United Nations — An investigation by the Conflict Awareness Project has exposed an active arms trading network of associates of former trafficker Viktor Bout that involves companies from the United States, South Africa and the United Kingdom, among other countries.
All are cross-linked in a complex system with its centre in the island of Mauritius.
The traffickers' ultimate goal was to access countries such as Iran, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and possibly Syria, researchers say.
Kathi Lynn Austin, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, led the investigation and just returned from South Africa, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Mauritius. The former U.N. arms investigator was able to track down the illicit activities of this network led by two main actors who once were Bout's top lieutenants: Sergey Denisenko and Andrei Kosolapov.
"Many actors involved in this network had a connection to Viktor Bout and are back in the game of shipping arms to war zones," Austin said.
Bout, also known as the "merchant of death," is a former Soviet Air Force officer who in April was sentenced to 25 years in prison for trying to sell weapons and aircraft missiles to what he thought were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) but were in fact part of a sting operation set up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
This time around, the illicit activities took place in Mauritius, an island situated on Africa's southeast coast. It is a strategic spot due to its location as a gateway between Africa, Asia and the Middle East and thanks to tax incentives, drop-box addresses and offshore banking.
The Denisenko-Kosolapov network tried to obtain an Air Operation Certificate from the Mauritius government, which is required for planes to take off. For that purpose they sought a partnership with a local aviation company with a pre-existing certificate so they could quickly start working.
"What they were doing was very similar to patterns I have seen before," Austin said during the press briefing. "They wanted a flag of convenience, they wanted something called an air operation certificate."
With multiple relationships, proxies and agreements, the two arms brokers built a complex network that involved companies such as Avialinx TRD (United Arab Emirates), Gibson & Hills Investment LTD (Mauritius), Superfly Aviation (Mauritius) and Island Air Systems LTD (Mauritius.)
"They actually operated with multiple layers, shell companies and holding companies with offshore bank accounts in order to facilitate their network," Austin explained.
After different negotiations and change of tactics, and following a meeting between representatives from the Conflict Awareness Project and the Department of Civil Aviation and the Foreign Ministry of Mauritius, earlier this month the Mauritian authorities denied the application of the company Island Air System for the air operation certificate.
"We've stopped a trafficking operation from taking root in Mauritius," said Austin. "But multiple governments still need to take direct action to shut down this global network for good."
Although Denisenko and Kosolapov are barred from entering the U.S., they tried to evade U.S. sanctions and regulations by acquiring U.S. pilots, pilot training, aircraft and aviation services.
Since Denisenko is currently listed in the Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), any U.S. person or entity is banned from doing business with him or his companies.
"He actually acquired a lease agreement through a Finnish company called Alandia Air and leased a plane out of the U.S. from Bangor, Main, from a company called C&L Aerospace," she said.
It was the U.S. division of the C&L Aerospace company that got caught up in the illicit activities of Denisenko and Kosolapov.
In the report, the company expressed their concern with the Denisenko connections: "We did not even think to check the possibility that they were performing illegal activities."
The executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project told IPS that she met with the U.S. embassy in Mauritius and gave them information from the investigation, but she did not have an opportunity to follow up with the U.S. government.
"We've demonstrated an illegal activity occurring in the U.S. so then it becomes a matter for investigation and judiciary," she explained.
The full report will be published on Wednesday under the title: "Viktor Bout's Gunrunning Successors: Catch Me if You Can."
This investigation's finding were presented at the United Nations as some 190 governments are in the midst of negotiations for a global Arms Trade Treaty. It reveals the importance of a strong and effective treaty to control the flow and supply of weapons, ammunition and armaments.
When the main issue of controversy seems to be the inclusion of small arms and ammunition, Conflict Awareness Project's report evidences the need to agree on a robust definition of cover brokers.
It recommends that any definition should include "the entire cast of intermediaries facilitating an arms trade transaction, such as dealers, transporters, financial entities, insurance agents and holding company managers."
"You can have solid laws, good track records, and well-meaning intentions," said Austin, "but without a uniform international standard, arms traffickers can still take advantage of the best-governed nations of the world."