Frontline World

Sierra Leone - Gunrunners


Synopsis of "Gunrunners"

Web-exclusive report on key players in the small arms trade

Source of Black Market Weapons

U.N. Investigator

Former State Department Analyst

Gunrunning, Cold War Stockpiles, and Conflict Diamonds




March 12, 1942, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

Bernard Lasnosky, Jean-François Bernard, François Laroche.

Illicit sales of Argentinean weapons in the 1990s estimated to have totaled $100 million, including government bribes and payoffs.

Croatia, Ecuador, China, United States, and Somalia.

Accused of brokering sales of 6,500 tons of Argentinean weapons to Croatia and Ecuador in the mid-90s, in violation of U.N. and international embargoes. Faxes signed by Lasnaud document his involvement in and intimate knowledge of the deals. Lasnaud's Argentine partner, Capt. Horacio Estrada, was found shot dead in his Buenos Aires apartment soon after speaking to an investigating judge in the case. Some Florida law enforcement officials suspect that Lasnaud is a protected asset of the CIA or some other U.S. agency.

Interpol has an active warrant for Lasnaud's arrest and extradition to Argentina. The U.S. Department of Justice has refused to pick him up, citing "insufficient evidence" that Lasnaud knew his shipments contained arms.

Until recently, lived in Fort Lauderdale. His son Alexandre, a south Florida attorney, recently served a six-month sentence in federal prison on obstruction of justice charges.

In spring 2002, Lasnaud suddenly left his Florida residence and said he was "traveling outside the U.S." An Interpol source says his ability to travel freely is "highly unusual."



Gallery of International Arms Dealers Jean Bernard Lasnaud - South Florida's Elusive Arms Dealer By Julia Reynolds, Center for Investigative Reporting
with William Kistner and Omar Lavieri in Buenos Aires

UPDATE: Just days after the publication of this Web-exclusive report on May 23, Jean Bernard Lasnaud was arrested in Switzerland in response to an Interpol request. Swiss authorities contacted the Argentina courts, where the current judge on the case quickly requested Lasnaud's extradition. If sent to Argentina, Lasnaud will face 22 years in prison on charges of arms smuggling and "abuse of authority."

As this FRONTLINE/World report pointed out, the U.S. had broken from standard practice and never took even basic steps toward detaining Lasnaud. If he finally faces the Buenos Aires courts, it is hoped Lasnaud's testimony will help shed light on how a wanted international arms smuggler was able to spend a decade living openly in the U.S.

Note: After Lasnaud's arrest, his Web site was taken off the Internet. This story was edited on January 27, 2012 to remove the name of a person unrelated to the subject of the story.

Photo of Lasnaud in parking lotIn the fall of 2001, international arms broker Jean-Bernard Lasnaud was at ease, sounding more like a seasoned entrepreneur than a fugitive from justice.

"Business has been terrible since September 11," he laughed, during a telephone interview with FRONTLINE/World. "I'm going to give it up and buy a hot dog stand in New York City."

Behind his carefree appearance, Lasnaud is a most wanted man. He is sought by Argentina and Interpol in connection with a massive illegal arms trafficking case, and he has been formally accused in European courts of arms smuggling and attempted fraud. Despite nearly three years' of arrest requests from Argentinean jurists, U.S. authorities have let him live peacefully in South Florida. Then, in the spring of 2002, Jean-Bernard Lasnaud disappeared.

Advertisment for Scud MissileA French citizen by birth, Lasnaud has made South Florida his home for more than a decade. Personable and easy-going, he was in the business of selling tanks, rocket launchers and SCUD missiles from a luxury condo in a gated South Florida community. With the proper paperwork, a customer can still order a fighter plane or a 400-bed field hospital from Lasnaud's Web site.

According to Lasnaud's estimate, his Caribbean Group of Companies sells between $1 and $2.5 million of merchandise a year.

Lasnaud insisted his business is just like any other.

"Of course I am completely legitimate," he said. "Why else would I be selling on a Web site, where everybody can see? You can see my licenses right there. And not just anybody can buy from me. You have to have the proper papers, certificates approved by the State Department."

With a sporty bow tie and an easy smile, Lasnaud does not look the image of a shady arms dealer. In January, his name was posted plainly at the gate of his residence near Fort Lauderdale.

"No. I am a husband and a father," he insisted when approached at his home for an interview. After some initial pleasant exchanges, Lasnaud grew tired of reporters' requests and said he did not want to discuss his arms business in South America. "That's old news," he said.

Over the years, Lasnaud, 60, has been sought on a number of arms-related charges - mostly allegations of embargo violations and financial fraud - in France, Belgium and Argentina. A Belgian newspaper reported in 1983 that Lasnaud was convicted in absentia for illegal arms trafficking. He was sentenced to two years in prison, but the newspaper said police could not find him. A few years later, he showed up in the United States.

Lasnaud now stands accused in Buenos Aires courts of brokering sales of Argentinean weapons to Croatia and Ecuador from 1992 to 1995, in violation of U.N. and international embargoes.

As a result, in 1999 Interpol issued a "red notice" for Lasnaud, a high-priority request for immediate arrest and extradition. "An Interpol red notice is the closest instrument to an international arrest warrant in use today," says the U.S. Justice Department Web site. A red notice has been issued for Osama bin Laden -- and for hundreds of accused arms dealers, murderers and drug traffickers most people have never heard of.

For nearly three years, the Justice Department has deviated from standard extradition procedure and has refused to arrest Jean-Bernard Lasnaud, curiously citing lack of evidence. Argentinean prosecutors are stunned at this refusal; a documentary trail of faxes, money transfers and email points to Lasnaud's knowledge and participation in the sales.

Now it may be too late for the US to arrest him. After years of living freely in the U.S., Lasnaud appears to have gone missing. His former attorney Kenneth Warner says he hasn't heard from Lasnaud since March, and Warner confirms that Lasnaud has moved out of his condo. In early May, his phone was disconnected. Caribbean Group was handed over to the care of a Miami man named Seyed Moghani, who says that Lasnaud is in France. "He still owns the business," Moghani says, and customers can still place orders via fax.

On May 14, Lasnaud told FRONTLINE/World via email, "I am traveling out of the U.S. for the time being." He added, "I have nothing to declare and I do not wish to answer to any questions."

A source at Interpol headquarters in France says that travelling internationally with a red notice is "highly unusual."

The Argentina and Ecuador Deals

Between 1992 and 1995, Argentina's President Carlos Menem signed several decrees authorizing sales of Argentine-made arms to Uruguay and Panama. But the true destinations were Croatia, which was under a U.N. arms embargo, and Ecuador, embargoed by the 1945 Rio Accord because of its ongoing war with Peru. >> View a map of the arms trail

In all, more than 6,500 tons of small arms and ammunition found its way to wars in the Balkans and the Andes, for fees totaling $100 million or more. Investigators estimate that half the money went for bribes.

Witnesses testified that Jean-Bernard Lasnaud was seen at the Port of Buenos Aires, inspecting one of the shipments bound for Croatia. But the most significant documentary evidence against him surfaced from Argentina's Ecuador deals.

Lasnaud is accused of brokering the sale of more than 70 tons of rifles and ammunition to Ecuador. To facilitate the deal, he partnered with Navy Capt. Horacio Estrada, who has been accused of torture and murder during Argentina's "Dirty War."

It was a sweet deal gone bad. In February 1995, three shipments of what turned out to be old and defective weapons were flown to Quito. Rifles were missing their cleaning mechanisms and bayonets. Boxes were stamped with recent dates, but the ammunition was manufactured as far back as 1972.

The Ecuadorian military was outraged. Lasnaud and Estrada scrambled to apologize. In a handwritten fax, Lasnaud and Estrada offered Russian anti-tank missiles to make up for their faux pas. The apology was apparently accepted, because Estrada received a transfer of $1.85 million from the Junta de Defensa Nacional de Quito. He had already issued a payment of $22,000 to Lasnaud a few days earlier.

By July 1995, Ecuador tried to cancel the balance of its contract with Lasnaud's Caribbean Group, but 9.2 million cartridges were already on their way to Quito. This time the supplies came from Iran, because Argentina was attracting too much press. Details of the deal had leaked just days after the weapons landed in Ecuador. It now appears that the Ecuador sale was an attempt by a relative of President Menem to turn the dregs of Argentina's arsenal into quick cash. It was a sloppy deal that thrust a reluctant Lasnaud into the international spotlight.

Photo of EstradaDeath of a Witness

Three years later, in 1998, Lasnaud was home in Florida, still brokering helicopters, small arms and anti-aircraft missile launchers with his partner Estrada. But in August 1998, Estrada was interrogated by an Argentinean judge for his role in the Croatia and Ecuador sales. Estrada issued a written statement to the court insisting that although he knew Lasnaud, they never completed a business transaction together.

Four days later, Estrada was found shot dead in his Buenos Aires apartment. Police investigators ruled the death a suicide. They found 92 email messages from Lasnaud in Estrada's computer, all sent during the previous week and a half.

One last email message urgently requested shipment of 1,500 rifles to Sierra Leone, where arms to rebel forces have been embargoed since 1997. Lasnaud signed off with, "Funds are available for this operation immediately. Best Regards, Juan."

Estrada never read Lasnaud's final request. He was already dead.

"Arrest first, ask questions later"

The Lasnaud case is part of a matrix of arms sales, corruption scandals and terrorist bombings that have helped destabilize Argentina in recent years. It was Argentina's ongoing investigations into those events that led to Interpol's red notice for Lasnaud. Buenos Aires courts have looked to U.S. law enforcement for assistance in its investigations, but the requests seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

Six months after the September 11 attacks, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told a gathering of Ministers of Justice and Attorneys General of the Americas that he applauded efforts to combat arms smuggling, and he stressed the importance of mutual assistance in extradition cases, "because only the criminals will benefit from restrictions on our ability to cooperate." Despite the tough talk, the U.S. has been inconsistent in enforcing weapons laws at home. While some international arms dealers such as Victor Bout are high-priority targets of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement, others such as Lasnaud don't seem to make it onto the radar screen. Typically, when Interpol issues a red notice, the Justice Department "arrests first and asks questions later," as one law enforcement official put it. Standard extradition procedures are followed even in minor cases. For instance, in 1992, a Miami resident was handcuffed, arrested, jailed for 40 days, and voluntarily extradited in response to an Argentinean judge's request. The charge? Owing $76 to a client in Buenos Aires.

Argentinean prosecutors wonder, then, why the U.S. never arrested Lasnaud, an arms dealer accused of secretly brokering weapons smuggled around the world.

Jeffrey Denner, a criminal defense attorney who helped rewrite the U.S.-U.K. extradition treaty, says that it is common procedure to make an immediate arrest in such cases, because the aim is to make sure the suspect doesn't flee.

At that point, Denner says, questioning the other country's evidence is rare. "It's not up to us to decide whether he's guilty under Argentinean law. There's some basic due process that has to be covered, but beyond that, it's just not something we look into, ever." Typically, it is only after the arrest that the foreign evidence is examined in an extradition hearing before a magistrate judge.

Northwestern University professor and international law expert Anthony D'Amato says that determining "sufficient evidence" is up to each country, but asking for it up front is rare. "There's no particular evidence rule," says D'Amato. "When it hasn't even gotten to the stage of a magistrate and it's just being done by the police, nobody has to be convinced of anything -- unless, as I suspect here, the U.S. doesn't want to be convinced."

D'Amato says the procedure usually only varies when "there's some political reason why the U.S. doesn't want to do it. Because normally, the State Department is super-vigilant about dealing with these cases."

"The interesting aspect," says Jeffrey Denner, "would be whether he's cooperating with the U.S. government or some of our allies, and that's why they're not doing this."

U.S. "Winked" at Arms Sales

National interests were apparently at stake in some of Lasnaud's deals. Dr. Daniel Nelson, a former arms proliferation consultant to the State Department, was in Croatia during the time of the sales. Nelson says that in the early 1990s, the US was in favor of arming Croatia but did not want to openly violate the U.N. embargo; instead, officials simply "winked" at weapons shipments from Argentina, South Africa, Hungary, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine and Iran.

"U.S. people were engaged in trying to find sources [to get arms to Croatia] - Islamic, and those that weren't. And Argentina was one of those," Nelson says.

The State Department initially denied knowledge of Argentina's embargo violations.

"[Ambassador Peter] Galbraith and the U.S. Embassy knew about that," says Nelson. "To suspect that they did not know about the Argentina deals, when Argentineans were speaking Spanish in the Croatian Defense Ministry, is ridiculous."

Galbraith later admitted that while the U.S. did not openly endorse violating the U.N. embargo, he did tell the Croatians to "pay attention to what I did not say. ... It was meant to mean that we were not objecting."

Another possible explanation emerged in a recent F.B.I. investigation of Lasnaud's son, Alexandre, for unrelated charges. In a tape made as part of that undercover investigation, Alexandre bragged to an informant that his father collaborated with the CIA. He claimed he and his father were attempting to buy Chinese radar equipment for the U.S. military.

"What we're ordering, okay, is top secret, top secret sh-[that] the United States Military, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy want," Alexandre Lasnaud said, according to the transcript. "But it's not something that they publicize all over the world, saying we are seeking this, okay? ...They talked to my dad yesterday and they reiterate, we need this thing fast."

"It's [not] something that the Democrats and Congress would understand -- that the United States Army is paying people to purchase foreign military items -- even though it's for the purpose of training American troops."

Jean-Bernard Lasnaud is authorized to do business with the U.S. government and he proudly publishes his Defense Logistics Information Service license number on his Web site. "Government bids welcomed," reads the home page, under a "God Bless America" icon. An ownership trace of aircraft offered for sale on the site confirmed that at least one tanker-refueler plane is registered to the U.S. Air Force.

A former U.S. intelligence agent stationed in Latin America tells FRONTLINE/World he has confirmed that Lasnaud has been a C.I.A. asset "since the Iran-Contra days," but says it is unclear whether he still has that status.

"Lasnaud certainly fits the profile," a former U.S. Customs official in the Miami area agrees. "He's probably either [a C.I.A.] asset or he's an informant for Customs or some other agency."

Sources from the criminal defense bar, the National Security Council, U.S. Customs and intelligence agencies agree there are only a few reasons that the Justice Department would not follow its normal procedure when faced with a red notice: it could be plain old bureaucratic incompetence; the subject has been or is an active informant in a criminal matter; or he is performing work deemed vital to U.S. national security.

For example, in 1986 agents from U.S. Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms impounded an Air National Guard Huey helicopter found in arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian's hangar, bound for El Salvador. But authorities dropped all charges. The reason, according to a U.S. Customs source, is that Soghanalian was providing information to U.S. intelligence.

Another source in the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami says that when the Justice Department does not honor a red notice in the usual procedural manner, there "must be something else going on" related to U.S. national security or U.S. intelligence agencies.

The Invisible Man

Whatever the reasons for American reluctance to arrest Lasnaud, Argentina has not given up its effort to prosecute him. Even in the midst of economic crisis, the arms case remains a priority. In 2000, ex-president Carlos Menem and other top officials were investigated and placed under house arrest for their suspected roles in the arms deals. Although Menem was set free by a friendly Supreme Court last November, that decision was recently overturned and a new investigation of the former president has been ordered. In April, former finance minister Domingo Cavallo was arrested in connection with the arms sales. Three separate cases have been combined into one, and the Interpol arrest request for Lasnaud remains in force.

According to the Department of Justice Criminal Division spokesman Bryan Sierra, the department stands by the original claim made by the division's Office of International Affairs -- that there is insufficient evidence Lasnaud knew the Ecuador shipments contained weapons. Yet it seems unlikely that U.S. investigators have not seen the fax and documents FRONTLINE/World has obtained that indicate otherwise.

If nothing else, U.S. law enforcement's response has been confusing. U.S. Customs weapons investigators in Lasnaud's own neighborhood knew myriad details of the Argentina deals, but say they've never heard of Lasnaud. Meanwhile, officials in Customs headquarters in Washington acknowledge that they do know who he is. An assistant U.S. attorney initially expressed interest in the case, but after checking with colleagues said he could not meet with reporters. "I don't know what to tell you," he apologized. "Sorry I can't help more."

Now Lasnaud may be gone for good. A former intelligence agent says, "The fact that he was here bothers me. The fact that he got out with a red notice on him bothers me even more."

Dr. Graciela Abreu of the Argentinean embassy in Washington was perplexed as to why the Department of Justice never arrested Lasnaud. "We wanted to prevent this guy from leaving the country," she says. Although the Interpol notice remains in effect, Argentina cannot request extradition without knowing where Lasnaud is.

When a cameraman for the Center for Investigative Reporting spotted Lasnaud in a parking lot last December, he called out, "Are you Mr. Lasnaud?" Startled, Lasnaud smiled and answered mischievously, "But it's not me." With that, he drove off, a bright American flag on his windshield, looking just like any other patriot in times of terror.

Six months later, the arms baron of Ft. Lauderdale may be set to become the target of an international manhunt.

Additional reporting by Lowell Bergman, Allyce Bess, Dave Gilson, Marlena Telvick, Monica Sagullo, James Sandler, Will Evans, Mabel Tampinco, Robin Stein, Kelly Davis and Jared Saylor.

Thanks to Gerardo Reyes, Patrick Oppman, and Ralph Renick Jr.

Julia Reynolds is a staff reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting and editorial director of El Andar Magazine.

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