So here’s the burning question; the one I get asked twice a day. How did I – a regular, suburban guy with a 9-5 job – stumble not just upon, but work my way right into the heart of, the biggest illicit arms-running shadow network the world has ever seen – then get out in time to tell the tale?
It’s a question that’s been eating me since I sat down to write Outlaws Inc. – the record of my adventures with a group of ex-Soviet army pilots turned freelance man-with-van operators. No job is too tough for these guys – flying heroin out of Kabul through a curtain of rocket fire, parachuting $20 million in ransom to Somali pirates, or getting black-market guns, planes and tanks to dictators under UN arms blockades.
So what on earth drew me into their world? Not being an ex-SAS man with a death wish, I suppose you could say I started writing the book in an attempt to work that out for myself.
Only as I started calling up some of the spooks, pilots, detectives, crims and businessmen I’d rubbed shoulders inside the trafficking business, it became a much more urgent question. Because while most of them been slower than me in getting the fuck out of Dodge, one by one, a combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad company had been killing them off before we could talk.
One was, according to sketchy reports, strangled with a wet towel by an acquaintance while in ‘protective custody’.
I look down page one of my notebook, at the scratched-out names of airmen, contacts, fixers and friends-of-friends I’d flown with, squeezed or investigated. This one’s at the bottom of Lake Victoria in Africa, after some unlisted cargo he was carrying simply exploded mid-air, causing his resprayed, held-together-with-string Soviet-era warplane to explode across the water. Another outlaw aviator just croaked alone in his apartment one night. Then three import-export mafia guys who, they claimed, knew enough to link the Ukrainian president to the trafficking trade, died within days of each other; one slain in a hit-and-run on a pedestrianised street in Kiev; one simply vanished on the way to meet a colleague; and one was, according to sketchy reports, strangled with a wet towel by an acquaintance while in ‘protective custody’. Plenty are in jails across Asia, America and Africa, and they – understandably, after the Kiev takedowns – caught a dose of amnesia and aren’t talking to anyone.
Not the sort of guys you want to hang around with for too long at the best of times. The thing is, just as with any gradual slide – into drug addiction, love, madness, debt, obsession, whatever – the inexorable pull of their world can start with a chance meeting, then begin to gnaw at you until it’s taken you over.
I turn out my pockets: a handful of bullets from a shipment for the Afghan Taliban; fake Russian driver’s licences in five different names (among others, if I’m arrested the authorities will discover that I’m Roman Abramovich, oligarch Boris Berezhovsky, and a living, breathing Osama Bin Laden); forged customs documents for African arms deals; and a few secretly taken photos of me and my fellow smugglers taken onboard their half-inched, stripped-down ex-Soviet bomber, somewhere over Chechnya. You never think it’ll come to this. It was always just one more trip. Then suddenly you’re in over your head.
Maybe it began back in 1992, as a student trip to Russia became something else entirely, and I first tasted the danger, chaos and violence of a collapsing society amid the first pangs of a new mafia age. Maybe it was in 1995, when a dead-end job selling advertising saw me taking copy from mysterious Eastern European clients who’d ‘inherited’ a fleet of MiG fighter planes.
By the time I hit Belgrade in the last mad-dog days of the Milosevic regime, the world’s biggest smuggling network had really found its feet
I became a journalist, a great way to spend time in places like the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan. And I’d wonder, what the men I’d see landing at makeshift runways in bandit-ridden hill regions, always at dusk and with a briefcase full of bills, were doing. By the time I hit Belgrade in the last mad-dog days of the Milosevic regime, the world’s biggest smuggling network had really found its feet. It was flying arms, cash and contraband to anyone who could pay, from dictators to spooks. I kept hearing about the ‘delivery men’.
So when I finally got a chance to travel with these crews, I took it. Soon I was flying across Africa, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union with one crew of these outlaw aviators; ex-Soviet air force veterans, pilots and navigators and tail gunners turned man-with-van enterprises with wings and commando smarts.
My crew of hard-bitten veterans ferry mercenaries, guns, humanitarian aid, Colombian cocaine and supplies for our own governments, and whatever else you’ve got, to anyone who’ll pay. Ask them how they feel about the AK-47s they smuggle in with their emergency aid being used to kill the very refugees they’re here to help and they’ll shrug: it’s a shame, but hey, they’re just the postmen.
By now, I’d started to live a double life, showing up for my office job in Soho but counting the minutes until I could slip back into my own private adventure.
I already had my mind made up: if these airmen and their paymasters were just the delivery men, I needed to know who the clients were
The thrill – even the dirt, the drunken pilots, the screw-overs, the hostile locals, the Russian Roulette of aviation’s worst crash statistics – was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It was addictive. But so was the vague, sketchy nature of the lives these men lead. There are no papertrails; no inspections; no passports as you flit by night from one country to another. And pretty soon, that mystery, that deliberately cultivated vagueness about reporting their location, current or past, makes you wonder. About the payloads. About the men behind the business. And about the clients. Just who were they? Why were they so secretive? Could they include our own government, or at least the guys we’ve always been lead to believe were the ‘good guys’? Even as we screamed down through Taliban rocket-fire onto the shelled tarmac of Kabul with another smuggled payload, I already had my mind made up: if these airmen and their paymasters were just the delivery men, I needed to know who the clients were. As one Russian contact told me: “These men are princes. But there are kings.”
The search for these kings – men whose names you and I were never meant to hear – lead me back to where it all began; to the ‘ghost factories’ of the old Soviet Union’s most secretive, highly-guarded city – a place that until recently was a blank space on the maps. And ultimately, it lead me to men, and agencies, that even our own power players would rather nobody knew.
So maybe asking how it started is to ask the wrong question after all. Because once my eyes became open to the true scale of this invisible global network, and to our own government’s part in it, the question that kept me awake was, where does the trail end?
And if Outlaws Inc. is my search for answers, then these are the bigger questions that drew me deeper and deeper into he dark heart of the global trade in illicit guns, drugs and far, far worse: the questions that one UN arms inspector in Africa told me “should not be asked.”
And maybe he was right. But by then it was way too late.
Outlaws Inc: Flying with the world’s most dangerous smugglers by Matt Potter is out now, published by Pan Macmillan.Click here to buy a copy...
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