Sarkis Soghanalian, Miami's "Merchant of Death" Arms Dealer, Dead at 78

Burn Notice doesn't tell the half of the absurd real-life characters who call Miami home. Take Sarkis Soghanalian, our very own "Merchant of Death," who sold Saddam Hussein his arsenal, profiteered from dozens of bloody wars, and whenever things went sour, traded his freedom for juicy CIA intel on crime syndicates and Lebanese counterfeiters.

Soghanalian's dark, novelesque life came to an end last night in a Miami hospital. He was 78. "Until I met him, I never believed one-half of 1 percent of the things he was supposed to have done," his lawyer once told PBS. "But they all turned out to be true."

Soghanalian, a Lebanese national of Armenian descent, rose to the top of the shady international arms-dealing trade in the early '80s when the CIA hired him to supply Saddam Hussein with weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

Soghanalian based his weapons empire in Miami, where he set himself up as a kind of dark playboy philanthropist, living in a Hibiscus Island mansion.

In 1982, for instance, while awaiting sentencing on charges that he'd bilked other dealers out of $1.2 million, he announced out of the blue that he was donating a rare baby gorilla to Miami Metrozoo. 

When zoo officials understandably balked at the idea of taking a mysterious gorilla from an arms dealer, Soghanalian's spokesman refused to clarify where the animal had come from. "He doesn't want other people to know all the places he travels to in Africa," he told the Miami Herald.

Soghanalian's empire grew in the Reagan years when the CIA leaned on him to keep Hussein flush with weapons and helicopters. With the agency's blessing, he sold guns to militias from Ecuador and Argentina to Mauritania.

He was "capable of negotiating in eight languages," PBS reported, and accrued an IRS debt approaching a billion dollars by declining to pay taxes on his illicit arms deals.

When the Persian Gulf War rolled around, Soghanalian became a media star while lobbing eggs at the government officials who'd authorized him to arm the same Hussein whom U.S. forces were now trying to dislodge.

In '93, he was sentenced to six and half years in prison for trying to sell more than a hundred attack helicopters to Iraq. But he cut the sentence in half by ratting out a Lebanese ring churning out superaccurate counterfeit $100 bills.

His exploits helped inspire the main character in Lord of Wara 2005 Nicholas Cage film about a conflicted international weapons mogul.

He returned to Miami in recent years as his health declined. He died of "natural causes" yesterday.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink