That changed on the night of December 20, Diveroli's 21st birthday. When the valet attendant at his luxury apartment building failed to deliver his keys promptly enough, Diveroli allegedly punched him in the face and tackled him. Police called to the scene found a fake ID on Diveroli and charged him with felony possession of a forged document, in addition to misdemeanor battery. He avoided prosecution by entering a pretrial-diversion program. A conviction would have jeopardized AEY's arms-import license.

A month after Diveroli's arrest, the U.S. Army awarded AEY the coveted ammunition contract, explaining later that the company's proposal had represented "the best value to the government." It was a stunning accomplishment for a three-year-old enterprise, let alone one run by a dropout with no military background who weeks earlier couldn't legally purchase alcohol. An Army official told AEY it had beaten out General Dynamics, the world's fifth-largest defense contractor. In a matter of months, the company was negotiating deals with foreign defense ministers, holding meetings at embassies, and taking calls from Army brass. AEY had located caches of weapons in the old Eastern bloc that could be acquired on the cheap, and soon struck a deal in Albania for millions of 7.62 mm bullets. To oversee the operation there, Packouz hired his best friend, Alexander Podrizki, whose main accomplishment, at age 25, was that he had taught English in France for a year. AEY would pay him a $30,000 salary.

As unforeseeable problems arose, Diveroli and his crew tried to adapt, which sometimes pushed them into questionable company. Rather than buy what they needed directly from Albania, they chose to go through an entity called Evdin Ltd., which turned out to be little more than a mailing address in Cyprus—a shell company connected to a Swiss arms dealer, Heinrich Thomet, whose name was on a U.S. arms-trafficking watch list. Acting as a broker, Evdin bought the ammunition from Albania's national arms-export company, then sold it to AEY. Some suspect the arrangement was created to funnel kickbacks to Albanian-government officials.

Delays were another concern. Months went by and AEY couldn't get its shipments off the ground. Turkmenistan wouldn't give the company's planes flyover permission. Then AEY hired Turkmenistan Airlines, and wheels began to turn.

By springtime, nerves frayed, the boys at AEY had encountered one snag too many. On April 20, Podrizki e-mailed photos of crates containing the 7.62 mm bullets AEY would be flying out of Albania. When Diveroli opened the attachment, his heart sank. Stamped in red ink on the sides of each case were characters from another language. Diveroli couldn't read them, but he knew what they meant: made in China.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States had banned all arms transactions with the Chinese military. When Diveroli asked, the State Department made it clear that there was no way around the embargo without a presidential waiver. No matter—Diveroli had already decided to repackage the ammunition, which would save money on airfreight and obscure the cargo's Chinese origins. He hired an Albanian businessman named Kosta Trebicka, who for $280,000 agreed to bundle millions of bullets into new plastic bags and place them in cardboard boxes. Trebicka's Xhoi, Ltd., set up shop right on the grounds of the airport in Rinas.