NEW YORK – The most bankable star witness at the trial of an ex-Soviet officer known as the Merchant of Death was a former drug dealer turned U.S. government-sponsored actor who became one of the highest paid informants in history.
Carlos Sagastume, 40, earned more than $9 million over 15 years by convincing drug dealers and a weapons merchant that he was as bad — if not worse — than they.
Collecting evidence against Viktor Bout was another major achievement in a remarkable career for Sagastume. He posed as a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, to coax Bout to travel from Russia to Thailand in March 2008 to arrange to send deadly weapons to Colombian rebels to fight Americans.
The monthlong trial in federal court in Manhattan ended Wednesday with Bout's conviction on conspiracy charges. The arms dealer, an inspiration for the character played by Nicolas Cage in the 2005 film "Lord of War," faces a potential life sentence.
Sagastume made most of his millions through the State Department's Narcotics Rewards Program, collecting $7.5 million from two rewards for work he did for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Another $1.6 million was earned through work on 150 investigations, though some of the money covered expenses.
He was paid $250,000 for the Bout probe. In all, the State Department has paid more than $62 million in rewards since Congress established the program in 1986 to reward individuals who provide information to help arrest and convict drug dealers.
Myrna S. Raeder, a Southwestern Law School professor, said she found it interesting that Sagastume had lived a life of disguise for so long.
"One would think that one's cover would be blown much earlier," she said. "This sounds like fodder for a movie with that kind of background."
Thomas Pasquarello, a former DEA special agent who headed the Bout probe in Thailand, said Sagastume was among the DEA's best informants.
"If you're looking at big fish, you need big bait," he said. "That's what guys like Carlos are good at. They're pros at what they do and they have deep connections."
A good informant risks his life and can fake underground connections to reassure someone like Bout that he's authentic, he said.
"Look at Viktor Bout. He wasn't going to fall for a rookie informant. Guys like that could see through a rookie undercover in five minutes," said Pasquarello, now chief of police in Somerset, Mass.
The Guatemalan-born Sagastume did not seem a likely candidate to be a prosecutor's best friend when he began transporting drugs — after he finished a five-year stint in Guatemala's Army, where he specialized in gathering intelligence on subversive activity and guerrilla activists.
Speaking through an interpreter — even though he could be heard on taped conversations speaking English — he testified at Bout's trial that he was paid $450,000 for helping transport up to 3,000 kilos of cocaine and $3 million in cash for drug organizations.
He said that after he was kidnapped by federal police in Mexico and a $60,000 ransom was paid to free him, he contacted the DEA in Guatemala, looking for a new line of work.
By 1998, he had moved to the United States and was steadily delivering successful results in DEA investigations.
In January 2008, he was summoned to join a sting operation designed to catch Bout, who was known as a supplier of weapons that fueled civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients ranged from Liberia's Charles Taylor and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to the Taliban government that once ran Afghanistan.
Sagastume was assigned to pose as a FARC member who wanted to buy 100 surface-to-air missiles, 20,000 AK-47 rifles, 350 sniper rifles, 5 tons of C-4 explosives and 10 million rounds of ammunition, among other weapons. He teamed up with Ricardo Jardenero, 52, a Colombian-born informant who posed as "The Commandant," a commanding officer in the FARC, classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
Jardenero was one of the DEA's better paid informants as well, making $500,000 during four years working undercover. He was paid $320,000 for the Bout probe.
Like Sagastume, Jardenero also was a former drug dealer who could project himself like a rebel commander after a decade in the Colombian Army and time spent shipping weapons for a paramilitary group that opposed the FARC.
Karen Greenberg, a history professor at Fordham Law School, said large payouts make sense in pursuit of targets like Osama bin Laden and Bout as the government rewards informants who lived in a criminal world themselves long enough to mimic the language and attitudes of those they must catch.
"You still have to be careful with how much government money you're throwing around," she said. "Once that kind of money is out there for the pool of people who can help, it will be harder and harder to discern who you can trust. Who wouldn't take that kind of money?"
Informants are sometimes difficult to control, as the FBI learned in its contentious relationship with Emad Salem, a former Egyptian military officer. Salem was used to secretly tape suspects in the investigation of a terrorist ring that was plotting in 1993 to blow up five New York City landmarks, including the United Nations and two tunnels and a bridge linking New Jersey and Manhattan.
At one point, Salem even taped his conversations with his FBI handlers, much to their surprise. Still, his testimony was key evidence leading to the conviction and life sentence for Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric followed by men convicted in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Salem was paid $1 million for his work.
"At the time, that was very controversial," said Anthony S. Barkow, a former federal terrorism prosecutor who is now executive director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at the New York University School of Law.
He said Sagastume's earnings were not surprising.
"He's done an incredible amount of work for the government at great risk to himself," Barkow said.
Another FBI informant, Mohamed Alanssi, set himself on fire in November 2004 outside the White House a year after successfully luring a firebrand Yemeni sheik to a bugged hotel room in Germany, where he was caught on tape bragging about giving millions of dollars to bin Laden.
The attempted suicide left him with burns over 30 percent of his body and exposed his identity, until then a closely guarded secret.
Sagastume now is more widely known after spending several days on the witness stand at Bout's trial. Still, he might not have made his last dollar as an informant.
"They're constantly able to reformat themselves and stay fresh," Pasquarello said. "They may not use the FARC angle for a while, but there are plenty of other settings where a guy like Carlos can stay valuable. What it comes down to is, wherever there's greed and criminals interested in making money, there are always people who can lead us to them."
Associated Press writer Tom Hays in New York contributed to this report.