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

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Soghanalian's life inspired "Lord of War"

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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5 comments
Stephen O'Neal
Stephen O'Neal

I worked for him in the late 70's and 80"s for about 5 years first as Flight Engineer / Pilot then manager. I remember telling him one time that he was not the easiest person in the world to work for and he responded " I know, if I had to work for me I would runaway". I saw him and Garo outside at their house in VG a little over a year ago and stopped to chat. Even at that age he was still a character. He was tough, but fair and I took away a lot of good experience and fond memories of him and his family from my time spent working for him and his son Garo. I wish his family all the best. Stephen O'Neal

Greg Chandler
Greg Chandler

I worked for Sarkis in 1984 as his pilot.  During my time with him, I learned manythings about the world and its’ governments. Sarkis was a good man; he lovedthe United States and his family and did his best to protect both of them. Itwill always be a memorable part of my career and I feel fortunate to have hadthe opportunity. Please convey my condolences to Garo and the Soghanalianfamily.

Greg

Carrealitor
Carrealitor

And he loved his family. He was just as kind when he had his wealth as he was broke. He did not define himself by money. He did many things people will talk about for years to come, but always tried to do what he thought was right, no matter other opinions. Today the world said good bye to a confident and caring man.

DH

P_Nis
P_Nis

Tim, what you neglected to mention is that he died penniless living in the back room of a rundown building in Virginia gardens. Regardless, he was one of the nicest people you'll ever meet.

Rip.

sogasco
sogasco

Thank you both for your kind words. As his daughter, I say that you are both right on.  You never know how the media will paint him.  Although he wasn't perfect, he was a kind and caring man and a loyal friend to the end.

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