The remarkable life and brutal death of Adler Berriman Seal explains why America is losing the war on drugs ... because, in large measure, the American government is fighting itself.
The three killers, lurking in the shadow of a of a garbage dumpster that evening of February l9, 1986, had no trouble spotting their quarry. Almost precisely at 6 PM., "Thunder Thighs" wheeled his gaudy white Cadillac into the parking lot. As usual, the nearly 300 pound bulk of a man also known as El Gordo (the fat one) had no bodyguards, and he took no precautions of any kind. He did not see the waiting killers as he backed into a parking spot. They approached the driver's side. Two quick bursts from the silencer-equipped MAC-10 and Uzi submachine guns smashed into El Gordo's head and body. He was dead instantly. And so ended the remarkable career of Thunder Thighs, the narcotics underworld's nickname for Adler Berriman Seal -- gun runner, CIA asset, government informant, con-man, narcotics trafficker, double dealer, criminal mastermind. But so did any possibility for Seal to elaborate on some very tantalizing clues he had let slip just before his death -- clues to several of his astonishing secrets that would have revealed that the United States government:
- went into business with drug smugglers, allowing tons of narcotics to enter the country as a necessary cost of higher geopolitical objectives;
- subordinated drug enforcement to the goal of overthrowing Nicaragua's Sandinista government;
- allowed two southern states to be used as major distribution points for Latin American narcotics,
- then interfered with all attempts by local police -- and even federal agents -- to eradicate the problem.
Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal knew all this because he was the most important organizer, facilitator, and impresario of a sordid partnership between government and crime. Although his death halted his first, tentative steps toward telling all he knew, a lengthy investigation by Penthouse has uncovered most of what Seal was hinting at. What stands revealed is a story of greed, government myopia, and blind expediency. Summarily, it explains why America is losing the war against drugs -- for in large measure, the American government has been fighting itself. To understand this, it is necessary to understand the extraordinary case of Adler Berriman Seal.
"A lot of people," Barry Seal once said, "are happy working nine to five every day, going to L.S.U. games on Saturday and church on Sunday. But I wanted excitement in my life." It was the only explanation Seal ever offered for his lengthy career in the dark world of narcotics smuggling and intelligence, but to those who knew him, those few words summarize the man.
Seal struck them as a buccaneer, a man most concerned with the sheer joy of getting away with something. Although he earned $30 million as a drug smuggler, Seal was not especially interested in money. What really turned him on was openly committing a criminal act, then defying the authorities to catch him. (He was notorious for taunting narcotics agents.) A rollicking, back-slapping good ol' boy with the pronounced accent of his native Baton Rouge, Seal loved flying. He served a brief stint in the Air National Guard, and by 1972, at age 26, he was the youngest 747 pilot in the country. But Seal was bored by the humdrum of commercial flying, and a search for excitement was to lead him to his first foray into the underworld of narcotics and politics.
The Casablanca-like world of Miami's Cuban exile community provided the field for his foray. In early 1972 he plunged into the alphabet soup of organizations dedicated to overthrowing Fidel Castro, emerging as partner with one that had a branch operation in Mexico. Seal agreed to smuggle seven tons of C-4 explosives to the Mexican base, from which the group was secretly preparing to dispatch teams of saboteurs into Cuba. But as so often happens in such cases, the exile group was honeycombed with informers. Seal was arrested for violating the Neutrality Act even before the load of explosives could leave the ground. His sloppily drawn case was thrown out by the court, allowing him to escape the serious federal charge, yet he did learn some valuable lessons from the experience. For one thing, a number of operatives in the exile group had been (or still were) CIA assets, meaning that the agency tended to turn a blind eye -- at times of its own choosing -- when the more valued assets became involved in certain activities, including drug smuggling. For another, although this particular group's smuggling operation ran afoul of the law, there were plenty of others that had official support. In other words, no matter what the law said, if a government agency wanted something smuggled, it would be smuggled.
While Seal was absorbing these lessons, the CIA recruited him as an asset. He was the perfect choice: an expert pilot, a great talker -- extremely charming and totally fearless -- with wide contacts throughout Latin America and the apparent willingness to do just about anything for excitement.
Seal started his own business as an "independent aviation consultant" specializing in Latin America. Established with CIA aid, the enterprise allowed Seal to fly all over the hemisphere in the process of collecting intelligence. As cloak and dagger, it was interesting but not very exciting work, and by 1976, Seal was looking for something more dazzling to slake his thirst for risky adventure. He found it in the person of William R. Reeves, a notorious narcotics trafficker who specialized in smuggling huge loads of marijuana from Colombia into the United States. Reeves was trying to enlist top-notch pilots willing to take risks, a perfect description of Seal. He became Reeves's partner, personally flying the multi-hundred-kilo shipments.
The question arises: Did the CIA know at the time that one of its assets was using his airplane business to smuggle drugs? And more to the point, if it did know, did the agency give Seal either direct or tacit approval to do just that, provided he continue to provide it with intelligence or other services? That is one secret Seal carried with him to the grave, but it is difficult to imagine that the CIA had no knowledge.
The narcotics underworld is relatively small, and it soon became fairly common knowledge that the American "Thunder Thighs" (so nicknamed because of thighs the approximate size of oak trees) was moving huge loads. Moreover, Seal had developed a reputation as a fearless, highly skilled pilot who could evade any official attempt to stop him, having done so dozens of times by 1980. Seal seemed to live a charmed life as a smuggler. In a business noted for short career spans, he flew his drug-smuggling runs with all the casualness of a man taking a drive to the shopping mall. Explaining some years later why he decided to become a drug smuggler, Seal said, "Because it was easy and because the money was incredible." That much was true: Seal received a sliding scale "fee" of several thousand dollars on the drugs he smuggled; on at least one flight of several tons, he netted nearly $1.5 million. Yet, to others in the narcotics-smuggling fraternity, there was something not quite right about Barry Seal. He was widely rumored to be dabbling in gunrunning under CIA aegis (true) and to be enjoying some sort of official protection for his drug-smuggling flights (perhaps true) springing from Seal's apparent unconcern about any possibility of arrest, especially by U.S. authorities.
When fellow traffickers would ask him directly if he had some sort of official or unofficial sanction, Seal would merely smile enigmatically and wink.
Whatever Seal's covert connections at that point, the important fact was that he had become indispensable to a group of three Colombian entrepreneurs determined to make their narcotics business the most successful in the hemisphere. Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa, and Carlos Lehder faced a knotty problem: how to get their product safely and profitably to the booming American market. Lehder had provided part of the answer, advocating the use of regular smuggling flights, each plane carrying hundreds of kilos. This method would replace the in efficient system of "mules"- drug couriers who would enter the United States with narcotics concealed in their clothing, or packed inside condoms that were swallowed and later regurgitated -- as well as the increasingly hazardous practice of smuggling drugs aboard ships (too risky because of stepped-up Coast Guard patrols) or Avianca (the Colombian national airline) jetliners. (U.S. Customs was onto that game.) Only regular relays of drug planes, Lehder argued, could possibly handle the escalating demands of the American market. He was right, but that raised several problems. How could such a system be set up? How could the planes land and unload safely in the United States? How could the planes cover the long flight from Colombia? Lehder and his partners took an important step by striking a deal with a corrupt colonel in the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) named Manuel Noriega. The head of the PDF's intelligence unit, Noriega controlled a network of out-of-the-way landing strips in Panama that he agreed to provide for Lehder and his partners' use.
(Since the partners all came from the Colombian city of Medellin, they became known as the Medellinites, and later, the Medellin Cartel.) In return, Noriega was to receive a $500,000 bribe plus a one-percent cut of the value of every shipment that came through Panama. Additionally, Panama's notoriously lax banking laws would be used to launder the Medellin drug profits -- in return for another slice to Noriega. That arrangement cut the distance problem, and Seal, ever the daring innovator, provided the rest of the solution. First he decided that the narcotics would be flown in fast twin-engine planes that had been stripped down and rigged with advanced electronic navigation equipment and extra fuel bladders. The next step was to cut a cargo door into the side of the aircraft that could be opened only from the inside. This particular innovation, a stroke of genius by Seal, made the drug planes nearly invulnerable to attack by law enforcement. Seal would load his planes with narcotics in Colombia or Panama, then, when he had reached the southern U.S. coast, the drugs would be pushed out the door at pre-arranged sites -- later to be picked up by a helicopter in Seal's fleet.
That way even a drug search at a U.S. airport would reveal a "clean" plane with no narcotics aboard. No evidence, no case. Seal had another idea to balk the forces of the law. Despite increased air patrols and radar coverage, he discovered U.S. defense had a critical weakness in the Gulf of Mexico, where dozens of offshore oil platforms were serviced by relays of helicopters. On his flights northward, Seal would steer toward the platforms, drop to a low height, throttle back to about 120 knots an hour, then head landward. Among the clutter of busy helicopter flights, it was nearly impossible for a radar operator to distinguish an unscheduled flight of a private aircraft flying at the same altitude and speed. With the transportation system in place, the Medellin Cartel and Seal -- the man who made it work -- went cosmic. By 1981, Seal was flying hundreds of kilos of narcotics into this country in a regular system. The cartel virtually abandoned the marijuana business in favor of the much more profitable (and easier to transport) cocaine, almost exclusively the new drug of choice in America.
What had started as a trickle was now a flood, overwhelming the relatively puny forces deployed to staunch it. But the flood would get even worse, because the American government was about to go into business with the drug traffickers on a large scale.
It began in the mind of then CIA director William Casey. As Casey saw the problem, the Soviet Union was about to establish a Central American beachhead via the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. The only solution was to therefore eliminate the Sandinista regime. Since an outright American military invasion was out of the question, beginning in late 1981, Casey began to formulate plans for a covert paramilitary operation to accomplish the task. Essentially the plan was simple. Two groups of Nicaraguan exiles -- one based in Honduras, the other in Costa Rica -- would be armed and trained for a guerrilla war inside Nicaragua that would eventually topple the regime. The difficulty, however, was that Congress was extremely nervous about the operation, and amid questions of whether an American-sponsored war was the right way to solve the Nicaraguan problem, there were increasing indications that Congress was about to cut off the money. (The first congressional restrictions came in 1982.) To prepare for that eventuality, Casey decided on a secret operation to keep the anti-Sandinista forces, known as Contras, armed and supplied. With a need for strict secrecy in order to circumvent the law, Casey set about creating an operation that could not be traced back to the CIA, code-named Eagle (later, Black Eagle), the operation went forward through an essential Casey contact, Micha "Mike" Harari. The former head of operations in Central America for Mossad, Israel's CIA, Harari was a man steeped in the darker arts of modern espionage.
Beginning in 1972, he was a key operative for Mossad murder squads that rampaged throughout Europe, killing key Palestinian guerrillas believed to be responsible for the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. But in 1975 [note: 1973, actually], Harari's hit team killed an innocent man in error, and Harari was exiled to Mexico City as chief of Mossad's Central American operations. Harari left the Israeli intelligence service in 1978.
In the interim, however, he had not only established close relations with the CIA, he had also forged important business contacts, among them Colonel Noriega of Panama, who had worked closely with Mossad. While serving as a Mossad asset, Harari went into the import-export business in Panama City. The link with his former agency was important. Harari was able to arrange $20 million worth of Israeli arms for Panama's military, plus Mossad training and Israeli-made Uzi submachine guns for Noriega's intelligence operatives. In return, Noriega was able to offer the Israelis the use of Panama -- the Vienna of international intrigue in the southern hemisphere -- as a conduit for embargoed arms to Israel. It was a cozy arrangement, and when Casey sought out Harari in 1982 to help set up a covert Contra support operation, the Israeli knew the perfect point man for the job: Noriega, now a general, the most powerful man in Panama. The choice was unfortunate, for at that point Noriega was a full-fledged drug trafficker, allowing Panama to be used as a narcotics trans-shipment point. It is questionable whether Harari knew about Noriega's drug connections [ISGP note: other sources say Harari was deeply involved, which makes much more sense], but the CIA certainly did.
It knew because it had recruited as an information source one of Panama's more striking political leaders, Dr. Hugo Spadafora, Panama's vice minister of health under dictator Omar Torrijos. Following Torrijos's death in a plane crash in 1981, Spadafora at first allied himself with Noriega, then began to get uneasy about the man called "Pineapple Face" behind his back. The breathtakingly pragmatic Noriega was playing all sides of the street.
Spadafora found out that Noriega was being paid $200,000 a year as an asset for the CIA, while at the same time he was providing information to Fidel Castro. Worse, Noriega was deeply involved in drug trafficking, actually allowing Panamanian airstrips to be used in moving drugs to the United States. Actually, the situation was worse than Spadafora knew. As early as 1972, the CIA was aware that Noriega had been named in federal drug-enforcement reports as a suspected trafficker, which in 1976 did not prevent then CIA director George Bush from approving Noriega's enrollment as a paid CIA asset in 1977, a report detailing drug dealing by Noriega and other Panamanian military officers was sent to the White House where it disappeared. Although Bush's successor at the CIA, Stansfield Turner, dropped Noriega from the agency's payroll in 1977 after learning of his drug trafficking, the Panamanian was restored to the agency's good graces when the Reagan administration came into office. (Spadafora continued to complain to the CIA about Noriega until the general found out about it in 1985. He had Spadafora tortured to death, then dumped his body in a U.S. mail sack -- Noriega's way of making a grisly point.)
As if the CIA's reliance on a man like Noriega weren't bad enough, the crime was compounded by a second decision: Seal was recruited to find pilots for Black Eagle flights. The requirements were obvious: Prospective pilots had to have some experience smuggling contraband across international borders, and had to know how to land loaded planes at remote airstrips and fly at night without lights -- among other assorted esoterica not taught at any conventional flying school. There was, of course, only one class of pilots with such experience, and Seal rounded up a collection of the most notorious drug-running pilots in both hemispheres. No one -- least of all Seal -- had to point out certain benefits of the entirely "unofficial" arrangement. The pilots would move arms provided by Israel from various sites in the United States and elsewhere down to secret Panamanian air fields. From there, the arms -- Russian made PLO weapons captured by the Israelis whose use would not betray American involvement -- would be off loaded for trans-shipment by various means further south. Instantly grasping that drug pilots would be sitting in cockpits of empty planes for the return flights, Noriega alertly filled the void by arranging for them to carry narcotics.
From Noriega's standpoint, the deal was almost too good to be true, since he was working both sides of the street. "He isn't for sale, but he is for rent," as one CIA official said of Noriega, but that was something of an understatement. Noriega, in fact, was for sale to the highest bidder, and while he was busy helping the CIA, he was also telling the D.G.I., Castro's intelligence service, about operation Black Eagle. And to top it all, Noriega actually became an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Unbeknownst to the DEA, Noriega used the connection to hand up perceived competitors of his business partners, the Medellin Cartel. (The head of the DEA later wrote a letter to Noriega praising his contribution to the war against drugs, an embarrassing correspondence he later explained by saying he did not know of Noriega's involvement in drugs because the CIA never told him.)
That, in turn, raises the question of how much then vice president George Bush knew about the operation, especially Noriega's involvement. The evidence is ambiguous, but a central fact is that Casey, concerned that the operation be as far removed from the CIA as possible, hit upon the idea of using the Vice President's office as a "cover," arranging it via Bush's chief of staff, Donald Gregg, a former CIA officer. Gregg, in turn, knew the right man to oversee the job: Felix Rodriguez, a fanatically anti-Communist Cuban exile who had worked for Gregg and the CIA in Vietnam. In 1981, by then officially retired from the agency, Rodriguez volunteered his services to battle the Sandinistas. Gregg deputized him to oversee the distribution of illegal arms to the Contras, primarily at a staging area in El Salvador, where Rodriguez was good friends with Salvadoran General Juan Bustillo. (Both Gregg and Bush were later to say they knew nothing of any illegal operations to arm the Contras until August 1986, and it is unknown whether Gregg informed his boss of Black Eagle.)
Whatever the merit of Black Eagle's geopolitical objectives, the only real beneficiaries were Noriega, the Medellin drug cartel -- and Barry Seal. He had achieved every drug smuggler's dream, securing smuggling routes under a form of quasi official protection. From January 1981 to August 1982, Seal earned profits of at least $19 million while smuggling several tons of cocaine into the United States. In the process, he became something of a legend in the drug underworld, garnering some of its conventional trappings of success: a large new home in an exclusive Baton Rouge suburb, outfitted with oriental rugs and expensive artwork and furniture. He acquired a small fleet of luxury cars, along with several large boats. To anyone wondering how this self-described "businessman" had come by all this success, Seal provided few answers. He had acquired a front business, which, oddly, turned out to be a sign rental company. Headquartered in a run down building in a decaying industrial section of Baton Rouge, the company looked like a Chinese puzzle, with no apparent entrance or exit and no first floor windows. Those who worked in the sign rental company were under strict orders not to have anything to do with other people in the building whose duties seemed somewhat obscure. The boss himself most often seemed to be "out," and when he was "in," betrayed some odd habits for a businessman. For example, there was the matter of that brown paper bag he always carried, filled with quarters obtained by a beleaguered secretary ordered to make trips to the bank and cash in thousands of dollars for coins. Seal hardly ever used the office phone, preferring instead to call from a network of pay phones all over the city, to which he would be summoned by a beeper he wore. The beeper went off constantly. Clearly he was a wealthy man, but much of his capital was poured into planes and equipment for what was apparently his own private air force. (He once laid out $750,000 in cash for some high-tech navigation equipment.) Among the planes he bought was a C-123 cargo plane, the kind the military once used to move entire armies and their equipment. As the small staff of workers at the sign rental company wondered, what would such a business need a fleet of airplanes for? Their boss did not provide an answer, nor did he tell them why his crummy little building required such tight security, including grim-looking men with guns. Indeed, there was a great deal Seal would not tell his legitimate but bewildered employees about: his bustling drug organization, which by 1982 had 60 people working for it; his mysterious flights back and forth across the Gulf of Mexico, some of them containing arms for the Contras; his return flights loaded with narcotics; his business dealings with the Colombians, who preferred calling him by his nickname El Gordo, having been often amused by the sight of Seal extricating his vast bulk from a cockpit.
What the sign-rental company employees saw was a boss whose moods seemed to switch from southern charm, when he could talk the birds out of the trees, to towering rage. Less suspicious minds attributed all this, even including the bag of quarters, to a certain eccentricity. A workaholic, Seal appeared to move in a blur nearly round the clock, and his expression was often enigmatic, as if he were keeping many secrets. He sure was: By that point Seal knew all about Noriega, the connections with the Medellin Cartel, the CIA's secret Black Eagle operation, the hiring of drug runners to smuggle guns, and the curious intersection that the drug underworld and American intelligence now occupied. At that intersection, it was hard to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, especially characters like Noriega, the CIA's pinup boy in Panama. Seal himself was an out-and-out bad guy, but in early 1982, as Black Eagle was running full blast and Seal was reaping gargantuan profits from his expanding narcotics empire, he was about to become even more deeply involved in intelligence operations that intersected with narcotics. In the process, he would open one of the most bizarre chapters in American crime, a chapter that would reveal conclusively why the so-called war on drugs was lost.
In the early spring of 1982, an extraordinary summit meeting of sorts took place in a Baton Rouge steakhouse between master narcotics smuggler Barry Seal and two men intent on destroying him. Seal was expansive, drawing on his considerable reserve of southern charm. But the two men seated at the table -- Lieutenant Butch Milan and Investigator Jack Crittenden of the Louisiana State Police narcotics unit -- were not charmed in the slightest. For quite some time they had been stalking Seal and his organization, slowly piecing together its dimensions in the process of building a case. It had not been easy. Seal, one of the most cunning criminals they had ever encountered, had perfected an airtight security system. Uncanny in his ability to spot surveillance teams, he drove the cops nuts. For one thing, Seal never seemed to use the same telephone twice, frustrating all attempts to plant bugs. By the time police teams managed to spot Seal in a phone booth, feeding dozens of quarters into the coin slot from his ubiquitous paper bag, it was too late to mount a wire. There were other frustrations. Seal's confederates seemed impervious to pressure -- they all harbored a deep fear of Seal -- and inspections of Seal's planes never uncovered an ounce of contraband. Seal seemed to regard the entire process as a game, and took delight in approaching surveillance teams and roundly berating them as "assholes" for failing to catch him. Nevertheless, patient police work had begun to draw a web around Seal when Lieutenant Milan decided on an unorthodox move. He and Crittenden, one of his best investigators, would meet with Seal, announce that they now had enough to put him and his people away for 40 years, then propose a deal. Under Milan's terms, Seal would admit his guilt, receive leniency, then become an informant, providing first-hand testimony against the nerve center of the narcotics flood washing over the United States, the Medellin drug lords of Colombia. It was every narcotics agent's dream.
Essentially this was a bluff, but Milan hoped that if Seal believed the police were really about to pounce, he would buy it. Neither Milan nor Crittenden knew at that point of Seal's CIA connections and his direct involvement in Black Eagle, though they did wonder about rumors concerning Seal's high-level connections. Their immediate concern was Barry Seal, drug smuggler, the man who was bringing tons of the stuff into the sovereign state of Louisiana. Milan wanted Seal out of business. In a grim-faced tone meant to suggest that he was not taken with Seal's oozing charm, Milan put the matter squarely on the line. "Listen to me," Milan snapped. "You're good and you've been lucky, Barry. But we'll get you, I personally guarantee that.
"I don't care if it takes every man we've got working seven days a week, 24 hours a day -- we're going to put your ass in jail. Is my meaning clear?" Seal grasped the point instantly, and listened quietly as Milan and Crittenden outlined their terms for the deal: that Seal was to get out of the narcotics business, become an informant, and tell Milan everything the police wanted to know about the Medellin Cartel." Well, before I do that," Seal replied, "I'll have to check with some people." The answer caught Milan and Crittenden by surprise. "Check with some people?" Certainly Seal wasn't about to run the proposal past his confederates or the Medellin Cartel -- so who could "they" be? Crittenden was especially uneasy; perhaps those rumors about Seal running guns for the CIA (and getting protection for his drug flights in return) were true. If so, that might complicate the case.
Crittenden was right to feel uneasy, for in fact police pressure on Seal was making things very complicated. The complications had begun in Panama, where Noriega's notoriety as a drug trafficker became so widespread that CIA agents running Black Eagle concluded it was time to put some distance between him and the operation. Accordingly, a revised operation, code-named Supermarket, was set into motion by Casey. Noriega would have a less direct role in the Supermarket operation. Using Micha Harari, the former Mossad operative, once again as cutout, the idea was to ship Polish and Czechoslovakian arms, purchased in Europe through CIA-connected arms dealers, to several large warehouses in Honduras controlled by members of the Honduran military friendly to the CIA.
The problem was that arms trading is a cash-only business; in the case of Supermarket, one requiring millions of dollars up front that the CIA could not spend on a clearly illegal operation. Noriega rode to the rescue, magnanimously offering the use of a Panamanian laundry to properly hide the source of funds he guaranteed would somehow materialize, which they did -- somewhere around $20 million. Where did Noriega get the money? It didn't require much imagination to deduce how a man with Noriega's business connections could conjure up so much cash: narcotics. Some of the money was raised from the Medellin Cartel, which Noriega advised to make an $8 million "contribution" to Supermarket as a means of scoring some points with the Americans.
An attack of acute naivete would be required to believe that the CIA people involved in Supermarket -- including Casey himself -- did not know that narcotics money formed the bulk of the funding for the operation. No one needed to look any further than the curious case of Julio Zavala. a drug trafficker who was arrested in San Francisco in early 1983 on narcotics-trafficking charges. To the astonishment of prosecutors, Zavala claimed that he was working closely with the Contras to raise money to purchase arms. Sure enough, the leading Contra faction confirmed Zavala's story, and prosecutors were ultimately required to return $36,000 seized on Zavala's person when he was arrested. The Contras claimed that the money was in fact theirs. Then there was the case of the so called "southern front."
In 1982, Casey had approved the creation of a group of Costa Rican-based Contras under the leadership of Eden "Commandante Zero" Pastora, a former Sandinista leader who had broken with the regime. However grandiose Casey's strategic conception that Pastora's "southern front" would unite with the Honduran-based Contra faction in the north and crush Nicaragua in a giant pincer, there was in fact not enough money io accomplish that vision. The Boland Amendment made direct CIA funding impossible, and some members of Pastora's faction began reaching out for other sources of funds. Pastora himself wanted nothing to do with drugs, but one of his aides, Sebastian Gonzalez, did. Gonzalez broke with Pastora, formed his own Contra group called M-3, and went into business with the Medellin Cartel. He was later indicted in Costa Rica for narcotics trafficking and fled the country. The interesting aspect of the entire episode is that he was encouraged by the CIA to break with Pastora. The agency become disenchanted with Pastora when he refused to meld his forces with the Honduran-based Contras -- a group that, he argued, contained too many former members of Anastasio Somoza's notorious National Guard. The CIA's solution was to undercut Pastora by wooing away some of his key supporters, including Gonzalez. But Gonzalez had no money, the CIA had none to give him, and thus there could not have been a doubt in anyone's mind where Gonzalez got the money to equip his M-3 fighting force.
One man who knew more than anybody else about the direct involvement of narcotics in the CIA's secret war was, of course, Barry Seal. He knew all about Black Eagle and Supermarket, since once again he was prevailed upon to find the "right" kind of pilots to run guns. As Seal understood it, those very same pilots were running narcotics back home. Meanwhile, Seal himself had become the preeminent drug smuggler in the United States.
The sudden police pressure in Louisiana threatened to unhinge everything, but a few days after his Baton Rouge meeting with Milan and Crittenden, Seal came back to the police with an astonishing offer. He would not turn informant, but he would end the Louisiana problem by simply abandoning his operation in the state. "I'll never do drugs again in Louisiana," Seal vowed.
The police were happy to hear it, but they were not about to take Seal at his word. They decided to watch and wait, to see if Seal would actually commit that most unlikely of all unlikely acts for a major drug smuggler: walk away from a multi million-dollar business. Surprisingly, Seal did appear to have abandoned Louisiana -- but not the business of narcotics smuggling. In fact, he moved north to Arkansas, to the small town of Mena, where he set up business at the local airport. In no time at all, Seal had virtually taken over a local aircraft repair-and-modification operation at the airport, and the good citizens of Mena began to notice some strange goings on: landings at night, tight security around Seal's planes, a hangar converted into a virtual fortress. The wings of one of Seal's planes were observed to be scratched with the paint chipped off, as though it had landed at some jungle airstrip." We're transporting porpoises," one of Seal's mechanics explained to those curious about the planes owned by this mysterious fat character from Louisiana. But Sheriff Al Hadaway, the local constabulary in that rural part of Arkansas, wasn't fooled. He told one of his deputies, Terry Capeheart, who also ran a small aircraft-repair operation at Mena, to quietly nose around and find out what was really going on. Over the course of several weeks, Capeheart, an extremely shrewd investigator with the deceptive air of an Arkansas good ol' boy, began to peel away the layers of security protecting Seal's operation. He discovered that cargo doors were being added to Seal's planes, with a further check revealing that Seal and his people had never applied for a Federal Aviation Administration permit to do so, as required by law. He discovered that N serial numbers on the tails of some of Seal's planes had been altered, a common stratagem drug smugglers used to balk surveillance. He discovered that extra fuel tanks were being added to planes, again without the required FAA certificate.
Most significantly, Capeheart was able to win the confidence of one of the secretaries who worked for the aircraft-repair company Seal had infiltrated.
Although her boss was the nominal head of the company, she reported that Seal was actually running the place. She recounted some other things that disturbed her even more, including being given shoeboxes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and being instructed to make deposits of less than $10,000 in various banks (banks are required to report deposits of $10,000 or more to the U.S. Treasury). All in all, there were clear indications that Mena was now the site of a major narcotics-smuggling operation, and Hadaway called on federal law enforcement for help. Soon FBI, DEA, and U.S. Customs agents were nosing around Mena. Almost immediately, they made a startling discovery. Eleven miles north of Mena, in a remote area abutting the Ouachita National Forest, Seal had bought 109 acres, along with another large tract of land not too far away. A 3,000-feet-long landing strip was built, a construction that made no sense, since the area is not serviced by any roads and the nearest phone is 15 miles away in the crossroads town of Nella. Agents investigating this curious deal at first assumed that Seal intended to use the Nella strip as a launchpad for drug flights, but began receiving reports indicating that perhaps something much more significant was occurring there. Local forest rangers said they had heard automatic-weapons fire coming from the area, and later discovered shell casings around the airstrip, some of them 20-millimeter, clearly a military weapon. Additionally, some residents reported seeing men in camouflage uniforms in the area. The general outline of what was happening became increasingly obvious. Clearly Seal had made his offer to Louisiana authorities after he consulted the CIA people with whom he was working. He shifted to Arkansas, then arranged to build the Nella airstrip as a military training base for U.S.-recruited mercenaries who were to fight with the Contras. (Several dozen Americans were recruited by "private" organizations under CIA aegis to fight with the Contras, and trained at a number of such camps throughout the United States.)
What was most disturbing to the agents who uncovered this arrangement was the clear implication that Seal, a known drug smuggler, was in business with the Central Intelligence Agency -- which could not have been unaware of his primary vocation. In other words, Seal was receiving virtual sanction to continue as a drug smuggler. The very same thought occurred to authorities in Louisiana, who made the unsettling discovery that Seal's sanction apparently extended to their state, for El Gordo was still running drugs there. William R. Reeves, Seal's old drug-smuggling partner from the early days, had been snared (he disappeared after his indictment), and police in Louisiana had also trapped another Seal associate, who agreed to tell all in return for leniency. A friend of Seal's since childhood, the associate filled in many missing details. Both federal and state authorities in Louisiana were now certain they finally had enough to bring Seal to trial. But before they could move, Seal made a bad mistake, one that set off a chain of events so bizarre, it made everything that happened before pale by comparison.
The mistake was made in Florida, where Seal decided to expand his drug operation. But he was less sure of his business partners there, and one of them turned him in. Early in 1983 he was caught moving nearly two tons of narcotics into south Florida. Indicted in March of that year on two charges, and convicted the following February, he faced 59 years in prison. That would appear to have been the end of Seal at last, but he was a man of some resources, not all of them financial. After his offer to become a DEA informant in exchange for leniency was rejected, a similar proposal made to the U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge met with the same cold shoulder -- Seal suddenly appeared before George Bush's Vice Presidential Task Force on Drugs in Washington. How he got there and who brought him there remains a mystery, but Seal dazzled them with tales of drug smuggling and how he had made millions in the "trade," as he called it. What really caught the panel's attention, however, was the bombshell Seal dropped during his closed-door testimony: The Sandinista government was directly involved in drug trafficking to the United States. According to Seal, the Medellin Cartel had made a deal with the Sandinistas, awarding them hefty cuts of drug profits in exchange for the use of an airfield in Managua as trans-shipment point for narcotics. Overnight, Seal was transformed from drug smuggler trying to wiggle out from under a crushing legal case to star informant. Under pressure from the Task Force, the DEA agreed to enlist Seal as an undercover informant, with special emphasis on the "Nicaraguan connection." But did such a connection even exist? DEA intelligence reports contained no information on it, and there were a number of DEA officials who suspected that Seal had been primed to say the one thing the Reagan administration wanted to hear -- that the Sandinistas, in addition to all the other heinous crimes the administration was accusing them of, were also drug smugglers.
Set loose into the drug underworld, Seal demonstrated a real flair for sting operations, ensnaring several top leaders of the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean as drug traffickers, plus a large-scale narcotics ring in Las Vegas. But the eventual goal was the "Nicaraguan connection," with Seal hinting that he would be able to set up the entire Medellin Cartel for arrest. In April 1984, Seal delivered another bombshell for the DEA, claiming he was in contact with the Medellin Cartel, which wanted him to serve as liaison with a man named Frederico Vaughan, described as a Sandinista government official and close associate of Nicaraguan Defense Minister Tomas Borges. According to Seal, Vaughan was the Sandinista representative chosen to deal with the Medellin Cartel. The report was sensational, and when Seal flew his C-123 southward, it was equipped with two hidden cameras that were to record the actual movement of narcotics by the Sandinistas. Seal made the trip in June, but informed his DEA handlers that one camera in the plane's nose -- which would have clearly revealed precisely where the aircraft had landed -- regrettably malfunctioned. A second camera in the cargo bay snapped pictures of Seal, a man identified as Frederico Vaughan, and a "Sandinista soldier" in civilian garb loading duffel bags Seal said contained cocaine onto the plane. The DEA would have preferred to keep the pictures quiet for the moment, since its real objective was the Medellin Cartel, but made the mistake of telling the CIA about them. A week later, one of the pictures appeared in a Washington newspaper, the agency having failed to resist the temptation of scoring propaganda points against the Sandinistas. Seal's cover was irretrievably blown. (The picture was later displayed by President Reagan during a national television address seeking to restore congressional funding for the Contras.)
Salvaging what it could, the DEA had the shipment Seal photographed seized, under the guise of a fortuitous local police bust in Florida, and agents moved against the men that Seal said were "Cartel representatives" in southern Florida. Among them was a man named Carlos Bustamente. Based in Miami, Bustamente had advanced money to Colombia to set the "Nicaraguan connection" deal in motion, an involvement that later resulted in his conviction on trafficking charges and a 40-year prison sentence. But the DEA should have dug deeper, for there was something seriously wrong with the whole "Nicaraguan connection" story. For one thing, Bustamente was in fact an associate of Seal's, not the Medellin Cartel, and the money he advanced for the deal was almost certainly Seal's, not his own. For another, although Seal had called Vaughan in Nicaragua in the presence of the DEA, nobody checked the exact location of the number. It turned out that the phone was in a house that for a number of years was rented by the U.S. embassy in Managua. Moreover, there was not a shred of supporting evidence; with Noriega as a business partner, why would Medellin need the Nicaraguans?
Still it amounted to a major propaganda victory for the U.S. government, and Seal was to get his reward. Already his sentence in Florida had been reduced to ten years. It was later reduced further to probation, following lavish testimonials to Seal's value to the federal government. But this rosy view of El Gordo did not extend to Louisiana, where both federal and state law enforcement had a more realistic grasp of the state's notorious native son. They regarded Seal's Nicaraguan caper as a pure sting, organized and conducted by Seal himself against gullible Washington and Miami DEA officials, now basking in the glow of gratitude from the White House. Unimpressed with Seal's performance, Louisiana authorities put together a major drug-trafficking case against him, emerging with a federal indictment in 1984 charging Seal with moving at least 462 kilos of cocaine worth $168 million into the state. It was a strong case, and there were early indications that Seal would plead guilty and hope his connections would help him out.
Perhaps emboldened by those connections, Seal began to openly challenge his persecutors. He threatened Crittenden with serious legal trouble if the State Police investigator didn't stop surveilling him. He had his lawyer write a letter to police and the local DEA office warning that Seal had armed body guards, adding what police considered to be a veiled threat of a "tragic incident" if the bodyguards were to open fire on agents investigating Seal. On a local television-news documentary, he charged that the investigation of his activities was revenge organized by the U.S. Attorney, the FBI, the State Police, and the local DEA because he refused to become an informant.
All the while, as police discovered, Seal was active in the drug business. Incredibly enough, while he was ostensibly on parole in the Florida case, working as a DEA informant and in the process of pleading guilty to a major narcotics case in Louisiana, he was busy reorganizing a whole new drug operation there. More ominously, that operation seemed to have some form of legal protection.
Police discovered a 95-foot converted fishing boat with helipad anchored in a river 180 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Their suspicions heightened by the presence of Hispanics aboard, the police checked the boat's ownership: It belonged to Seal, who was indignant that the police would even suspect that his boat would be used to move narcotics. Moreover, there was a call from the DEA in Florida claiming that the boat was to be used by Seal in a new sting operation on behalf of the government. The same thing happened when police uncovered another Seal tentacle, a house in a rural part of the state, loaded with highly sophisticated communications gear, with a field nearby for helicopter landings. As police moved in to seize the equipment, another call from the Florida DEA informed them that the communications setup -- capable of reaching any point in Latin America was also owned by Seal and part of a sting operation he directed on behalf of the DEA. Those assertions were news to the DEA in Baton Rouge, which in formed the police that they knew of no such sting operations under way in Louisiana.
Things were even worse in Arkansas, where authorities move against Seal's operation at Mena Airport. Sheriff Al Hadaway went after Seal's C-123 with drug-sniffing dogs, intending to seize the plane if traces of narcotics were detected. But Hadaway too received a call from the DEA in Miami: If he seized the plane, the U.S. government would seize it back. Infuriated, Hadaway blew up, yelling into the telephone, "We in Arkansas have been screwed and Vaselined by the federal government!"
It was worse than he knew. The DEA in Miami claimed that everything Seal had been doing in Arkansas and Louisiana was part of a DEA operation and therefore sanctioned. The claim was fatuous on its face, since the Miami DEA had no agents on the scene to monitor Seal's activities in those two states, and had not informed either state's local DEA out posts or the FBI (or the police) that any such sting operations were under way, which meant, as Louisiana police later estimated, that Seal had been allowed to move several hundred kilos of narcotics into both states under official sanction by the U.S. government. The alleged "stings" Seal's activities represented were in fact Seal's own, designed to keep the DEA on a string.
This sequence of events infuriated Louisiana officials. Determined to put Seal away, they were in no mood to grant him much leniency on his guilty plea, but there was extraordinary pressure from the highest levels of the U.S. Justice Department that Seal be given a sentence in accordance with the one he received in Florida -- ten years reduced to probation, also after heavy pressure from the Justice Department. Now Louisiana was stuck with that "accordance." A sentencing hearing in Louisiana on Seal's case graphically illustrated just what was wrong with the alleged "war on drugs." Defense attorneys arguing for leniency were surrounded by a phalanx of high-level federal officials, all primed to testify about the invaluable contributions Seal had made to the crusade against narcotics. On the other side, arrayed around the Louisiana prosecutors were local federal officials who were prepared to testify that Seal had done no such thing. Seal refused to enter the federal Witness Protection Program, proclaiming, "This is my town!"
U.S. District Court Judge Frank Polozola, who presided over this bizarre tableau, knew all about Seal and was not impressed by all the talk concerning Seal's contributions. People like Seal, Polozola said, "are the lowest, despicable people I can think of." But his hands were tied. Seal's plea bargain guaranteed that he would receive the same sentence he received in Florida. That meant probation -- but, Polozola told a shocked Seal, he had the authority to set the conditions of that probation. The judge then ordered Seal to stay in the Middle District of Louisiana and spend most of the week in a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge, where he had to report every day at 6:00 PM. Seal was outraged by this first legal limit on his freedom of movement, yet Polozola made it clear that he was not about to bend under any pressure that Seal might summon: "And I can tell you right now, I don't care if it is the DEA, I don't care if it is the CIA, I don't care if it is the State Department, I don't care if it is the U.S. Attorney."
Polozola's surprising mention of the CIA struck a responsive chord in the law-enforcement establishments of Louisiana and Arkansas, for they had come to believe that aside from the incompetence of the Miami office of the DEA in managing Seal, the real villain in the entire Seal saga was the CIA It was the Seal-CIA connection, they decided, that was the root cause of their problem -- and the larger problem of narcotics. The plain fact was that while one arm of the government was proclaiming a war against drugs, its intelligence arm was doing business with people like Seal -- at the very least, tacitly allowing him to smuggle drugs.
The precise CIA-Seal relationship is still not fully known, but as Seal began to serve his probation at the halfway house, he was dropping some tantalizing hints in private conversations with police and federal agents. "I've only begun to talk," he said, with suggestions of dark deeds and strange connections, the mere mention of which clearly made him nervous.
The motive may have been Seal's sense that the intricate game he had been playing for over ten years was now finally over. The CIA's Supermarket operation had been closed down, largely because of recurring publicity about drug dealing by some of those involved in the operation. Supermarket's replacement was the soon-to-be-infamous Enterprise, managed directly by Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council.
Seal and the other smugglers he had recruited were eased out of the Contra operations, but Seal had one last service to perform: He agreed to "sell" his C-123 to a CIA proprietary (a front company) in Miami. It was that plane that was shot down over Nicaragua in the fall of 1986, unraveling the entire secret Contra-supply operation.
By then, Seal was dead. He had spent a few hectic weeks before his death trying to dispose of his planes and boats in the face of an assault by the Internal Revenue Service, which determined that he had made a profit of $30 million smuggling drugs. He had not, the I.R.S. noted sternly, declared this income on his returns. They wanted it all -- now. On the afternoon of February 19, 1986, Seal paid a visit to his sign-rental company before checking in at the halfway house. He seemed unusually nervous to those who saw him that day. They heard him make a few phone calls, including one to a local cable company in which he demanded to know why they had not yet installed the soft-core "adult" channel at the halfway house.
Seal then murmured to no one in particular, "I've got some real problems, some big problems." No one knows what he meant, though obviously he was not referring to the cable company, and those were to be the last words he uttered on this earth. A short while later he drove into the halfway-house parking lot and was murdered. The men who murdered him turned out to be three Colombian hit men dispatched by the Medellin Cartel (they were caught, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment). The motive for the killing was double-edged: one, that Seal was an informant and deserved such treatment on general principle, and two, that he might testify in an attempted U.S. indictment of Jorge Ochoa, one of the Medellin triumvirate.
Since Seal's death. very little light has been shed on the dark secrets he only hinted at. Almost immediately after his death, Louisiana police officials and the state's attorney general prepared a lengthy retrospective report on the case, demanding that the DEA explain its role in the matter.
The report strongly criticized "the involvement of the CIA and the corruption of the Drug Enforcement Administration as an agency." The DEA finally conceded after some months that there was some "validity" to the Louisiana complaints, but added that Seal's case had "significant international or national security implications."
Aware of the anger over the Seal case in Louisiana, including some especially bitter FBI and DEA agents in Baton Rouge -- along with angry police officials -- a senior DEA official traveled to Louisiana and attempted to mollify all those involved." Look," he said finally, in an explanation he thought served as the penultimate answer, "everything was done in the name of national security." Those who heard that answer swore that at that moment they could hear Adler Berriman Seal roar with that rollicking laugh, somewhere far beyond the grave.