London-based journalist Matt Potter is an investigative reporter with a participatory style. To explain how smugglers fly illegal contraband like weapons and drugs into war-ravaged countries such as Angola, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Potter goes aboard “privatized” Soviet cargo planes manned by crews who have transitioned from Cold Warriors to black market freelancers. Potter befriends a disheveled cargo pilot he calls Mickey, a veteran of the Soviet-Afghan War, for whom secrecy is automatic: as Potter doggedly asks questions, Mickey’s “gut response to everything is to shrug [and] mutter something vague.”
In Outlaws Inc., Potter vividly explains how the collapse of the USSR allowed pilots like Mickey to “liberate” their planes. Former Soviet officials colluded in the fire sale of decommissioned armaments to mercenaries, Mafiosi, and other criminal entrepreneurs. With their military careers and pensions disintegrating, many Soviet pilots like Mickey became independent contractors. And as Potter repeatedly emphasizes, these pilots accept anyone’s money, without questions.
Like all great investigative reporters, Potter follows the money trail, accompanying Mickey on cargo hauls into some of the world’s most dangerous places. The lack of political stability in these hotspots aids black marketers, who literally fly below the radar and land in war zones like Mogadishu, Somalia, where “guerillas’ rockets and pirates with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] have long been a fact of life.” Potter asks whether these black marketers are being protected by government officials in places like Africa and Afghanistan, where politicians almost never attack organized crime because they are organized crime. But Potter discovers few concrete answers inside this murky sub-world because freelancers like Mickey know that asking questions can get you killed.