Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History (2015)
In early May of 2007, Alex Podrizki met the Albanian businessman Kosta Trebicka at the Illy Caffe in Tirana, a slick new place on Rruga Pandi Dardha. Trebicka was in his late forties, a former lawyer who’d turned himself into a prosperous entrepreneur. Years earlier, he’d lived in the United States, in Syracuse in upstate New York, with his first wife and their daughter. He spoke fluent English and considered himself knowledgeable about Americans. He’d also served in the Albanian military, rising to the rank of major and accumulating a significant fortune from the sale of state-owned assets after the collapse of Communism.
Trebicka listened intently as Podrizki told him he needed eighty thousand boxes to repack 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo. Podrizki explained that the wooden pallets holding the ammo were too heavy to ship by plane. Fuel prices had made airfreight prohibitively expensive. Using reinforced cardboard and lighter pallets would save a significant amount of money on transportation. The US Army had approved the plan, Podrizki said.
Podrizki asked if Trebicka might be interested in doing the repacking job as well as supplying the boxes. Trebicka was indeed: he had access to a pool of workers and ambition to burn. Podrizki was excited and relieved: finding someone in Albania to do such an odd job had looked as if it would be extremely difficult, but Trebicka promised to solve both of AEY’s problems at once.
The next day, Podrizki and Trebicka went to the military section of Tirana’s airport, where 2 million rounds of ammo were stored in an open-air hangar. To begin, Trebicka brought along forty workers, drawn from the people who worked at his cardboard factory. Half of the ammo was Albanian-made, half had Chinese markings on the boxes. Podrizki told Trebicka to have the workers divide the crates into two piles—one Albanian, the other Chinese. Podrizki said to start with the Albanian rounds. Following Podrizki’s instructions, Trebicka showed his crew how to remove the metal cans from the crates. Each can contained 640 rounds of ammo, with batches of twenty cartridges wrapped in stencil paper that indicated the place of manufacture, age, and caliber. For the Albanian rounds, the ammo could be put in the cardboard boxes still wrapped in paper, making the task relatively easy. The workers were instructed to inspect the ammunition to make sure it wasn’t rusted, discolored, or obviously faulty; any rounds that were flawed were to be put aside.
Trebicka had his workers repack one pallet of ammo in order to assess the difficulty so he could come up with a quote. Trebicka then had an extended phone conversation about the cost with Diveroli in Miami. After the inevitable dickering they agreed on $240,000.
As Trebicka’s team worked away, the supply of Albanian ammo quickly ran dry. A million rounds of Albanian ammo had been palletized and was ready to be shipped—as soon as AEY could get the logistics of the flight to Kabul organized.
But Ylli Pinari announced that MEICO would supply only Chinese ammunition from now on. The Chinese ammunition was in good condition, Podrizki could see—it was actually better quality than the Albanian rounds. But the repacking would have to be done differently, Podrizki explained to Trebicka. Instead of putting the Chinese ammunition in the cardboard boxes still wrapped in the stencil paper, the paper would have to be removed, too. Every round would still be inspected for quality, but instead of being in neatly wrapped stacks the ammo would be put loose into plastic bags.
“Be careful to make sure there are no Chinese markings on any of the material inside the cardboard boxes,” Podrizki told Trebicka.
Trebicka agreed to follow Podrizki’s new system—but with a quizzical look on his face. The stencil paper didn’t add any weight, so why take it out? It made the job messier and more time-consuming, to no purpose that Trebicka could see.
Inspecting and repacking millions of rounds was proving to be maddeningly slow and difficult. After a few days of his workers’ toiling away, Trebicka feared he’d seriously underbid his price. During breaks he complained that he was going to lose money if things didn’t speed up. Podrizki said he could do nothing to change the price. Exasperated, Trebicka called Diveroli in Miami to try to renegotiate. Removing the ammo from the cans was a waste of time, Trebicka said; the cans didn’t add significant weight. Why bother? Trebicka asked. AEY was going to have to pay him more, Trebicka said, or he would stack the cans inside the cardboard boxes, instead of removing all the rounds. The same was true for the stencil paper.
“Are there Chinese markings on the lids of the cans?” Diveroli asked.
“Yes,” Trebicka replied.
“Are there Chinese markings on the paper wrappers?”
Diveroli said that the operation had to continue as instructed, even if it was going to cost more. A new price was agreed, granting the Albanian an extra $40,000 for his trouble. Trebicka was surprised by Diveroli’s response—and suspicious. That evening, Trebicka and Podrizki went to a local restaurant for dinner. Both ordered fish soup, a traditional Albanian delicacy.
“This is a very strange thing to do,” Trebicka said to Podrizki. “Why do you want to spend all this money for repacking the same ammunition?”
“Weight,” Alex replied. “Everything is done to avoid wasting money on airfreight.”
“But what is such a strong reason to hide the Chinese writings on the top of the cans?” Trebicka asked. “And the Chinese letters on the paper, too—why do this?”
“Don’t worry, Kosta. The simple reason is that the ammo passes over different countries during transportation. If the authorities in another country stop the flight and see that part of the ammunition is from Albania and part is from China they will start an investigation. The difference will have to be explained. That will delay the shipments. We’ll lose the contract if we don’t deliver on time.”
Trebicka didn’t seem satisfied. Podrizki was a man of few words—the less said the better, he believed. But he realized he needed to be direct with Trebicka, or at least give him an explanation that was believable.
Leaning forward, Podrizki confided that the truth was that Chinese ammo wasn’t allowed under the contract. He explained the situation as it had been explained to him—the ban and the fact that the ammo had been manufactured in China was a contractual issue between the Army and AEY. He said AEY was searching for alternative sources for the ammo, but it’d default on the whole contract if they didn’t ship on time. AEY had no choice—it had to repack. Nothing about the repacking changed the quality of the rounds, or the urgency of the need in Kabul.
“I had my own personal reservations, but I kept moving forward, hoping things would work themselves out somehow,” Podrizki recalled. “I wasn’t ready to quit and go home. It was a problem to do with the terms of the contract—not the quality of the ammunition.”
Trebicka listened silently, a serious expression on his face. He was quiet for maybe ten seconds.
“I imagined in those moments he drew the same conclusion that I had,” Podrizki said. “He was going to keep going. He could understand the reasoning. It wasn’t such a big deal. The ammo was good quality, even if it was old, so what was the difference if the Chinese markings were removed? It wasn’t like we were hiding flaws in the ammunition to trick the American military. Every round was inspected for quality.”
But privately Trebicka wasn’t pleased by Podrizki’s reassurance. Concerned that AEY might be breaking the law, Trebicka decided to reach out to a contact he had in the US Embassy, a diplomat he’d known for years. Robert Newsome was a State Department official who worked as an economic representative in Albania. Trebicka met Newsome at the Chocolate Café next to the US Embassy. Trebicka described AEY’s arms contract and how the company had hired him to repack the AK-47 rounds. The ammunition was Chinese, Trebicka said. He explained how his workers were breaking down every wooden crate, putting the rounds into plastic bags, then putting the bags into the cardboard boxes.
“Why are they doing that?” Newsome asked.
Trebicka repeated what Podrizki had told him about weight and freight and the possibility that the flight would be grounded in a third country en route to Afghanistan—leaving out the possibility that Chinese ammo was forbidden under AEY’s contract. Newsome asked for Alex’s mobile phone number.
“Everything is okay,” Newsome assured Trebicka. “The contract is a great help for the United States. We’ve been looking for funding to demolish most of the ammunition in Albania.”
The next day Trebicka told Podrizki about his encounter with the State Department official.
“What did Newsome say when you told him the ammo was Chinese?” Podrizki asked.
“He said it was okay,” Trebicka said. “He said it was a great idea to send the ammunition from Albania to Afghanistan so it doesn’t have to be destroyed here.”
This was great news: a senior American official apparently didn’t care that “Chinese” ammunition was being transported to Kabul. Surely the diplomat knew about the ban and didn’t think it mattered, or applied. Newsome called Podrizki later that day. The State Department attaché told Podrizki that he had firsthand knowledge of the situation in America’s two war zones—how dire and desperate the need for ammunition really was. In wartime, bureaucratic niceties had to give way to the realities on the ground—and the reality was that standing up armies in Iraq and Afghanistan was a top strategic priority for the US government.
“I understand you’re repacking and delivering Russian, Albanian, and Chinese ammunition to send to Afghanistan,” Newsome said.
“No,” Podrizki said. “We’re only delivering Albanian and Chinese.”
“I’m familiar with the ongoing war effort. I know what’s going on.”
Podrizki took this to be unspoken approval, the proverbial nudge and a wink. Finally talking to a friendly person, Podrizki described the troubles he faced. There were still delays in getting more of the ammo to the airport. Onerous fees had to be paid at the airport because the authorities were treating the flights as commercial instead of governmental. Could Newsome help get the fees waived?
“I can help,” Newsome said. “I’ll stay in touch with Trebicka and let you know how things progress.”
/ / / / /
On May 16, 2007, AEY’s first shipment of ammunition under the Afghanistan contract touched down in Kabul. But it wasn’t the ammo from Albania—the repacking for the first planeload still wasn’t complete, and the dudes hadn’t been able to obtain the proper overflight permissions. Nor had they been able to find a reasonable price for the airfreight from Tirana to Kabul.
AEY’s first shipment consisted of hand grenades—110,000 grenades from Bulgaria. An Azerbaijan airline called Silkway made the delivery, charging $130,000 for the flight. AEY could afford to pay the high price to Silkway for the shipment of grenades because the load was worth $3 million. With the AK-47 ammo, each load was worth only $300,000, so the exorbitant airfreight cost meant AEY would make no money on the deal.
“The first delivery was a huge relief for us,” David Packouz recalled. “We were finally performing, even if the cost of airfreight was insane. But there were still lots of problems getting overflight permissions. It was the hardest thing I’d ever tried to do.”
To coordinate the flights from Albania, AEY hired a string of logistics companies that specialized in that business. The companies assured Packouz they could arrange the required permissions, but they’d call back a few days later saying they couldn’t complete the contract. It was a mystery—as if invisible forces were interfering with AEY.
Taking up the job himself, Packouz called the American embassies in the countries where AEY was having a hard time—Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan. After weeks of cajoling, the military attachés were finally able to help Packouz get overflight permission for every country except Turkmenistan. For some reason, they couldn’t get that one, so Packouz had the idea of using Turkmenistan’s airline, and it worked—no lubricant was better than money for a gunrunner greasing the wheels of commerce.
In late May, an ancient Ilyushin 76 from Turkmenistan landed in Tirana and taxied to the military section of the airport, where the repacking was taking place. The giant cargo plane was in terrible condition, and US military officials stationed at the airport joked about its being unable to take off.
The pallets were finally ready to be loaded. But as preparations were made, Kosta Trebicka’s ambitions appeared to be changing. He now had fifty workers busily taking AK-47 ammo from cans and putting it into plastic bags, placing the bags in cardboard boxes, then arranging the boxes on pallets. It was hard work and he was making a pittance, at least compared with Ylli Pinari of MEICO. Or so Trebicka surmised. Pinari was doing nothing but arranging for delivery of the ammo from stockpiles around the country. While Trebicka and his workers slaved away in the open-air hangar, all Pinari did was make a few phone calls and military trucks loaded with AK-47 ammo turned up at the airport. How much was Pinari personally making from the deal? Trebicka wondered—because in Albania he was certain that an unctuous official, like the head of MEICO, would be taking a cut.
As Trebicka drove Podrizki to the sea one day, on a sightseeing trip, he bad-mouthed the Albanian officials in MEICO, most especially Pinari—“little people,” he called them. Trebicka claimed that he could “protect” AEY from Pinari.
Walking along the beach, Trebicka said that he’d done clandestine work for the CIA during the eighties and early nineties. He claimed he’d been instrumental in overthrowing the old Communist regime. He said he remained deeply connected to the American intelligence apparatus in Albania, an invisible network that had great influence in the country.
Podrizki didn’t know what to make of Trebicka’s new attitude, or his tales of intrigue. It sounded like empty boasting. Podrizki duly reported the offer to “protect” AEY to Diveroli, more as a joke than a serious matter.
Diveroli was intrigued by Trebicka’s claims. If the Albanian businessman was so well connected, Diveroli said, perhaps he could find out what the Swiss arms dealer Henri Thomet was really paying MEICO for the ammo. Diveroli had long wondered what Thomet’s true profit margin was.
Trying to squeeze every last dollar from the deal, Diveroli called Trebicka directly. The Albanian businessman was eager to ingratiate himself with the young gunrunner. Trebicka readily agreed to use his connections to find out the price Thomet was paying; Trebicka had a contact inside the Ministry of Defense who could do some sleuthing for him. A few days later, Trebicka called and told Diveroli that he’d discovered that MEICO was selling the ammo for $22 for every thousand rounds. That translated to 2.2 cents a round. Diveroli was stunned speechless, at least for a moment, as he did a quick calculation. AEY was paying $40 per thousand, or four cents a round. That meant Diveroli was paying nearly double what Thomet was paying. Thomet was making millions of dollars for doing literally nothing, while AEY was repacking the ammo and arranging for all the logistics of delivery—and taking all the risk on the China matter. Diveroli’s profit margin was tiny, Thomet’s huge.
“Fuck Thomet,” Diveroli screamed. “He’s a fucking thief.”
“This is your business,” Trebicka said. “Only you know what to do about it.”
“You have lots of contacts in Albania,” Diveroli said. “Can you have somebody go talk to the minister of defense to kick Thomet out and let us buy directly from MEICO?”
“I can do this. But I have to be paid properly for my unpacking and repacking the ammunition.”
A deal was quickly struck, nearly doubling Trebicka’s pay. A lengthy phone call with Ralph Merrill, in Utah, led the older businessman to write to Thomet (the Swiss broker had ceased replying to Diveroli’s messages). Merrill’s e-mail had to tread through a field littered with land mines of lies, half-truths, and subtle deceptions. “Circumvention concerns” was the title, alerting Thomet to the possibility that Diveroli might decide to cut him out of the deal entirely—this form of “circumvention” in the arms trade referring to going around a broker like Thomet to buy directly from the seller.
“Efraim is upset that you are making a lot of money and we are losing money,” Merrill wrote. “He has received offers from the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, where there is enough ammo to fill the order. There is also the risk element regarding the reason for repacking. It seems to be a double negative to lose money and assume considerable risk.”
Merrill turned to the question of the Chinese ammo, though without directly mentioning it in the e-mail. The matter was now simply referred to as “the problem.” Merrill wrote, “Efraim is upset because he’s checked all his e-mails from you and not found any mention of the problem. He thinks he’s been set up.”
Merrill proposed $27 per thousand as a fair price. “This would help with shipping, repacking, and the risks involved,” he wrote, without overtly explaining the “risks” he was referring to. “Obviously we are not interested in donating to the war cause in Afghanistan, and are looking for a way out of this pit as soon as possible. Efraim awaits your response to this offer to save the Albanian connection.”
But Thomet wouldn’t budge on price—not under any circumstances. Diveroli decided he had to travel to Albania. He was going to negotiate the deal directly with the Ministry of Defense. He was going to get rid of the duplicitous Thomet, and he was going to force MEICO to lower the price.
Diveroli called Packouz into the hallway to talk confidentially, away from the staff: “Listen to me very carefully. I got to get to Albania to meet with that fat fuck Pinari. This is a make-it-or-break-it situation. So this is what I want you to do. Call the Ukrainians, the Hungarians, the Kazakhs, and get quotes from them. Then change the prices to make it look like we’ve got better options so I can beat that greedy fucker down. The documents have got to look good. But I know you’re an artist, baby. When I land in Tirana, I need you to have sent me something beautiful.”
Late that night, as Diveroli flew over the Atlantic, Packouz sat down to create another set of fake documents—and perhaps commit another fraud, he feared. By now Packouz knew that this kind of duplicity was all too common in arms dealing.
“I was very nervous,” Packouz recalled. “I knew I was in really shady territory—possibly illegal, with a real paper trail. But I also felt excited that it might work—that we’d save the deal. And was it really so bad? We were lying to a sleazy Albanian tough guy to get a better price so we could deliver what the government needed. This was why the government needed us—they didn’t want to have to do these kinds of things. In reality, they couldn’t do these kinds of things because of the risks and complications, but they needed them done. So they sent us. It was how things worked—it was the nature of the business. In a way, the Pentagon was paying us for this exact service.”
The next day, Alex Podrizki waited in the arrivals section of the airport in Tirana to greet Diveroli. Striding through the terminal, Diveroli was loud and brash, smirking at the bustle of the backward country. Driving into the city, Diveroli ridiculed the condition of the roads, the peasants walking donkeys next to the highway, the run-down houses and tiny, white pillboxes scattered all over the landscape.
“This place is like a jungle,” Diveroli said. “Give me twenty men with guns and I could take this country.”
The pair went to the Sheraton. They downed shots of raki, the colorless, high-alcohol Albanian eau-de-vie, sending shivers down their spines. Diveroli checked his e-mails and found the documents Packouz had doctored, showing false prices for AK-47 ammo. Packouz had done an excellent job changing the numbers, doctoring quotes from other suppliers to show the Hungarians and the Bulgarians could beat MEICO’s price by a significant amount. Diveroli and Podrizki were ready.
The first stop was Ylli Pinari’s office in the Ministry of Defense. More raki was poured and cigarettes were passed around. Diveroli placed a stack of documents on the table. He said they were quotes from other Eastern European countries for the same ammunition he was buying from MEICO.
“These are the standard prices,” Diveroli said. “Any more than this, I will walk away.”
Pinari inspected the sheet. He’d been in the business for decades. He knew the real prices of surplus nonstandard munitions. He looked up and shook his head with contempt. “These are fake.”
Diveroli had been busted. Stumbling for what to say next, he forged on, “Your ammo is old. Some of it is nearly fifty years old. It doesn’t warrant the price.”
Pinari was unmoved.
“It’s steel-cased, not brass,” Diveroli said. “It’s not as good.”
Pinari said nothing.
“The only place you can sell your ammo is in Africa. The Africans can’t afford to pay as much as the government of the United States.”
The conversation was going nowhere, it seemed: Diveroli demanded a reduction, and Pinari insisted on the agreed terms. All the extra costs AEY had incurred, for the repacking, the higher airfreight prices, the unexpected licenses and fees at Tirana’s airport—those were issues for Diveroli to take up with Henri Thomet, not MEICO, Pinari said.
Diveroli asked to see the Albanian minister of defense.
“If you want to change the price, you have to meet someone else,” Pinari said finally.
Apparently, someone was more powerful than the minister—a strange assertion. Ylli Pinari escorted Diveroli and Podrizki to his Mercedes sedan. The pair were driven around the streets of Tirana in a seemingly deliberately confusing route, so the Americans wouldn’t be able to re-create where they’d gone. Finally, they turned into an abandoned construction site for a partially completed office building. Pinari led the pair up a set of stairs and along a corridor until they reached a door. Stepping inside, they found a sleek, stylish office, like the suite of a corporate law firm in a skyscraper in Miami. The incongruity was disorienting. So was the sight of the man rising from his seat behind the desk. Instead of the kind of global businessman who might be expected to occupy such an office, there was a hard-looking man—a real thug, Podrizki thought, fear rising. Gegh was the Albanian word for such a man: muscular, dark-skinned, with what appeared to be prison tattoos on his forearms, a native of the tribal mountains.
This was Mihail Delijorgji. Diveroli and Podrizki then turned to see a young man around their age sitting in the corner. Dressed in a baseball cap and a sweater, he had dark hair, a soft chin, and sharklike eyes. He wasn’t introduced. This was Shkëlzen Berisha, the son of the prime minister of Albania, they would later be told by Pinari. Shkëlzen was part of what was known in Albania as “the family,” the tight-knit and extremely dangerous group that surrounded and lived at the beneficence of the prime minister, Sali Berisha.
Delijorgji didn’t speak English, so Pinari translated Diveroli’s reasons for wanting a price reduction. Diveroli’s brash manner disappeared, as did his idea of cutting Thomet out of the deal. Diveroli and Podrizki were obviously in the presence of seriously connected men. Diveroli’s complexion turned pale. Now his main complaint was that the vast majority of the rounds AEY was buying had steel casings. Brass casings were much more valuable, Diveroli claimed. Steel casings damaged the barrels of weapons, shortening their life span. Diveroli wanted to pay 3.7 cents a round.
Delijorgji said that if Diveroli wanted a discount he would have to change the arrangements for the repacking operation at the airport. If AEY was going to pay less for the ammo, the money would have to be made up another way—by giving the contract to repack to Delijorgji’s company. The son of the prime minister remained silent. Henri Thomet’s name was never mentioned. Nor was the fact that Diveroli knew MEICO was selling the rounds to Thomet for just over two cents a round.
Diveroli and Podrizki departed.
“That guy looked stupid enough to be dangerous,” Diveroli said of Delijorgji.
“Did we just get out of a meeting with the Albanian mafia?” Podrizki joked.
Diveroli’s swagger began to fade. He didn’t say it out loud, but he was clearly scared. The dudes went to a local casino to gamble, and Diveroli pounded down his usual massive portion of alcohol. As ever, Diveroli acted the big shot, boasting about the contracts he was winning in Iraq and how gunrunning was a great business.
As the pair left the casino, Diveroli was anxious. The booze and bravado hadn’t calmed him. He didn’t want to be alone. He insisted that Podrizki sleep on the foldout couch in his hotel room. Who knew what the Albanian gangsters were capable of?
The next morning, Kosta Trebicka was pacing in the lobby of the Sheraton, desperate to hear about Diveroli’s meetings the day before. As ever eager to please, Trebicka provided a BMW and a driver for the rest of Diveroli’s stay in Albania. Trebicka would also supply an attractive young woman for Diveroli’s pleasure, an offer the young arms dealer gladly accepted.
Diveroli could have told Trebicka the truth about his encounter with Delijorgji: AEY would get a discount on the AK-47 rounds only if Delijorgji’s company took over the repacking job—cutting Trebicka out of the deal. But Diveroli did what he’d become accustomed to doing: he dissembled. Diveroli said he’d been taken to a “hidden” place and threatened. The Albanians had said he’d be killed if he didn’t go along with Thomet and Evdin as the middlemen. Diveroli told Trebicka that Ylli Pinari of MEICO had warned him to keep his mouth shut because the prime minister’s son had been in the meeting.
Trebicka was outraged—something had to be done. He readily agreed to try to help Diveroli escape the clutches of men he considered gangsters. Trebicka arranged a meeting with an official in the Albanian Ministry of Defense who could supposedly help. But it turned out that the official was far too young and junior to do anything. Trebicka obviously wasn’t as connected as he believed.
As they were driven through the busy streets of Tirana, Diveroli started to look even more nervous, it seemed to Podrizki. Diveroli was obviously out of his element. He hadn’t been physically threatened, despite the tale he’d told Kosta Trebicka, but the risks of being in Albania were self-evident. If the wrong person was crossed, it would be easy to have someone killed and have it made to look like an accident. Sitting in the backseat of the car, Diveroli announced he wanted to leave Albania the next day. He dispatched Podrizki to the local travel agent to change his flight.
Trebicka had planned for Diveroli to meet with US Embassy officials, so they went for a sit-down in the lobby of the Sheraton. The diplomat Robert Newsome was in his late forties or early fifties and gave off the aura of being involved in the intelligence world. Newsome was with military attaché Victor Myev, a former soldier turned diplomat nearing retirement age—the man Podrizki had talked to on the phone weeks earlier.
Diveroli laid out the scam—or the slightly fictionalized version he was willing to share with the government officials. Diveroli said the Albanians were using a Cypriot company run by a Swiss arms dealer to charge AEY nearly double the real price for 100 million rounds of AK-47. Diveroli said his company was caught up in Albanian corruption. He described the meeting the day before, with the prime minister’s son and Mihail Delijorgji, who were controlling the contract to sell the ammo. Diveroli said that he’d been told that if he didn’t pay bribes he wouldn’t be able to get delivery of the ammo, which would imperil America’s ability to arm the Afghans.
The story wasn’t entirely true. He shaded certain inconvenient facts, like the possibility that selling Albanian-Chinese ammo was against the law. Or the reality that AEY had yet to pay MEICO for any of the rounds, which would explain the delays in delivery. Or that he’d cut Kosta Trebicka out of the deal. In essence, Diveroli didn’t want to disclose that he was actually trying to get a better price from the Albanians, instead casting himself as the innocent victim of corruption.
Victor Myev and Robert Newsome listened with great interest. If what Diveroli described was true, the United States faced a potential diplomatic crisis involving the Albanian prime minister. Albania was on the cusp of membership in NATO. What Diveroli was alleging meant that corruption traveled to the highest reaches of the government. The American diplomats promised to make inquiries and do what they could to assist Diveroli with the delivery of the ammo.
After the meeting, Myev wrote an e-mail to Andrew Winternitz in the Policy section of Defense Secretary Gates’s office in Washington, DC. “Ammo for Afghanistan” was the subject line. “I want to report a meeting we just had to see if you have any insight you might share with us,” Myev began. He explained the dubious structure of AEY’s Albanian deal and described how Diveroli had approached the embassy for support.
“Although we would normally not get involved in a contract negotiation like this, the element of supporting our efforts in Afghanistan, coupled with Albania’s increasing support of NATO efforts there, makes us wonder if we might not want to at least show our presence.
“Sounds like the prologue for a good spy novel,” Winternitz replied within hours. “CONFIDENTIAL” was written in large letters at the top of the e-mail, a document that would later be placed under seal by a federal judge. As a senior official, Winternitz wondered at the cloak-and-dagger nature of the situation. He made it clear he understood crucial geopolitical issues were at stake.
“As for insight, if Albania could provide the ammunition, it would be one more good data point that Albania is becoming a provider of international security rather than a consumer,” Winternitz wrote.
The message was clear: the contract was a win-win-win, for America, Albania, and Afghanistan.
Robert Newsome likewise reached out to two senior officials in the State Department. The level of importance given to the e-mail on the government’s closed-circuit system was “High.”
“We have a Florida company here called AEY that has a Department of Defense contract to provide Soviet and Chinese arms to the Afghan government,” Newsome wrote. “The validity of the contract has been verified. AEY contacted us because they are having problems (‘informality’ issues) with MEICO.”
“Informality” was a reference to corruption allegations. Newsome said the embassy wouldn’t intervene on AEY’s behalf unless a request came from higher authorities in State or Defense.
“We’re bringing this to your attention as AEY has a legitimate contract to provide arms to the Afghan government and the implications this might have for Coalition efforts in Afghanistan.”
Newsome concluded, “Please respond on the classified side as you deem appropriate.”
No further replies or guidance came from Washington—or if they did, the documents remain classified.
/ / / / /
On the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, in AEY’s modest headquarters in Miami Beach, David Packouz had finally obtained all the permissions necessary to ship 5 million rounds of AK-47 ammo from Hungary to Afghanistan. On the evening of May 24, 2007, while his friends were gambling and drinking in a casino in Albania, Packouz received an e-mail from AEY’s freight forwarder confirming that a cargo plane carrying eighty pallets of AK-47 ammunition had taken off and was banking east over the Black Sea toward Kyrgyzstan.
Relieved, Packouz drove home to his condo in the Flamingo, smoked a bowl of weed with his new electronic Volcano, and headed to a place called Sushi Samba for dinner. In the middle of the meal, AEY’s freight forwarder called from New York to tell Packouz that the Hungarian AK-47 ammo had been seized in Kyrgyzstan. The rounds were being held hostage, the freight forwarder explained in a panicked voice, and the Kyrgyz KGB was demanding payment of $300,000 for every day the goods remained at the airport in Bishkek. Stoned, baffled, once again in over his head like his buddies in Albania, Packouz stepped outside to get away from the restaurant’s pounding music.
“Tell the Kyrgyz KGB that ammo needs to get to Afghanistan,” he shouted at the freight forwarder. “This contract is part of a vital mission in the global war on terrorism. Tell them that if they fuck with us they’re fucking with the government of the United States!”
/ / / / /
Packouz reached Diveroli in the middle of the night, Albanian time. The prostitute supplied by Kosta Trebicka was slumbering next to him in bed. As Packouz told him what had happened, Diveroli told Packouz to contact the embassy in Bishkek to enlist the support of the military attaché.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to fucking this hooker,” Diveroli concluded with fake aplomb.
In the morning, Diveroli circulated an e-mail to the company’s minuscule team: “URGENT/STRATEGIES REGARDING THE KYRGYZSTAN SITUATION, Please work on this immediately!!!!!!” Diveroli outlined the questions that needed to be answered. “WE MUST SEND AN OFFICIAL SIGNED REQUEST ON LETTERHEAD TO THE AMERICAN EMBASSY AND THE AMBASSADOR REQUESTING THEIR IMMEDIATE INTERVENTION!!!!!!!!”
Arriving at Diveroli’s hotel, Podrizki shook his head as he watched the now frantic arms dealer yell and scream instructions back to Miami. Diveroli wanted AEY to write an e-mail to the Kyrgyz military that was forged to look as if it came from the US military—the dudes could threaten all kinds of dire consequences that way. Podrizki was sure that Diveroli’s juvenile shenanigans, and his reflexive way of trying to lie his way out of trouble, wouldn’t work. The Kyrgyz weren’t going to be fooled by a kid in panic mode. The same was true of the Albanians they were dealing with. Arms dealing wasn’t a game, as Diveroli apparently believed it was. Again, Podrizki told Diveroli that the problem was political and that he ought to invest some of the money he’d made acquiring “friends” who could help. Podrizki explained that AEY needed a senator or a congressman to make calls on their behalf. Diveroli needed to “share the spoils” from his gunrunning business, through political contributions, if he was going to get what he wanted. It was how the system worked. Diveroli looked at Podrizki like he was an idiot and went back to ranting at Packouz to get the American embassy to intervene.
At noon, Diveroli headed for Tirana’s airport. Podrizki accompanied him. When they reached customs, Diveroli embraced Podrizki, a strong hug that seemed meant to convey both respect for his bravery and concern for his safety.
“I’ll send you a ballistics vest and a pistol when I get back to Miami,” Diveroli promised.
The bulletproof vest never arrived. Nor did the handgun. Podrizki was on his own once again.
/ / / / /
In Miami Beach, the days that followed were a blur. Packouz contacted the military officer in the US Embassy in Bishkek—a Colonel Plumb. Packouz put on his best military voice as he explained that the plane had been seized because AEY supposedly didn’t have the correct paperwork.
“It’s a very serious problem,” Packouz told Colonel Plumb. “We have a 747 loaded with five million rounds of 7.62x39 ammo bound for the Afghan army. The Kyrgyz are telling us they’re going to charge us three hundred thousand dollars per day for every day the aircraft stays on the runway—at the same time as they’re not allowing the plane to leave. It’s extortion. It’s going to destroy our business. But more importantly, it’s stopping munitions from getting to our allies and hurting a crucial mission in the global war on terrorism.”
“Three hundred thousand dollars a day.” Colonel Plumb whistled. “Holy cow. We’ve never had a problem with the Kyrgyz before. We’re constantly shipping stuff to Afghanistan through here. There are never any fees. We pay them enough damn rent to use the air base as it is. Let me make some calls and get back to you.”
“You’re a lifesaver, sir. Thank you!”
Soon after, Colonel Plumb reported to Packouz that the Russians had been involved in the “precoordination” of the flight—meaning they’d arranged to disrupt the American shipment. “We don’t have clear visibility into what they are currently doing, and what they are planning on doing,” Plumb wrote to the dozen or more Army officers now assisting in getting AEY’s ammo released. “We are trying to determine exactly what the Kyrgyz concerns are.”
Packouz was learning that intentions were rarely declared in the opaque world of gunrunning. Duplicity, double-dealing, hidden motives, were the everyday reality. The American embargo on Russian arms had denied Putin’s proxies a lucrative payday on the Afghan deal. The Russians had considered the ban tantamount to a declaration of war. Now that the American contractor was trying to fulfill the deal, Putin was having his revenge—and doing it in an exquisitely deniable way.
AEY’s woes weren’t the only concern for the US government in Kyrgyzstan. The airport in Bishkek was a strategic staging point for the war in Afghanistan. Stopping to refuel before traveling on to Afghanistan was a necessity for many cargo planes; the airport also provided a safe haven to manage cargo away from the perils of Kabul’s besieged tarmac. It was imperative the dispute be resolved promptly. Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Bishkek to get AEY’s ammo released, and the Americans quickly agreed to double the rent they were paying to use the airport.I
Both Packouz and Diveroli were used to telling Army officials they dealt with that they were working on a “contract vital to the global war on terror.” Packouz had regarded this rhetorical trick as slightly comic in its feigned hyperpatriotism. But now Packouz could see it was true. AEY’s munitions would be released and delivered to Kabul weeks later, though he could only guess at what had happened behind closed doors. He was still a kid, but Packouz could feel himself at the center of world events in a way he’d never imagined—and that he was ill prepared for.
The vast divide between the complexities of the task AEY was undertaking and the naïveté of AEY’s staff was beginning to dawn on the Army’s procurement officers in Rock Island. In the middle of the Kyrgyz crisis, a memorandum was drafted by the civilian in charge of AEY’s contract to put the company on notice that the seizure had caused a stir in the Pentagon—all the way up to the secretary of defense. “Because of this incident, we have received concerns that this type of incident may happen again in another country and the confidence level in your company’s ability to deliver without incident is very low,” the civilian contracting officer wrote. “You need to be sensitive to the volatile political relations in the region and the relations between the United States and foreign countries.”
But the memorandum was never sent, as the civilian’s superiors deemed it inappropriate to scold a contractor in such a manner—even one as transparently unqualified as AEY.
“I never did find out what really happened, or why the plane was seized in the first place,” Packouz recalled. “It was how things were done in international arms dealing. The defense industry and politics were extremely entwined—you couldn’t do business with one without dealing with the other. Your fate depended entirely on political machinations. You didn’t even know whose side you’re on—who you were helping and who you were hurting. There were these shadowy forces out there, and it was obvious there were a lot of perils we didn’t understand.”
I. Gates described his dealings with the “amazingly corrupt” Kyrgyzstan government as one of the most despicable experiences of his career—but still the American government did business with Kurmanbek Bakiyev, because it had no choice: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), 194–95.