A grand jury has charged a Swedish man with trying to sell weapons to Colombian guerrillas in exchange for cocaine, the latest in a series of "narco-terrorism" cases launched by U.S. prosecutors against alleged traffickers in other countries.
Paul "Stallion" Mardirossian faces charges of drug smuggling, providing support to terrorists, money laundering and weapons possession. He was arrested in Panama and pleaded not guilty on Monday in a Manhattan federal court.
"Mardirossian commanded a global empire of weaponry and sought to arm and fund insurgents and terrorists around the world," Derek Maltz, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's special operations division, said in a written statement. "With 'Stallion' out of business and in a U.S. courtroom, the world is a safer place."
Prosecutors say Mardirossian agreed to sell rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and other weapons to undercover agents that he believed to be members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The agents met with Mardirossian in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2010, the grand jury indictment said. Shortly afterward, it said, he sent them a price list. An AK-47 assault rifle would cost $1,900; a rocket-propelled grenade launcher was $4,000.
The agents told Mardirossian that they needed the weapons to attack a U.S. base that was under construction, the indictment said. They also persuaded him to wire $20,000 to a U.S. bank as an investment on a load of cocaine that they told him would be sold in the United States, prosecutors say.
In January, Mardirossian drove to a site outside Panama City to check the quality of a 50-kilogram sample of the cocaine that would be used to pay for the weapons, according to the indictment. It says Mardirossian later delivered a weapons sample _ an assault rifle and grenade launcher _ to an undercover agent in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was arrested in Panama on April 27.
Mardirossian's lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, said her client had no interest in harming the United States. She said the case is part of a pattern of U.S. drug agents overstepping their bounds to ensnare foreign citizens.
"It seems to be a colossal waste of our taxpayer money," Shroff said. "Criminal cases should not be created by purposefully targeting and ensnaring citizens of other countries who have no malice towards our citizens."
A 2006 law made it easier for U.S. agents to prosecute drug smugglers if investigators could show they are linked to international terrorism groups. Smugglers could be charged even if no drugs ever entered the United States.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have been the most aggressive in using the new law, often in cooperation with the DEA's special operations division.
In many cases the U.S. agents pose as members of the FARC, as the Colombian guerrilla group is known. In order to establish U.S. jurisdiction, they tell suspects that some of the drugs will be sold in the United States or that weapons will be used against Americans.
The highest-profile suspect caught in one of the stings was Russian Viktor Bout, an alleged arms trafficker. In November, Thailand extradited him to the United States.
Defense lawyers have argued unsuccessfully in court that U.S. prosecutors are unfairly "manufacturing jurisdiction" in such cases.
In August, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complained the United States was overstepping its bounds by arresting Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot charged with plotting to fly cocaine from South America to Africa.
"How do U.S. state interests come into the picture? No one can say exactly," Putin said, according to the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
A jury convicted Yaroshenko and a Nigerian man, Chigo Peter Umeh, of drug trafficking on April 28. They will be sentenced in July. The jury acquitted two other defendants, Nathaniel French and Kudufia Mawuko.