arms traffickers and state intelligence networks helps to protect the traffickers despite overwhelming evidence that may be presented against them. In Viktor Bout’s case, for example, he was able to evade arrest for close to a decade, first via suspected US interference and, later, through the protection provided by Russian political players. Bout was only arrested when he was lured out of his protective shell by a sophisticated international sting launched by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), whose agents arrested Bout in Thailand in 2008 (Tatty 2008). It is assumed he was no longer useful to the United States, and the DEA was keen to show success in the ubiquitous “War on Terror.”

Even this prosecution faced hurdles, despite the substantial resources available to the DEA. Bout appealed against an extradition request filed by US authorities who wanted to prosecute the trafficker for agreeing to supply weapons to the Columbian rebel group FARC. In this, Bout was loudly supported by leading members of the Russian political elite, leading the presiding judge to worry aloud about political interference (Bangkok Criminal Court 2009). After the first extradition request was refused by the Thai judge (on the basis that Thailand did not recognize FARC as a terrorist group), a second extradition request was duly filed (Bangkok Criminal Court 2009). It was only in 2011, in highly controversial circumstances, that Bout was finally extradited to the United States, where he was swiftly convicted on the charges presented. And where it was conveniently (p. 456) overlooked that he had undertaken flights into Baghdad on behalf of the US Department of Defense and defense contractors between 2003 and 2005, when the Interpol warrant was active (Farah and Braun 2007).

The last problem is a simple one: arms trafficking most often takes place in situations of war or imminent conflict and has, especially since the fall of the Berlin Wall, been most profitable in failed or semi-failed states. In situations of such chaos and disruption, detecting arms traffickers (especially if they are using sophisticated evasion techniques) is difficult. In severe cases, the number of violations is so overwhelming that it can promote a sense of inertia. Take this paragraph from a 2002 UN report on the arms embargo in Somalia that virtually admits defeat in the face of a tide of arms traffickers: “There have been numerous and regular violations—by individuals, factions and political leaders, local and regional administrators and outside state actors. In fact, the violations are so numerous that any attempt to document all of the activities would be pointless” (UNSC 2002b).

Taken together, jurisdictional issues, the difficulties in gathering evidence, and the protection afforded arms traffickers by national security agencies make the prosecution and conviction of arms traffickers exceptionally rare phenomenon.

VII. Prospects and Predictions

The medium- and long-term prospects for a reduction in arms trafficking are slim. Many of the problems identified here remain unresolved: jurisdictional issues are still an obstacle, as is the existence of tax havens and complicit banks. In addition, security and intelligence agencies throughout the world have not provided any indication that they will reduce their reliance on “black-ops” and counterinsurgency. Equally important is the fact that many of the conflicts that survived and thrived on the back of arms trafficking remain alive and devastating: conflict in the DRC, for example, provides a virtual free-for-all for arms traffickers due to the fact that warring parties have almost untrammeled access to rich mineral resources.

Arms trade activists pinned much hope on the creation of a strong international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). However, after extended negotiations at the United Nations, the treaty that was finally adopted by the General Assembly in April of 2013 is extremely weak. It addresses some of the issues that facilitate rampant weapons trafficking while ignoring others, including corruption. Fatally, the treaty contains no enforcement mechanisms whatsoever. Therefore, a country could ratify the treaty and do absolutely nothing to apply or enforce it. In fact, in at least one instance, a country has proposed weakening their arms export requirements to conform to the treaty.

But perhaps the biggest problem facing those who wish to reduce arms trafficking is the fact that the world is simply awash in weapons. In many African countries, for example, a massive surplus of easily available arms means that setting up in business as an arms trafficker takes little more than motivation and a sense of moral ambiguity. In countries such as Somalia, open-air arms markets have proliferated, where anybody can purchase powerful weapons for paltry sums. In nearby Sudan, decades (p. 457) of conflict has meant that virtually every adult male has access to some form of small arms. Thus, even if the export of weapons from the developed world is stridently curbed, arms traffickers will still have ready access to their stock in trade. Such is the legacy of a world in which arms traffickers have operated with near total impunity for decades.


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                                                                              (1) . ”World military spending reached $1.6 trillion in 2010, biggest increase in South America, fall in Europe according to new SIPRI data.”

                                                                              (2) . This figure varies considerably from year to year; the trade in small arms is worth approximately $4 billion a year and has an impact far beyond this monetary value because small and light weapons are easy to use and maintain and are abundantly available (Stohl and Grillot 2009).

                                                                              (3) . For a detailed discussion of corruption in the global arms trade, see Feinstein, Holden, and Pace (2011).

                                                                              (4) . 22 USC 2778—Control of Arms Exports and Imports.

                                                                              (5) . See Act mentioned in previous note, paragraph C.

                                                                              (6) . As of March 2012.

                                                                              (7) . As of March 2012.

                                                                              (8) . Extrapolated from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Embargo Database.

                                                                              (9) . Note that this is also variously spelled as Naftna Mafija.

                                                                              (10) . “Agreement No. 002A Between Swift International Business Services Canada Inc. (Montreal), Battisto Elmo (Milan) and IBC International Business Consult (Monrovia),” undated; “Agreement No. 002A Between Swift International Business Services Canada Inc. (Montreal), Battisto Elmo (Milan) and IBC International Business Consult (Monrovia),” February 25, 1994 (signed Dennis Moorby, Battisto Elmo and Dr. Rudolf Meroni); “Agreement No. 001A Between Swift International Business Services Canada Inc. (Montreal), Battisto Elmo (Milan) and IBC International Business Consult (Monrovia),” March 2, 1994, signed Dennis Moorby, Battisto Elmo, Dr. Rudolf Meroni and Carlo Galeazzi. Documents gathered and collated by Italian police under auspices of the “Cheque to Cheque” investigation.

                                                                              (12) . Discussion with Professor James Stewart, former appeals counsel, Office of the Prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and leading academician in the area of corporate responsibility for international crimes.