Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Outlaws Inc." by Matt Potter

The next time you see a Samaritan's Purse plane, or a United Nations Charter flight going into a war-torn, or disaster affected region, think of what illicit goods are being taken out of that same area. Or, what other illegal cargoes are hidden within the humanitarian aid. You'd be very surprised. These planes fly into, and out of, multiple countries, often with only the cargo to be off loaded going through inspection. This allows a plane to leave one country with blankets and food, arrive at its destination, exchange the blankets and food for opium, guns or whatever else, and then take off for a third country, where the goods are exchanged for blood diamonds, cash or some other commodity. It's an endless chain.

This story begins with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the War on Afghanistan which preceded it. It is also the story of the resultant "free market" economy which replaced the Soviet collective, and how this has affected global politics and warfare. It is the perfect model of any society, transitioning from one type of government to another, with no regulations, or the authority and ability to both maintain control of, as well as advance the new government. Without controls there can only be anarchy. And with anarchy comes crime. And with those crimes come enormous, and illegal, profits.

When the Soviet Union collapsed upon itself in the early 1990's, the military went unpaid. To make ends meet the soldiers and airmen, under the eyes of their officers, managed to cannibalize, and convert, every piece of military hardware they could lay their hands on. These items were sold internationally to anyone who had the cash to purchase them. Everything from food rations to helicopters and airplanes were up for grabs. This was the beginning of what has become known as the Russian Mafia.

Matt Potter, the author, was able to become embedded with a former Soviet pilot, named "Mickey", a veteran of hundreds of flights into, and out of, Kabul during the ill-advised Afghan War. He now works as a free-lance pilot, some would say a mercenary, shuttling everything from humanitarian aid to illicit weapons and drugs, for anyone with the money to pay for his services.

In 2007 a United Nations panel, investigating fraud among Humanitarian Causes, found that Russian Antonov 26's were being routinely used to fly arms into Darfur, supplying the Jinjaweed Militia, who were terrorizing the country. Their method was simple; they painted the planes in the same colors as the UN relief flights, slipping in, and out, amidst the commotion attendant to any disaster relief effort. And this is just one example of hundreds.

Flying for customers as diverse as Afghan warlords, the Russian Mafia, Christian Aid Groups, NATO, and even the United States government, this is the largest smuggling operation ever known to man. This long out of control scenario seems to be impervious to any real change in the near future. The two main parties, humanitarian aid and the smuggling of weapons and hard drugs are simply too co-dependent upon one another to encourage any real efforts at reform.

In this book, Mr. Potter has written a sweeping indictment of international politics and crime, along with the story of the thin line which separates the two.

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