What’s not cool: The UNODC’s demand-side denialism on cocaine


A very quick reaction post this one. I just read through the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime’s World Drug Report 2014… and I’m unsure whether the writers are being disingenuous or intellectually dishonest, or how many revisions and blue-pencillings it went through on its way to publication.


Consider this tweet.




Now, there’s nothing there that’s untrue, as far as it goes. But let’s look at the graph around use and seizures in the US over that period – a pretty good index of availability, right?


Cocaine prevalence & seizure UNODC

So OK, we can see that the US seems to bear that story out as far as it goes. Availability looks like it’s declined, in the major market shown at least. I mean, users aren’t getting their hands on any. Nor are the cops. So it must be down (as the report then goes on to say) to supply-side successes in the War On Drugs. Central and South American eradication efforts are bearing fruit, hurray.


No, wait. What? It’s that simple? Crop eradication has meant less availability in the US? Well, that’s not the way it normally works, I don’t think. I mean, the price didn’t go up, not according to users I know. (Anecdotal! But, uh, pretty robust.) And that happens if there’s steady demand but a shortage of supply, right? I mean, that’s a market.


Well, let’s look at what else happened between 2006 and 2012 in the major markets for cocaine globally (they’d be America and Western Europe, according to the report). Well, I’m drumming my fingers here. Did ANYTHING happen that might conceivably have led to fewer people wanting to buy cocaine (demand), that in turn led to lower availability?


Let’s look at this, from ZeroHedge.


Casino Gambling

Oh wow, look: There was this huge dip in gambling spend in the USA over that exact same period! 2006-2012 sure was a dip. So, was there less supply-side availability of bets? Or might something have happened that lowered demand for both cocaine and gambling among consumers in affluent Western markets? God, I’m really stuck as to what that might be.


Let’s look at another graph, from Tim Duys’ Economists Review – plucked from among thousands in a hurried and random manner – see if that helps. This is real personal consumption expenditure, and that huge dip is the period we’re looking at.


Consumer purchasing power in the recession

OK, look, I can’t ignore this any longer. Was there… was there a recession or something? I mean, if there was a recession in the West, then that would stop consumers spending, right? On stuff, including those nice-to-have lifestyle luxuries like gambling and the odd line of coke, right?


Of course. And that’s exactly what happened. But to admit that the recession is largely responsible for the drop in cocaine use would mean two things. First, that the War On Drugs is fighting the wrong enemy, and that supply is not the problem here, but demand. Second, that the war is unwinnable, because you cannot stop goods making their way to centres of demand without somehow addressing those appetites that drive demand. Which means Americans, and Western Europeans.


And that means intervention. And that means big government, and investment and education, and all those dirty words that put additional zeroes on Government balance sheets. (Nobody minds if those zeroes are on the military budget, to help eradication efforts in Colombia. But put them into a budget that might stop the next generation paying cartels for nosebag that we then have to pay again for soldiers to go and torch, and that sounds dangerously like nanny state madness, right? Give me strength.)


Of course, the report can’t address everything. It may be that looking at the deeper causes of cocaine’s hemisphere-wide blizzard is outside of the remit of the UNODC’s researchers. But it’s a hefty report – 82,264 words including footnotes, to be precise. And the word “recession” appears twice. In references given as footnotes. And neither of those references concerns the reasons for cocaine’s sudden partial disappearance from streets, homes, noses and impounded contraband during the recession.


The economy is growing again. Here comes consumer spending. The dirty habit’s ours, not Colombia’s or anyone else’s. That the UNODC can’t seem to address that makes for a dangerous cognitive dissonance that will cost more lives, and plenty more zeroes, in in the coming decade.


Well, I daresay a more careful reading will bring out hitherto undiscovered nuance. But for now, the World Drug Report 2014 – or at least the way it’s been edited and represented – feels like a ducked opportunity. The UNODC feels more like an arm of US foreign policy than it’s felt in years. And the War On Drugs feels bigger, and more hopelessly wrong, than ever.


You can download the entire report as a PDF here.


Rockin’ in the free world: Gorbachev, poppies and the death of Kurt Cobain

If you really want to know about Nirvana – from who killed Kurt Cobain to the rise of grunge and the Generation X tag – don’t listen to the conspiracy theories; ask a historian.


Soviet anti-drugs poster


The news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide broke 20 years ago today. The anniversary of his death – which probably took place sometime on the 5th April 1994 – from a self-inflicted gunshot at his home in Seattle, has already picked up its fair share of coverage.


There are also plenty of silly conspiracy theories. In the parlour game of ‘Who killed Kurt Cobain?’, anyone but Kurt Cobain will do.


Yet in historical terms, the story of what happened to Kurt Cobain is much bigger, darker and more mysterious – and ultimately, more important to us all here in 2014 – than the shopworn horror show of celebrity, depression, public addiction and suicide suggests. Like all the great detective stories, it deals in the kinds of details outside the jurisdiction of coroners and local cops. In this telling, the soap opera of a pop star’s life and the frenzied search for clues in the music is a distraction from another, more compelling trail of evidence, leading towards a far larger crime.


When American political economist Francis Fukuyama called the Cold War’s close ‘the end of history’ in 1989 – a phrase that gained global currency when he published The End of History & The Last Man in 1992, victorious, insulated America applauded. The rest of us weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Far from signalling the final, settled dominance of Western liberal democracy as Fukuyama predicted, the collapse of the Soviet Union had already led to the re-emergence of ethnic and political loyalties long suppressed – and nursed – by the comfortable stasis of the bipolar world. Because the same Cold War that had kept African puppet states, the Iron Curtain and European ethnic divisions in a kind of stasis for the past 40 years had also kept a little piece of death – the seed of his success and his suicide – away from Kurt Cobain. But it too was free now. And it was looking for him.


There’s an uncanny symmetry in Nirvana’s rise and the fall of the established order. The band’s breakthrough sophomore album (and the singer’s eventual albatross) Nevermind went nuclear over Christmas 1991 – the very week Mikhail Gorbachev signed the decree ending the USSR. Just a week later, on New Year’s Day 1992, Nevermind hit Number One, pushing Michael Jackson’s Pepsi-sponsored Bad off the top of the Billboard chart. We woke on that first morning since 1922 without a Soviet Union in the world (it ceased to exist as an entity at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1991) to find that Nevermind had conquered the globe instead.


It would be the first Nirvana record for which the band’s traditional way of sharing royalties out by even thirds would end up recarved by Cobain’s lawyers in the principal songwriter’s favour. No more comrades-in-arms indeed.


In fact, success had made lots of once-simple things dreadfully complicated for Kurt. Good, straightforward relationships – with his band, his record company, his wife, his fans – had become complex, shifting. They couldn’t be trusted. Everyone wanted something. All relationships and values were now calibrated in terms of money. It was a very post-Cold War feeling indeed.


No wonder the monstrous, freakish success of Nevermind led to the re-emergence of all sorts of long-dormant insecurities in Cobain. That happens when you’ve won, chart battle or political standoff. He’d become popular, but was it for the right reasons, in the right way? He worried away at his own worthiness, his authenticity. It didn’t help that he was convinced ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was little more than a cop of another band’s tune. He and bassist Krist Novoselic were consumed with fear that people would see the song for the Pixies rip-off they confessed it had started life as. He didn’t like the fact that he wanted money enough to get heavy on Krist and Dave Grohl about it. ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ was a disguised dig at his own watching of every penny royalty. At the moment of his greatest triumph, Cobain was panicked. He felt like an impostor in his own life. And the more he felt like that, the further he retreated into the drug that made it matter less. Heroin. It have him the power to shrug it off. To say: Never mind. (By 1992, with the heroin-chic circus around him starting to reach the fashion glossies, he wrote a letter to fans explaining his struggle with rehab, in luring the phrase, “Hope I die before I turn into Pete Townshend.” )


Would he have been better off without Nevermind’s success? He often seemed to think so. What is beyond doubt is that while a global tsunami of fantastically good, cheap heroin from the former Central Asian borderlands of the USSR might have been the catalyst for grunge’s super-slow, warm’n’fuzzy sound and (to quote Billy Corgan) “I’m fucked up, you’re fucked up” mantra, it was the very worst thing for anyone experiencing exactly those feelings Cobain now harboured, exactly that need for refuge, at exactly that point.


Yet the wave of heroin kept building. And its appearance at grunge’s cradle was part of a Faustian pact much, much bigger than any that Kurt could make – or for that matter, Alice In Chains’ Layne Staley, or Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon, or Hole’s Kristen Pfaff, or Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, or anyone dealing in low-tuned, warm, slack, sludgy sleepwalking music in those melancholic, oceanic, autumnal-looking picture sleeves.


The invasion of Afghanistan just over a decade earlier had been the Soviet Union’s most public, costly and longest-drawn-out mistake. Before 1979, Afghanistan’s opium fields exported very little along westward routes. But the CIA’s (and Pakistan’s) assistance for mujahideen fighters resisting the Soviet occupation extended to getting the occupiers hooked on heroin. Production rose, and transportation was provided – Pakistan army trucks coming and going with bales of the stuff every day.


At the same time, there is evidence to suggest official (and increasingly desperate) Soviet plans to cultivate Afghanistan as a heroin patch, and to destabilize the West by facilitating supply lines to Europe and the US. (As early as 1971, a KGB directive designated M·120/00-050 outlined Soviet plans to use heroin to destabilize the West. And by 1986, Soviet state-operated freighters were sailing from Soviet Baltic ports, and arriving in Rotterdam, London, Denmark and elsewhere laden with hundreds of kilos of high-grade heroin.)


Encouraging it was one thing. Controlling it was another. Like a nuclear arms race that would leave unattended warheads lying around who-knew-how-many unstable, newly independent republics the day Nevermind hit the top, this was the sort of tactic that works during occupation and stasis, but backfires after.


The Soviets withdrew in 1989 – crippled by addiction, demotivated, bust. (How very early grunge.) The withdrawing soldiers, quartermasters, pilots, diplomats, drivers, construction workers, kids, all took their Jones with them. Their contacts and supply routes – often officially protected – stayed open for business. And sure enough, a huge problem that had been underground in the ’80s became a huge problem that had gone mainstream. And a system that put its faith in young pioneers, in ideology and the commitment and belief of workers, found itself ill-equipped to survive the point where those young pioneers shrugged, stayed home and jacked up.


And all the time, there came more heroin. And with the domestic market more or less saturated, it had to go somewhere. The product was there; the infrastructure was there; the corruption was still there. And now, as the ruble collapsed, came the sudden, pressing need to make hard, convertible currency. Down on the Afghan-Pakistan side, too many people had been making too many US dollars for too long to stop now. And on the now-ex-Soviet side, plenty of people – demobbed people, people whose future inside the system suddenly looked a lot less secure – suddenly found they had an opportunity. A simple trade.


South-East Asia’s heroin – difficult to transport to Europe or the US, and therefore invariably expensive and degraded by middle-men – suddenly had a far more attractive rival product to contend with.


These were wild times on a new Silk Route. Western Autobahns thronged with Trabis; Highway E55 on the Czech-German border became the world’s longest brothel, cars fitted with blackout screens and grubby curtains rocking and jerking through the bitter winter night. Adventurous tourists and robber capitalists alike swarmed East, overwhelming Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Almaty and Tashkent with dollars and promises and legally enforceable contracts. And the heroin and the money flowed, aided by police corruption, desperation and the irresistible gradient of supply and demand.


Britain, Scandinavia and Western Europe were easy staging points for the now-free-to-travel vessels, trucks and containers of the former USSR. And once you were in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Liverpool or London, the world – namely, the USA – was your oyster. The cheap heroin that had brought Russia to its knees was too good an opportunity for gangs on both sides to miss.


Slacker and grunge in the West, refuseniks in the East, were all borne along on the wave of unassailable apathy by history’s largest release of Afghan opium from a failed war. As a retort to the propaganda of struggle for a brighter utopian future (whether chasing a communist ideal or a floating hard-currency dollar), “Never mind” is pretty final.


It’s an intriguing thought. Had it not been for the disaster of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and the ensuing collapse of the USSR, would Kurt Cobain have died as he did? Perhaps the bigger question is whether grunge itself could have become so big. Did that specific, one-time-only combination of the Afghan mujahideen, Gorbachev and Reagan, and a newly entrepreneurial network of heroin gangs save us all from LA hair metal?


Or perhaps the question is more important still. Maybe all those people in the East who shrugged and turned away from their manifest destiny were part of a more global idea of Generation X than we’d imagined. Maybe their piece of the Berlin Wall was our Adbusters. We’d all been peachy keen recruits to the system, before the shrug. This was history made not by people saluting or rallying, but by people retreating, copping out, shrugging it all off, saying ‘No’.


Which brings us back to that silent house in Seattle 20 years ago. Kurt Cobain didn’t die of a heroin overdose, of course. He died because he shot himself. The autopsy revealed large quantities of heroin in his system, alongside plenty of other stuff, mostly prescription Rohypnol and other garbage. Autopsies don’t say where the heroin came from. They don’t talk about why it’s suddenly flooding streets, gigs, friends’ bedrooms, hotels. They don’t address the economics. It takes history to do that.


Seattle, the E55, Berlin, Russia, Armenia, Kabul, Rwanda, Estonia, Rotterdam. 20 years later, you can trace more and more lines. Now it’s the West’s turn to retreat from Afghanistan. Opium production has soared during our occupation. It’s going to go somewhere. Maybe we should listen out for it. It’s there, in the music, and the celebrity news too.


To steal a 1989 line from Kurt’s hero Neil Young – whose “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” Cobain quoted in his suicide letter – we’re all rockin’ in the free world now.


Film: Feature documentary ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’ to premiere at Sundance

[Update to this story 12/1/14: The Notorious Mr Bout has just been added to the BBC’s Storyville season for 2015/16.]


The Notorious Mr Bout, a feature-length documentary film on ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout – in which I appear and on which I consulted – is to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.


Matt Potter features in Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber's Merchant of Death film about Viktor Bout

The Merchant of Death, behind bars in Thailand (Used by kind permission, from the film ‘The Notorious Mr Bout’)



The 90-minute documentary is produced and directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin and Tony Gerber, whose latest film on Pussy Riot won international acclaim and was banned in Russia. Its screening at Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in Utah this January comes in advance of its international release and tour of European and American festivals.


The film follows the rise and fall of Viktor Bout – family man, polyglot, raconteur, and the world’s most notorious smuggler of illicit arms, currently serving time in a US jail – from Soviet military days to Africa, Afghanistan, through his arrest in Thailand for offering to supply arms to Colombia’s FARC rebels, to his conviction in a New York courtroom and beyond.


It’s exciting news here, and if you’re interested in organised crime, arms trafficking, the violent chaos of the Soviet breakup, modern terror tactics or the shadow world uncovered in Outlaws Inc, my guess is you’ll love it.


It promises to be a great film, and I’m making myself available for interview and comment both around the Sundance schedule and through the year’s releases. Just contact me via the comments, or on Twitter, where I’m @MattPotter.



Crime & corruption: Are you a terrorist? If Yes, please tick box below…


Ever get the creeping feeling that the fight against corruption, money laundering and tax avoidance are doomed? Well, you’d be right. And here – in one phone call – is why.


I had a conversation with my bank about money laundering today.


I denied everything, naturally. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? These are tough times for money-launderers. We know they are because the government tells us, the police tell us, and the news media tells us.


Somali remittance services like Dahabshiil are getting the third degree amid claims they are conduits of funds to Al Shabaab. David Cameron recently “pressed the EU” on tax evasion, and has committed to a public register of company owners. “Those who want to evade taxes,” he thundered after this year’s G8 summit, “have nowhere to hide”.


Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s cherished City of London is one of the leading global hubs for money laundering licit and illicit (and if you haven’t read Nicholas Shaxson’s eye-opening book Treasure Islands: Tax Havens & The Men Who Stole The World, I would urge you to do so): the overall message is clear. Money laundering by the rest of us is a Very Bad Thing, and Inspector Cameron, HMRC and the G8 are totally on it.


So it was that, having announced I wished to make a deposit with my bank (actually switching some money from another account somewhere else), I was made to feel what it’s like to have nowhere to hide. Here’s how it went.


Me: “Hello, I’d like to make a deposit, please.”


Bank: “OK. Now, I do need to ask – in accordance with the new money-laundering regulations – where this money is from?”


Me: “It’s mine.”


Bank: “OK, that’s great, I’ll tick ‘savings’. Thanks.”


And that was it. That was the full extent of the change wrought by the new money laundering regulations.


So if you’re a Mexican drug lord, Al-Shabaab fighter or common-or-garden tax avoider from the UK, remember: you have nowhere to hide. Except, y’know, a mortgage or current account. So long as you don’t confess under thorough interrogations like this.


As the Monty Python sketch says: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…





Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout linked to UK horsemeat scandal… And we’re, like, totally shocked

Looks like someone’s finally catching on. This is the network my book is about:

“#Horsemeat firms linked to Russian arms dealer #ViktorBout” http://t.co/e4xTQnls.

Rebel militias, high street retail giants, Somali pirates, fashion brands, Peruvian drug lords, our own government, ready-meal makers, all depend on some of the same shady people, but we all get it cheap so don’t ask too many questions & act shocked when you’re rumbled.

Meanwhile, subcontracting is what makes the world go round, from the UN to arms dealers, blood diamonds to NGOs, and Afghan heroin to food processing. And if some of that gets mixed up on the way? There are enough weak links to mean it’s not your proble.

Comment: Reign of Errors – The Merchant of Death story ends the way we all figured. Or does it?


The sentencing of Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout to 25 years in New York’s South District of Manhattan Federal Court this month has, to paraphrase the old smoking joke, become a major causes of statistics, comment and opinion.


NGOs and arms-control activists – including, I should say, a great many friends, and others for whom I have huge respect and admiration – have been quick to declare the world a safer place, despite news of huge movements of illicit arms in North Africa and North Korea’s rocket test, using embargo-busting hardware bought from China, in the same fortnight. On the other side of US politics, the National Rifle Association used the occasion to thunder against arms controls, and seemingly came very close to saying the US government had betrayed the country’s constitution by hosting arms treaty conferences in New York. Meanwhile a diffuse but vociferous core of bloggers, NatSec heads, investigative journalists, ex-military types and libertarians wasted no time in joining conspiracy theorists in declaring Bout to be a pawn in a bigger game being played out by the USA, and Bout’s prosecutors and the DEA hailed his conviction and tough sentence as a victory. Just as predictably, the Kremlin began anew the sabre-rattling about the case harming bilateral relations that it had initiated on Bout’s arrest in Thailand in 2008 (a move it claimed was illegal) but had rather conspicuously left off during the trial. You had to rub your eyes sometimes, and remind yourself sometimes that it was one trial, and one man we’re talking about.


Ah yes, that man. Who was he again? In the course of researching my book Outlaws Inc., which contains transcripts of the DEA’s wire on the day of his arrest and a blow-by-blow account of the trial and conviction, I met and spoke to many associates, acquaintances, allies and enemies of Viktor Bout, and no two people seemed to agree. Nor did their stance and their background always make for an easy fit: I spoke to as many former cohorts in the gun-running air trade who thought he was a mobster, a spy, a scoundrel or a liability as I did UN staff who believed him to be on the rough end of some rather arbitrary and heavy-handed US justice. There were plenty who broadly held the same essential view as I do – that he’s a highly intelligent, amoral businessman who made a living capitalizing on and helping perpetuate human misery – while at the same time disagreeing as to exactly what that made him. Worse than BAE Systems? Not as bad as Blackwater/Xe? A terrorist himself? As bad as [name your big Wall Street arms or software corporation of choice here]? George W Bush’s independent alter-ego? Putin’s puppet? The man John Bolton wishes he could be? In the end, you go crazy. Bout became a symbol for all-purpose avarice – a yardstick to gauge whatever point anyone wanted to make about something else.


And that’s what I suppose I found (find) most interesting about his case, and his story. He is the British parliament’s Merchant of Death, a foxtrot-loving family man, Hollywood’s Lord of War, a friend to dictators in Liberia and the Congo, a supplier to terrorists in Colombia and Africa, a zeitgeist-surfing private military contractor, a gunrunner, a mastermind, a small businessman, a kingpin, a Kremlin proxy, a shabby and rather naive salesman hopelessly out of his depth, a patsy, and, lest we forget, partner and supplier to US adventures abroad, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. But how is this possible?


One of the reasons Viktor Bout seems to split people in this way is his own weirdly ephemeral nature. Here’s what we know from the record. Ask him what he believes, and he’ll tell you he’s just a family man and entrepreneur, and that such questions are meaningless to him. Ask him why he ran guns, and the party line is that he’s just like a taxi driver, and you don’t ask them why they take passengers, some good and some not so much. And on the rare occasion you ask him, as Peter Landesman did, who’s helped him out of some of his previous jams (having his entire crew and plane held hostage by the Taliban while supplying the Northern Alliance, for example), he points to his forehead and says if he tells you he’ll “get the red dot right here”.


In my book, I argued that this “shimmering, insubstantial” quality was part and parcel of being an arms smuggler. It’s as true of personal traits and beliefs as it is of his documentation. (He possessed seven passports, carrying wildly different names, nationalities and details.) Whatever suits you best right now, that’s the one you’ll produce. Keep the rest sketchy, that way no-one can hold you to anything later.


I suppose for a while, I thought it was going badly for Bout in that courtroom. It seemed that there finally was a narrative for him, and he didn’t look good in it. The DEA had it all on tape: their undercover agents pretending to be FARC men, Bout promising to sell them weapons “to kill Americans with”. Indeed throughout the trial Bout’s defence attorney Albert Dayan had consistently flubbed the opportunity to put his client’s side of any story. He’d focused on alleged US hypocrisy, and that was more or less it. Well, I’m not saying he didn’t try, but Dayan’s flubs – spilling a pitcher of water over himself and the dais as he drew breath to start cross-questioning; forgetting what he was saying, let alone missing opportunities to put forward some solid arguments for his client – all seemed to the casual observer to have something of self-sabotage and unpreparedness about them. And as Dayan himself (an ambitious young American and, let it be noted, a last-minute replacement for the court-appointed lawyers Bout sacked just as proceedings commenced) would hardly have wanted to go before the world’s TV cameras and into the most high-profile trial of his career unprepared, one must assume part of the fault for his seeming unpreparedness lies with Bout himself.


Why would he do that? Post-sentencing, I’m not sure I really think he blew it at all. On the contrary, maybe – just maybe – he’s played his hand rather smartly. Maybe going down with a whimper to what was after all a very, very self-contained US sting operation, was the best of all his options. It meant he didn’t have to talk about any of the other work he’s done; it meant that he didn’t have to talk about Africa, or Afghanistan, or any of the covert deliveries he’s been making for either Russia, or (crucially) the United States. This was the one scenario everyone could afford. Except of course, Viktor. He’s in for 25 years. Or is he?


What made me think again about the trial, and about its part in the bigger game being played out, was an email exchange I had with Russian journalist Yulia Ponomareva of the Moscow News, written up here. The starting point for the exchange was Yulia’s question: “Will Viktor Bout serve his 25 years, or return to Russia? Which is more likely?”


The day Bout was convicted back in the autumn, I’d expressed the gut belief on Twitter that he would be repatriated fairly soon; though as that was a first reaction and sentence had not been passed at that stage, I’d left open what exactly I meant by “soon”. But preparing my answers for the Moscow News, I realized that – assuming my feeling about repatriation is correct – the hand Bout has played is careful indeed. It’s about the long game: talk in court in the US in an attempt to get off, or to cut a deal, and you might succeed; but you’ll probably fail anyway, and messily, having played all of your cards and sold out most of your contacts back home and around the world. Fail on purpose, however – brief your attorney poorly, insist he witters on about US hypocrisy, blithely miss all the hints a deal may be on the cards – and you’ll go down. But you’ll be repatriated, and that’s where the real trial will start. Like a mobster who keeps schtum in jail knowing he’ll be collected outside the gates by his old cohorts the day he gets parole, Bout played the long game.


So one question now is, how soon will that happen? And for that, I’m posting below and entire my answers to the questions on his repatriation from the Moscow News. (The other, of course, is whether the bust itself was, to some extent, theatre.)


Yulia Ponomareva: So there are two options so far, the first one being Bout’s serving his 25-year sentence in the US, the second one is his extradition to Russia. Which one is more likely?
I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term. The fact is that (from the point of view of successive American administrations) Viktor Bout became rather an embarrassment, and that made him the perfect ‘example’ case. What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms. However, they will now be keenly aware that Viktor Bout has not stopped being a problem for them, at least behind the scenes. And to this end I expect discussions to begin in earnest now that he has been sentenced and the media spotlight is off. (It is also interesting that right now, there seem to be more illicit arms floating around than there ever have been – so as far as public opinion is concerned, perhaps there is some amazement that stopping Viktor Bout did not lead to a sudden unavailability of illicit weapons…)

YP: Is there really anything the Russian Foreign Ministry can do to bring him back to Russia?
When I say that I expect diplomacy to increase in terms of finding a workable solution, I mean on both sides. This is true of both the USA and Russian Federation, whose public diplomatic campaigns during his incarceration have been sporadic, and mostly concentrated on the short periods of time when Bout was in the news (Thai extradition to USA, verdict/sentencing). I personally think that (again, for both sides) the biggest issues now is credibility: if a return to Russia under any circumstances is on the cards (so to speak) there has to be a way for the US to credibly communicate to its public and NGOs the fact that he will not simply be taking up his business where he left it – that their sentencing and enforcement actions (and associated costs) have been effective. From the point of view of Russian diplomacy, there are also clearly two audiences: the Americans and the Russian electorate. This is normal for any country, and explains the dual tone we’ve seen so far, of quiet pressure and public outcry. (In some ways, the change of position of Dmitry Rogozin from Nato Ambassador to Russian Deputy PM should have some effect here!)

YP: Do you think he could be swapped for someone? And should we expect arrests of alleged US spies in this case?
Excellent question. On one hand, that would be very transparent piece of political theatre. On the other, we are used to that, no? (Also, I think it would offer both sides the “credible way out” I talked about above, if I’m being honest…) So, without gambling money on it, I’ll just say pretty soon.

YP: If he has to be extradited, will he serve 25 years in Russian prison, or chances are he’ll be released here?
I believe the prospect of Viktor serving 25 years in either Russia or the USA to be very slight. Being realistic, there is almost no chance of him ever being able to go back to the business he had before (Would you do business with him if you were an arms dealer nowadays? Not me. Too notorious/hot to touch), so reoffending is not an issue. And from what I understand, he is a model prisoner in terms of behaviour. So serving the full term is unlikely, even in the US. The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health, though there is nothing currently to suggest his health or that of others is poor.

YP: If he remains in the US, could he be of any value to the U.S. intelligence?
I think, personally, that his value to US intelligence is less than most of the public thinks. After all, most of his deals are known about already; even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal. I have no doubt that US intelligence will be romancing him at the moment, trying to get what info they can negotiate, with the prospect of a deal. However, on balance, if I were Viktor, I would probably be less worried about US intelligence than I would be about what would happen if I did reveal something. He’s always been very discreet.

YP: Why has he been the only one of his arms trafficking network to be put in jail?
Personally, I believe Viktor Bout’s big mistake was to allow himself to become a celebrity. There are bigger arms-transporting fish than him out there, and they are corporations doing the same thing illicitly as they do licitly. They are quite complex, faceless and therefore rather boring in terms of mobilizing opinion within government or law enforcement to act against them. Viktor Bout’s troubles really stem from his New Yorker photoshoots and his interviews in the early-mid-2000s, and from coming to the attention of politicians like Peter Hain who became angry at his seeming impudence and notoriety. When he was just a businessman, he was more or less safe. Once he was branded a ‘Merchant of Death’ and Nicholas Cage was acting film roles based on him, he was a living challenge to law enforcers, arms control NGOs and politicians everywhere.

YP: What about his accomplices? Do you think any of Russia’s high-ranking officials and the military have been involved and is it possible Bout will give their names away?
High-ranking Russian politicians were certainly involved: the transportation and sale of arms for cash was seen, in the early 1990s, as a way for the Russian (and Ukrainian/Belarusian) state and military to liquidate assets they no longer needed, and this was all quite openly done. This was how many of the businessmen in the same field as Viktor got started in air transportation. In my book
Outlaws Inc., in which I follow the former Red Army pilots who flew for Viktor and others, I interviewed former Defence minister and Commander of the Armed Forces Marshal Evgeny Shaposhnikov. I asked him the following question about one of Viktor Bout’s illicit transport operations in 1995 (on which the Russian film Kandaghar: Survive & Return” was based).
[Me to Shaposhnikov: “Later, in the mid-1990s, did you know about flights in Il-76 aircraft to supply the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan with weapons? Or rather, did these flights ever have official (or unofficial) government approval?” Shaposhnikov’s answer was: “No comment.” I make no accusation against Shaposhnikov, but clearly there was a tolerance for what needed to be done. He also said, when I asked about an order giving servicemen the right to sell military property, including weapons, back in 1992 when Bout began his business from an army base…

Shaposhnikov’s answer: “Certain steps had to be done officially in this direction: some firing and training grounds were leased to local collective farms; military trucks were used for fetching non-military goods;  our men were sent to help collective farmers with crops; and extra military property were given to local businessmen.”] This is all in my book. However, it’s crucially important to realize that although there was some cooperation, or at least non-intervention, from high up the Russian political establishment, the same is true in the US and many other countries, who were at the same time reading United Nations Security Council reports into Viktor’s (and others’) activities, and using Viktor (and those others) to transport their arms, equipment and men to Iraq and so on. The fact is that these ‘illicit’ airlines give governments all over the world a discreet, private transport method when they are dropping Private Military Contractors or sensitive personnel or material somewhere. You can bet that security forces from Africa, America or wherever else don’t get dropped off in Somalia by Lufthansa.

YP: That’s even greater than I expected, many thanks. This is really funny, btw: “The cynical voice in my head expects an appeal soon for repatriation, perhaps on grounds of ill health”. Many Russian convicts dream of serving a sentence in a ‘civilized’ country like the US. Still, there are just a couple of things that need clarifying, I think. [Your phrase] “I would guess that a return to Russia is highly likely – in the medium term, and perhaps even in the shorter term.” – I assume you’re taking about several months’ time here, right?
Yes. I would say we’re talking 50/50 within a year, 75% chance within 3, and I just cannot see Viktor Bout in a US prison in 5 years. Behind the scenes, I simply don’t think anyone wants him there. Out of the way/out of mischief, yes. But not there!

YP: [Your phrase] “What they wanted was to be seen to have stopped Viktor Bout, as they regarded him as the world’s most famous (note: I don’t say biggest, because he almost certainly was not that) international transporter of illicit small arms.” – Is it possible to specify how ‘big’ he was as an arms trafficker?
Viktor Bout was as big as you get being an independent, is perhaps a good way of putting it. He headed his company, did his deals himself, handled clients, ran around with the planes if he had to. Now, some of those deals look impressive, and some of the clients’ names are well-known. But as Peter Danssaert of the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) in Antwerp told me in the book, this does only makes him a big fish within that bracket – of independent owner-businessmen. There are far more significant shipments being made by the state-corporates on all sides. In Russian terms, this might equate to Rosoboronexport/Rozvooruzhenie (state-owned arms producer, recently suspected of selling arms to blacklisted regimes like Omar al Bashir’s Sudan – some of which, the MiG fighter planes, mysteriously turned up with bonus-extra mercenary pilots to fly them (on their papers, listed as instructors and mechanics of course, only some later turned up dead in battle against the rebels…). But I’m not picking Russia out as a particularly bad example in all this: UK’s equipment is flying all over the place, France ended up shipping tonnes upon tonnes of illicit small weapons to the Libyan rebels, and the US is arming Somali forces to the teeth using licit corporate means right now. So really, as Moises Naim (ex-World Bank) told me, the Viktor Bouts and Pablo Escobars are somehow relics. They had a purpose in the marketplace, and that was to do the things there was no infrastructure for. But now globalization has been properly established, the arms producers are not going to allow themselves to be cut out of a money-making situation by some middlemen running around selling second-hand goods, not when there’s really big money at stake. Russian film producer Ilya Neretin made that film Kandaghar a couple of years ago. It was his movie, and he used one of Bout’s planes for the re-enactment, and of course the story is of one of Bout’s operations gone wrong. Even he laughed about it to me (again, quoting from the book):  “Look Matt, I will tell you this. There are so many Mr X figures ruling this world. And Mr Bout is a prince. But there are kings.” Viktor Bout is the boss of a small business. Think of a car dealership. His name and his brand are important, which is why he did all he could do to build them up (his mistake, potentially). Against that, imagine the others. They are not independent car dealerships. They are more like General Motors or something, in size and reach. That’s how big Viktor was.

YP: And what do you mean by “not actually illegal” here? “Even those who spent 20 years shadowing him admitted the problem wasn’t that they couldn’t prove what he did; it was that what he did (up until the controversial 2008 FARC related arrest) was not actually illegal.”
Well, I meant just that – until Viktor Bout was caught in the sting operation having a conversation in which he said yes, he’d give [people he thought were] FARC missiles to shoot down US-piloted helicopters, he was not committing any crimes. There were a lot of things he did that were maybe reprehensible, but part of the reason he ran around for so long was that nobody knew what they could charge him with. This was one of the key frustrations of Douglas Farah & Stephen Braun’s 2007 book
Merchant of Death, a dossier from two American reporters who would later bear witness against Bout, as it was for Condoleezza Rice and the CIA. This was why it was so important for the undercover agents in the hotel room in Bangkok to get him saying the specific words into the tape about giving them ammo to kill Americans with. It was their only real weapon to go against him. And don’t forget, although there are questions as to whether (for instance) he supplied both the Taliban and Northern Alliance in Afghanistan with guns in the 1990s, well, so had the USA in the 1980s and then again (to the Northern Alliance) post-9/11. So the bust was a nice way to get him charged on a specific crime, right now in the present, with a start and a finish to it that could be captured on tape in one meeting. That meant nobody had to delve back into any uncomfortable questions about how many times they had also used this man to deliver weapons for them, and they could ignore all questions Bout’s defence might raise about their involvement and past history with him. Which they did.


So watch this space. These predictions may pan out, or they may not. But either way, in the limelight or behind the scenes, I’ve a feeling the Viktor Bout story’s got a way to run yet.


Free-Market Mercenaries: Matt speaking at Swansea University on 28th February

Matt will be talking transnational crime, Russian gunrunners and the deadly compromises between narco-mafias, FTSE 100 businesses, terrorists, ‘big aid’ and our own government at Swansea University on 28th February.

The event, titled ‘Free market mercenaries: Cocaine traffickers, Somali pirates, and how the Soviet Union won the Cold War’ is organised by Swansea University’s Research Institute in association with the History Faculty, and will start at 5.30pm in Fulton House on the main campus.

The topic is one the recent conviction of Russian businessman Viktor ‘Merchant of Death’ Bout has brought to global attention. Across the world, a secretive network of lawless, untraceable ex-Red Army airmen function as the delivery channel for everything from Afghan heroin and illicit guns to pirate ransoms, UN aid and supermarket flowers. They are living testament to what happened when the Soviet army met Western outsourcing, free-market economics and foreign policy. Matt has flown and worked with these fugitive airmen, and his adventures and investigations are revealed in the book Outlaws Inc, published globally last year and reissued this year in a new, updated edition featuring extra material on Britain’s part in what UN investigators call the “shadow network of illicit arms transfers” and transcripts of the secret tapes from the CIA’s wire during their sting operation on Viktor Bout.

In his talk, will be asking what their industry means for our self-image as citizens of an enlightened, post-Soviet world. Matt is speaking at the invitation of Dr Kelly Hignett, Lecturer in the School of History and Classics at Swansea University, specialist in crime and deviancy in the former Eastern Bloc and author of ‘Transnational Organised Crime and the Global Village’. Dr Hignett is also the woman behind the highly regarded blog The View East.

For a free invitation to the event as Matt’s guest, or if you’d like Matt to speak at an event, just email matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com, or tweet me @MattPotter.


Full press information, interview requests, serialization or review copies of the new, expanded edition of his acclaimed book Outlaws Inc., are available from Dusty Miller, Director of Publicity at Pan Macmillan in London. Email: D.Miller@macmillan.co.uk; Telephone: (+44) 20 7014 6188.





Video: “Cocaine coffee tables?!” CNN bosses, the craziest cop in Brazil, and me


It started perfectly innocently. I was out with a friend on Thursday, and the phone rang. I didn’t pick up – it was ten o’clock, and I’d worked my way through six large glasses of what I remember being an increasingly smooth Italian red, and a couple of bottles of Grolsch for good measure. I’m not a big drinker, and it’s not my usual style, but this guy was over from Sierra Leone, he’s an old friend, and, and… and it explains why I didn’t pick up.

It was a New York number.

The second time it rang, less than a minute later, I picked up. It was CNN. Could I make it to their London office? They had some story kick off with Brazilian smugglers in a plane, they’d been brought down by a cop using only his cujones and a Toyota corolla, and could I comment?

Not a chance. I’m a little tipsy. No way. Nope. Find someone else, someone who isn’t afraid, I mean really afraid, of making a lemon of himself on a prime-time network news show. I gave them my final ‘No’. Put the phone down. That was a close call.



Well, here’s the interview. I guess they got more than they bargained for, and the show’s bosses sent out a tweet within the hour hashtagged #justtobeclear, clarifying that they do not condone the use, possession, sale, purchase or production of “coffee tables made of cocaine”.



What can I say? They’re persuasive people.


Analysis: Auto destruct: the curious case of the flaming Mercedes (…not to mention the Audis BMWs, Porsches & VWs)

Who (or what) is behind Berlin’s bonfire of the coupés?

This time, it was Porsche lighting up the night with its flames. A high-spec Cayenne, freshly waxed with all the extras. Its owner had parked it outside his apartment around midnight on the 21st September. By ten to five in the morning, it was just another charred, smouldering shell on another Berlin sidestreet.


There are no sirens, no flashing lights in Friedrichshain, the gentrifying suburb on the firmer eastside. For the red-eyed Polizist blowing on his styrofoam coffee, it is all too familiar. On the front seat of his squadcar, his radio crackles. His colleague stretches the tape around the Cayenne and the blackened husk of what was once a VW Polo parked next to it. Another cop posts notices on neighbouring apartment lobbies and doors.


By now, the question of the early summer – who was the phantom arsonist, torching luxury cars on a nightly basis, sometimes by the dozen? – has become a shrug. These cases – and there’s another coming in on the radio from just across the ditch in Kreuzberg – take the figures close to 400 since June. Nobody I talk to on the street is quite sure how close, simply because they say they’ve lost track. They are almost always luxury models, almost always German-made.


As the first Autobrände (‘automotive firebombings’) filtered in, the Bullen – hard-bitten city cops – had figured it was business as usual. Germany is no stranger to automotive arson, and the past four years have seen its crime map becoming a pincushion of charred marques: VWs, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes take the brunt, but only because, well, that’s most of what you see in Germany. There’s even a special website, brennende-autos.de – or “Burning Cars” – where you can chart the latest car arson action. But though there have been waves before, mostly those cases were scattered, occasional, and varied in their methods: petrol on the backseat and a tossed match; rag in the fueltank.


Under pressure from a city hall anxious to see the incumbent mayor win a third term, investigators started out handling it like those cases: old-fashioned, low-key policework, pick up the clues, wait for a pattern, arrest the fraudster or pissed-off boyfriend. Nothing to see here.


But this summer, something unusual happened: the arsons multiplied, then multiplied again, spreading quickly out of control.


Not that there was no method, at least at first. The attacks were all concentrated around just a few square miles of central Berlin; they were all discovered in an advanced charred and smouldering state – there were no fireballs, no explosions, no smashed glass. They burned silently, from the inside. One local resident told me it reminded her of human spontaneous combustion.  It was the ultimate stealth method, nearly impossible to stop or detect, and most importantly of all, it buys the firebug time.


This is the method. A quiet street, the early hours – between 1am and 5am, when the city is emptiest. A wedge of barbecue firelighters inside the front wheel arch, by the kerbside tyre. By the time the flames are visible to the next dog-walker, cop or shiftworker to pass, it’s too late: the rubber tyre has gone up like reunifocation day firework, and the engine, exposed to the flames licking up the inside of the wings and causing the fuel tank to overheat and erupt, has exploded. Seconds later and the car is a fireball encased in metal: 1,000ºC on the insides, the frame smoking and collapsing in on itself. The arsonist is long gone – vanished on foot or bicycle while the firelighters were still just small bundle of white cubes wedged under the tyre of the mark.


Such was the speed with which the firebug spread that reports awaiting processing became backlogged. At one stage, police were reduced to modifying their theories and their list of suspects on the fly, as data entered into the computers forced on-duty officers to abandon searches midway through and head to new addresses.


By August, nine cars a night were being razed, with the weeknights 15-17th alone claiming 40 automotive arsons. Since the hot, dry Berlin summer kicked in, the total was 372, and creeping nightly towards 400.


There were now those within the department – and in Berlin – who argued that this was no longer a crime, but an epidemic; a kind of spreading madness or mass hysteria. They argued it could no longer possibly be a case of who was torching the cars, but why so many others had started torching them too.


Every time they thought they had a pattern, it would break. The most attractive blanket suspects for a long time were radical political factions. The rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte seemed to draw most of the fire – the former West- and East-Berlin’s radical urban neighbourhoods whose long-standing inhabitants have a deep suspicion of the incoming hipsters, executives and media types whose arrival has brought lurching rent-rises, bulldozers and big, bad brands.


The authorities focused on the fact that many of the charred and burning wrecks lining these neighbourhoods each morning were luxury models. That was enough for them to make the left-wing radicals connection. And that meant they, the same cops who until a week or two ago had been prepared for the usual collaring of disgruntled ex-lovers and parking disputes – were now effectively running an anti-terror operation.


German terror cells have a history of fetishistic attachment to their cars that rivals that of the yuppies, businessmen and suburbanites they oppose. For a few heady years in the 70s, the BMW enjoyed the nickname “Baader-Meinhof-Wagen”, because of that group’s preference for the marque – and specifically its top-of-the-range models, capable of outrunning police pursuers. This time, initial suspicions settled on the car as economic symbol. The dark side of these automotive symbols – BMW’s terror-group adherents and mad owners, VW’s Nazi origins and slave-labour production lines, Mercedes’ staff-car iconography – still has a heavy voodoo that would make them magnets for fringe groups looking for a symbol.


They didn’t need to look far.


In these bohemian heartlands, shiny status rides attract flack every day. Locals had long been voicing the need for direct action, just like the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when their running battles with the police who kept trying to break up their protests and raid their homes for drugs – tactics they saw as creactionary attempts to cleanse leftist communities – made headlines, with burning cars and water cannon staples of the nightly news. This time, the locals felt, the cleansing was being achieved economically, by stealth, with chain outlets replacing family businesses and tenants (nobody buys in Germany) forced out by property developers. As the arsonist or arsonists struck again and again, the police became convinced the local radicals were executing a risky homegrown terror campaign: a “bonfire of the brands”.


As the burnings overtook past years (until now, 2009 had been the arson epidemic everyone talked about) the authorities, having reclassed 155 of the 372 cases on record as ‘politically motivated’ crimes, responded with numbers. This too was just like the 1970s: 500 extra police would patrol the city suburbs, every night. Helicopters would keep watch from above. Chasing down suspects with searchlights.


They proved useless. The low-key nature of the detonation – all it took was a few seconds kneeling beside a car, pretending to tie your shoelace while you pushed the firelighters into the wheel arch – made the arsonists impossible to catch.


The mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was a worried man. His conservative challenger Frank Henkel was now campaigning on the issue, claiming he’d set up a Berliner Bürgerwehr, or Citizen’s Vigilante Militia, to combat the problem if he got elected. The police immediately hit back. “Bounty hunters belong in Westerns,” said their spokesman. “Vigilante justice is much more of a danger.”


Feeling the heat, Berlin Police began offering €5,000 for tipoffs, no questions asked. Rainer Wendt, head of the German Police Union, went on TV, making “a desperate appeal for tips from all citizens.”


In the meantime, they had another problem. No sooner had they begun to investigate the left-wing terror/direct action theory than the wave of fire spread, beginning to engulf rattletrap traders’ vehicles, scrapheap-dodgers and second-hand Fords and Opels parked across the city. By late September, the targets were more or less indiscriminate: a police spokeswoman read out the nightly toll to jaded press in a deadpan voice: “One Opel Corsa on Rigaer Strasse. Old registration, Time of burning around 1.40am. Another Opel, unidentified, parked next to the first. Old registration. One Audi, Bernkastelerstrasse, Weissensee district. Time reported, 6.30am.”


I asked the police who they thought they were dealing with now. Off the record, one businesslike Berlin cop told me the only possible explanation was a “coalition, just like the politicians… some people early on were certainly protesting. But that created a new condition and everybody who wanted to could burn something.”


The result was, if not a madness, a wave of oddly opportunistic bacchanalia. The normally buttoned-up people of Berlin, given the perfect cover, wanted to see what it would be like. Copycats – many, police believe, otherwise law-abiding people who had never entertained the thought of arson before – found the temptation too much to resist.


Then came the third wave. The disgruntled, the vengeful and the jilted could suddenly get even, Scott-free, courtesy of the epidemic. Fraudsters, anyone who fancied a new car. Underappreciated wardens, neighbourhood watchmen, even firemen. Only four suspects have been jailed, with seven more free but under investigation. Clearly, the police were desperate: one, a pretty 21-year-old identified only as Alexandra R, was arrested for being in the vicinity of a car on a dark street with a spraycan in her hand.


That morning, police announced a breakthrough. They had arrested someone they believed to be a key figure on the wave of automotive arson. Someone who had been arrested – and freed – on suspicion of torching cars once before, in that long hot summer of 2009. They could put him at the scene, apparently convincingly, of a handful of burnings.


They named him Tobias P, a 25-year-old Berlin resident. Tobias is a freelance crime snapper. Under the name ‘Andreas’, Tobias had been covering the burnings – often first on the scene, always great pictures – and selling his photographs of the cars police now suspect him of torching back to Berliner Zeitung city newspaper, other media, and the police themselves.


Meanwhile, the firebug has spread to Moscow, with the long, hot weeks of high summer claiming between four and nine cars every single night. The same methods. The same complex relationship between residents and the luxury cars that line their suburbs.
Perhaps, after all, we get the riots we deserve. This summer in the Middle East, long-standing dictators in military fatigues got bazooka-toting rebel armies. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, decades of mixed messaging about aspiration and cut throat competition begat locusts in branded clothing, devouring electronics and sportswear stores.


And in Germany – as ever – it all came down to das auto. The VWs, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes, the Porsches. The post-war economic miracle, in moulded chrome, dirty secrets as standard. Berliners’ symbol of the fat years, once so comforting and lasting, now pouring black smoke from the hood as dawn breaks over another Kreuzberg sidestreet.