The star witness at the trial of an ex-Soviet officer, Victor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” was a former drug dealer turned U.S. government-sponsored actor who became one of the highest paid informants in history. The picture to the left is that of Victor Bout.
Carlos Sagastume, 40, earned more than $9 million over 15 years by convincing drug dealers and a weapons merchant that he was the real deal. He portrayed himself as a guy even meaner and uglier than those he was working with in his undercover role. Well, he did have some experience.
Sagastume collected a mountain of evidence against Viktor Bout. He posed as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, to coax Bout to travel from Russia to Thailand in March 2008 to arrange to send deadly weapons to Colombian rebels to fight Americans.
The month long trial in federal court in Manhattan ended on November 2, with Bout’s conviction on conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials, to aid a terrorist organization and to deliver anti-aircraft missiles. The arms dealer was an inspiration for the character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film “Lord of War.” Bout faces a potential life sentence.
Sagastume made most of his millions through the State Department’s Narcotics Rewards Program, collecting $7.5 million from two rewards for work he did for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He earned another $1.6 million through work on 150 investigations, though some of the money covered expenses. He was paid $250,000 for the Bout probe. In all, the State Department has paid more than $62 million in rewards since Congress established the program in 1986 to reward individuals who provide information to help arrest and convict drug dealers.
It is amazing that Sagastume was able to live his life under disguise for so long. One would think his cover would have been blown a long time ago. It is also amazing how this man made a career out of being an informant and shocking how much he was paid. It seems the bar has been raised and future informants may also demand to be highly paid for their work.
The Guatemalan-born Sagastume did not seem a likely candidate to be a prosecutor’s best friend when he began transporting drugs, after he finished a five-year stint in Guatemala’s Army, where he specialized in gathering intelligence on subversive activity and guerrilla activists. He testified at Bout’s trial that he was paid $450,000 for helping transport up to 3,000 kilos of cocaine and $3 million in cash for drug organizations.
He said that after he was kidnapped by federal police in Mexico and a $60,000 ransom was paid to free him, he contacted the DEA in Guatemala, looking for a new line of work. By 1998, he had moved to the United States and was steadily delivering successful results in DEA investigations.
In January 2008, he was summoned to join a sting operation designed to catch Bout, who was known as a supplier of weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients ranged from Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan. Bout sure had some scary connections.
Sagastume was assigned to pose as a FARC member who wanted to buy 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 350 sniper rifles, 5 tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition, among other weapons. He teamed up with Ricardo Jardenero, 52, a Colombian-born informant who posed as “The Commandant,” a commanding officer in the FARC, classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
Jardenero was one of the DEA’s better paid informants as well, making $500,000 during four years working undercover. He was paid $320,000 for the Bout probe.
Like Sagastume, Jardenero also was a former drug dealer who could project himself like a rebel commander after a decade in the Colombian Army and time spent shipping weapons for a paramilitary group that opposed the FARC.
Although Sagastume is now widely known, there are still ways the government could continue to use him. I wonder if he will retire to a quiet island or continue his illustrious career as a government spy.