DEA Informant Testifies in Viktor Bout Trial

Earlier, it was reported that the DEA informant in the Viktor Bout case was paid $1.5 million. Scratch that, it was $8 million and rising. Former Guatemalan soldier and drug dealer turned DEA informant, Carlos Sagastume, testified yesterday in the trial of accused arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Sagastume testified his supplier in Guatemala got busted and Mexican police took him to Mexico, where he was freed after paying a $60,000 "ransom." He then contacted the U.S. embassy offering to be an informant for the DEA. The DEA brought him to the U.S. in 1998 and he's been working as a paid informant for them ever since. He's made over 150 cases and says it's the best paying employment he's ever had.

He testified that he has been paid $1.6 million by the DEA and $7.5 million by the State Department. He said he raked in $250,000 from the Bout case alone, and hopes to earn more money from the case.


As part of his role in the Bout DEA sting, the DEA flew him to Curacao.

Sagastume was to play a "negotiator" for the FARC. Another informant, "Ricardo," would be his "comandante."

Bout was arrested at a hotel in Thailand after meeting with the pretend guerrillas and extradited to the U.S. He's charged with conspiring to kill Americans and US officials, illegal surface-to-air missile trafficking, and supporting terrorism through cooperation with the Colombian terrorist organization FARC.

Bout says he was negotiating to sell two airplanes, not arms. His co-defendant, who initially got caught up in the sting, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government against Bout.

A prior "catch" of informant Sagastume was Monzer al Kassar, (Indictment here.)who was convicted and sentenced to 30 years following a sting very much like the one used on Bout. Al-Kassar's conviction was upheld last month, and the Second Circuit ruled lies by the DEA to to those it is trying to trap in order to get jurisdiction in the U.S. are okay. The opinion is here. An interesting sidenote: one of the three judges affirming al-Kassar's conviction was District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, sitting by designation. She is the trial judge in Viktor Bout's case.

As for why Sagastume has received $8 plus million for his informant work, I suspect it's likely that he's getting a percentage of property ordered forfeited. In cases of criminal forfeiture, like al-Kassar and Viktor Bout, the Government must get a conviction on the criminal charge in order to succeed on the forfeiture. So if Bout were to be acquitted, there would be no forfeiture. That gives the informant a personal stake in seeing Bout convicted.

Al Kassar's criminal judgment included an order to forfeit all foreign and domestic assets. How much did Carlos Sagastume get? In his testimony yesterday against Viktor Bout, Sagastume said he had already received $250,000. for his work on Bout and was expecting more. He was likely referring to a portion of the anticipated forfeiture, which as of now is an unknown, because there has to be a conviction for Bout to be ordered to forfeit anything.

Just as police departments shouldn't get a percentage of the property they seize, either should informants. The incentive to lie is just too great.

One last note on Sagastume and Al Kassar. Al-Kassar sold weapons in a lot of countries over his 30 year career, including Iran. Was Sagastume involved in the recent sting involving the alleged plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador? While Sagastume is not the only informant the DEA used in al-Kassar, Bout and similar arms cases, he speaks Spanish, is experienced in the world of Mexican drug smuggling and could play the role of a Zeta as easily as a FARC operative, and could probably convincingly claim to have Iranian connections. It seems likely to me there must be a limited number of DEA informants with the savvy to bridge such disparate groups as the Zetas and Iranian secret forces. It's not like the DEA just calls Central Casting.

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  • Display: Sort:
    so, (none / 0) (#1)
    by cpinva on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 07:20:39 PM EST
    i guess if i had enough money, and enough incentive, i could buy myself an informant, and get someone caught up in a sting and have them arrested. i would then be able to put in a claim for a % of their seized assets, assuming they were convicted.


    the finder of fact (none / 0) (#2)
    by diogenes on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 07:40:36 PM EST
    "Just as police departments shouldn't get a percentage of the property they seize, either should informants. The incentive to lie is just too great."

    If you're really saying that juries convict based on a paid informant's word with NO corroborating evidence, then maybe it's time to get rid of the jury system.

    no, it's time to change the law (none / 0) (#3)
    by Jeralyn on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 07:50:29 PM EST
    and to stop the funding of these sting operations that result in hauling the people ensnared to the U.S. where they are prosecuted and incarcerated for decades on our dime. Our money is better used elsewhere.

    well, let's try a little experiment: (none / 0) (#5)
    by cpinva on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 11:01:45 PM EST
    how many of these cases would ever make it to indictment, absent a paid informant? would the absence of the paid informant's testimony have resulted in a different verdict?

    of course, we've had paid witnesses since the concept of an "expert witness" took hold. one could argue there's little difference between a paid "expert witness", and a paid informant.


    blinded by DEA hate (none / 0) (#6)
    by diogenes on Thu Oct 20, 2011 at 05:00:19 PM EST
    Anti sting people are blinded by hatred of drug laws.  Make drugs legal if you want to.
    If 25% of women on the streets were armed undercover cops with fourth degree black belts, no one would assault women any more.  That's the power of a sting.
    And undercover people usually pull in documents, tape recordings, etc to the trial.    

    so, so true (none / 0) (#4)
    by Amiss on Wed Oct 19, 2011 at 10:37:16 PM EST
    "The incentive to lie is just too great."