Who is Viktor Bout? Arms dealer known as 'Merchant of Death' released after Russia frees Griner

Bout, whose life story inspired the 2005 Hollywood movie 'Lord of War,' was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.

ByPatrick Reevell ABCNews logo
Friday, December 9, 2022
Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer released in prisoner swap?
Bout, whose life story inspired the 2005 Hollywood movie 'Lord of War,' was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.

WASHINGTON -- Shortly after U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers finally arrested him in a hotel in Thailand in 2008, Viktor Bout turned to one of the agents escorting him and said, "I guess the game is over."

Bout was arguably the world's best-known illegal arms trafficker and his capture was the end of a nearly decade-long hunt by the U.S. to stop him.

Now, 14 years since his arrest and jailing, Bout was released from U.S. prison in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with Russia freeing WNBA star Brittney Griner.

FILE - Viktor Bout, center, is led by armed Thai police commandoes as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010.
AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong, File

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

John Kirby discusses the "substantial offer" to secure the release of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

Bout, 55, emerged as a kingpin in the global illegal arms trade during the 1990s, accused of fueling some of the world's bloodiest conflicts, particularly in Africa. Sourcing weapons from the huge stockpiles of the collapsed Soviet Union, the Russian used a fleet of Soviet-built transport aircraft to supply vast quantities of arm, often circumventing international embargoes.

"There's a lot of armed traffickers out there," said Rob Zachariasiewicz, a now retired DEA agent who helped lead the team that arrested Bout in Thailand. "The difference with Mr. Bout was he owned his own fleet of private aircraft. People can argue: Was he the biggest arms trafficker? I look at him as one of the biggest arms transporters."

Bout eventually came to be seen as the world's biggest weapons smuggler. The media dubbed him the "Merchant of Death" and in 2006, he inspired the movie "Lord of War," which starred Nicholas Cage.

Viktor Bout, center, escorted by Thai police commandos, arrives at Don Muang airport in Bangkok on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2010.

The U.S. government began trying to disrupt Bout's operations at the end of the1990s by sanctioning his companies. He was finally captured in a DEA sting. Bout agreed to supply anti-aircraft missiles to undercover DEA operatives posing as members of the Colombian militant group, the FARC, that they claimed would be used against American forces. The DEA seized Bout during a meeting to discuss the phony deal in a hotel in Thailand.

Bout was extradited to the U.S. on narco-terrorism charges and in 2011 was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans, to supply anti-aircraft missiles and of aiding a terrorist organization. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Viktor Bout sits while waiting for his verdict at the detention room at a criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009.
AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong

From the moment of Bout's arrest, Russia began substantial efforts to free him, first trying to block his extradition and later campaigning for his release.

"He clearly was very important. And it's my understanding that President [Vladimir] Putin himself was involved in trying to get him home," said Zachariasiewicz, the former DEA agent.

But Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine who was freed from Russian detention in a prisoner swap in May, has called for the Biden administration to make the trade.

"Viktor Bout has already been in prison for 15 years," Reed told ABC in May after his release. "He's no longer a threat."

"I don't care if it's 100 Victor Bouts. They have to get our guys out," he added.

This report was originally published in July 2022 and reworked.