My reporting drew on a variety of sources—surveillance tapes and transcripts, testimony at trial, D.E.A. case files, data recovered from Bout’s computer, and many interviews—but some of the more illustrative descriptions of Bout’s career came from his own longtime friend and business associate, a Bulgarian arms broker named Peter Mirchev. Finally, Bout said, “Why don’t you just write an article about Peter Mirchev?”
It’s a fair question.
- After all, Mirchev is the one to whom Bout turned when men posing as members of the FARC expressed their interest in purchasing Iglas, a type of surface-to-air missile.
- Bout was primarily a logistics and transport man. Mirchev was the weapons guy.
- Since the early nineteen-nineties, Mirchev has run an arms-export company called KAS Engineering. Initially registered in Bulgaria, now licensed from the offshore haven of Gibraltar,
- KAS Engineering brokers weapons deals for clients around the world by tapping into Mirchev’s contacts with manufacturers in Bulgaria and Ukraine.
- Mirchev insists that he plays by the rules and doesn’t fulfill contracts for embargoed countries, though he subtly leaves open the possibility that weapons could be diverted: “My obligation is to put stuff inside the plane. From there, I don’t give a shit where the plane will go.”
- He has a LinkedIn account and encourages contact from those desiring “new ventures,” “expertise requests,” and “getting back in touch,” among others. An American official I met overseas dubbed Mirchev a “real player.”
Bout went on trial in lower Manhattan this fall, on charges related to the FARC deal. Throughout, Mirchev struck me as the one person who could offer some genuine, unvarnished sense of what had occurred—and whether Bout had intended to go through with the sale. In pre-trial hearings, Bout’s lawyer, Albert Dayan, had left open the possibility that he would call Mirchev to testify. Dayan, however, didn’t bring any witnesses. The prosecutors were left pointing to a single phone conversation between Bout and Mirchev and a few references to Mirchev that Bout made in Thailand in order to make their case.
Then, on one of the last days of the trial, they projected a screenshot from Bout’s computer, showing a Microsoft Outlook entry for Mirchev that included an e-mail and cell-phone number. I called the number a few days later. Mirchev answered. He said that he never spoke to journalists, and was about to hang up when I told him where I’d gotten his number, how his name had already been dragged through the dirt in an American courtroom, and that I wanted to hear his side of things—in person. I said I could be in Sofia within a week or two. He finally agreed.
Mirchev offered to meet me at my hotel. A small, shifty man with boxy cheeks but an otherwise forgettable face, he entered the hotel lobby, shook my hand with a nervous twitch, and suggested we go somewhere else. We ended up two blocks away, at a café called Cookies. We ordered coffee, and, later, a couple of Johnnie Walker Blacks. It was early afternoon. Mirchev spent the rest of the day telling me how he met Bout, how they became good friends, how their families vacationed together, and how he supplied weapons to the young Russian.
So why was Mirchev not targeted, too? That’s a question only the D.E.A. could answer and, for this piece, I wasn’t granted any access to serving D.E.A. agents. But it is apparent that the sting, named Operation Relentless, set its sights solely on Bout.
Anyone else swept up in the raid—apart from Andrew Smulian, who witnessed the evolution of the case and who seemed most ripe for “flipping” and testifying against Bout— was quickly discarded. For instance, the D.E.A. and the Royal Thai Police arrested Bout’s bodyguard Mikhail Belezorosky in Thailand. They briefly questioned him. “First, he said he didn’t speak English. Then he said he was a taxi-driver. Then he said he was on vacation. Then he said he was a taxi-driver on vacation. He was very, very confused,” said Tom Pasquerello, the D.E.A.’s regional director in Bangkok. Another agent gave Belezorosky twenty dollars' worth of Thai baht and told him to leave Bangkok immediately.
Mirchev is nonetheless careful about where he travels these days. Last week, he called me to ask about a woman from The New Yorker who had been calling him, speaking flawless Russian. (Mirchev and I have talked a handful of times on the phone since our meeting in Sofia.) He explained that she was a fact-checker and suggested that the three of us could all get dinner and drinks one evening if he ever visited New York. Then he laughed. “I’m not coming to New York anytime,” he said. “Or else I’ll be in the jail cell next to Viktor.”
The Rest by Nicholas Schmidle @ the New Yorker Magazine