Eight years ago, news reports out of Arkansas explored the allegations of drug smuggling,
Eight years ago, news reports out of Arkansas explored the allegations of
drug smuggling, gun-running and money-laundering activities around
the Mena Intermountain Regional Airport. Way back then, investigators
were revealing their evidence, while asking why there were no prosecutions.
Powerful interests protected the cocaine traffickers from facing criminal
justice. The U.S. Justice Department did all they could to not return
Grand Jury indictments by not calling the right witnesses nor asking the
right questions. Was this criminal cover up justified by U.S. government
officials because of National Security concerns due to the Contra resupply
operations that used Mena as one of its American bases?
This story is from the second day of a three series on Mena in the ARKANSAS
GAZETTE. It explores the spook/drug smuggling career of Barry Seal, who
smuggled cocaine into the United States and guns for the Contras. It also
tells how a Federal judge left Barry Seal a sitting duck for any of his enemies.
A second story appeared that day (see CIA Cocaine: Ark. Gazette
"The Kingpin and his many connections"
By Michael Haddigan
THE ARKANSAS GAZETTE
June 27, 1988
For seven years, Barry Seal flew tons of cocaine from the jungle
airstrips of Colombia to drop zones in the Louisiana swamps.
When he became a government informant in 1984 and double-crossed
the cocaine cartel he once worked for, he knew what could happen.
"I can take the pressure," he said. "I'm not worried about the
contract. If it comes, it comes."
It came February 19, 1986, in the parking lot of the Salvation
Army halfway house on Baton Rouge's busy Airline Highway strip.
As Seal, 43, returned to the halfway house for the evening, a
condition of his federal probation, assassins sprayed his white
Cadillac Fleetwood with machine-gun fire. Six of the .45-caliber
bullets ripped into Seal's chest, neck and head.
The Fat Man was dead.
Seal's activities and associations at the Mena Intermountain
Regional Airport in western Arkansas are now the subject of seven
Investigators are examining allegations of an international
conspiracy involving gun running, cocaine smuggling and the illegal
supply network serving the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
The first question they will face may not be easy to answer:
Who was Barry Seal?
A review of police files, federal court trial transcripts,
Seal's testimony before the President's Commission on Organized
Crime and interviews with those who knew him have formed a sketch of
Seal's friends and enemies say he could fly anything with wings.
They say he was a gregarious, confident hustler who could sell you an
empty sardine can for a dollar.
"He was a good con artist, very arrogant and good at what he was
doing," said A. L. Hadaway of Mena, the former Polk County sheriff
who investigated Seal. "He was probably one of the best and most
profitable smugglers in the country."
Some will tell you he was a loving family man and a generous
employer. "He was sweet and good, and he was there when you needed
him," Dandra Seale of Baton Rouge, his former secretary, said.
Others say he was a ruthless, violent cocaine smuggler who ruined
thousands of lives. "Don't make him into a hero," one Louisiana law
enforcement officer said.
First solo flight at age 15
While other teen-agers were learning to drive, Barry Seal was
learning to fly.
At 15, Seal made his first solo flight at Baton Rouge's Ryan
Airport. After a hitch in the Army, Seal joined Trans World
However, his airline career ended in 1972 when Seal was charged
with smuggling explosives into Mexico for anti-Castro Cubans trained
by the Central Intelligence Agency. He was later acquitted.
But there were other options for a pilot like Seal.
Seal began smuggling marijuana in 1977, but cocaine's "ease of
handling" and big profits soon caught his attention, he said. Seal
bragged that he once made $1.5 million on a single cocaine flight.
'Smuggling was so simple'
"Basically, smuggling was so simple, so anonymous and so
lucrative that it eventually became my sole occupation," he told the
President's Commission on Organized Crime in 1985.
In December 1979, Seal was arrested and jailed in Honduras after
authorities there found a machine gun in his airplane. While in
jail, Seal met Emile Camp of Slidell, La., another drug pilot. After
they were released, Camp became Seal's co-pilot.
"Emile and Barry worked really closely," Dandra Seale said. "They
were together at all times."
Hadaway, who is now manager of an aircraft engine shop near the
Mena airport, said Seal may have based some planes at Mena in late
1981. He said Seal began making frequent appearances at Mena in late
1982 or early 1983.
Turned informant in '84
Seal's transformation from smuggler to government informant began
in March 1984 when he was indicted at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for
smuggling Quaaludes and laundering money.
A month later, he made the first of several unsuccessful attempts
to interest the federal government in a deal. If federal authorities
would agree to reduce his sentence, he would help build a case
against the Colombian drug cartel. He found no takers.
So he went over their heads.
Seal testified in a federal drug trial at Las Vegas in 1985 that
he flew in his Lear jet to Washington, D. C., in March 1984 and met
with two members of Vice President George Bush's drug task force.
They put him in touch with the Justice Department's Drug Enforcement
Administration at Miami.
Seal and the DEA struck a deal. Soon, Seal was working as an
Four trips to Nicaragua
Seal testified that he made four trips to Nicaragua in 1984 to
document alleged Nicaraguan complicity in cocaine trafficking.
One of the Nicaragua trips was a refueling stop on a flight from
Colombia to the United States. Just after takeoff, an engine on the
twin-engine plane he was flying was damaged by Sandinista
anti-aircraft fire. The cocaine in the plane was seized by
Nicaraguan authorities, Seal said, and he was jailed for several
After Seal, Camp and a mechanic were released, they returned to
the United States in a rented aircraft, he said. It was then, Seal
said, that he bought the military surplus Fairchild C-123K cargo
plane that would become his flagship.
He dubbed it The Fat Lady.
"It's a large aircraft," he later testified. "It has a wing span
about the size of a C-5. You can drive a tank in it. It's
camouflaged in color, a huge airplane."
The converted military aircraft later became part of the
clandestine contra supply network. Sandinista troops shot it down in
southern Nicaragua in October 1986, killing the pilot and the
co-pilot, Wallace Blaine (Buzz) Sawyer of Magnolia.
Hidden camera installed
Seal testified in the Las Vegas drug trial that before he
returned to Nicaragua to pick up the seized cocaine, CIA personnel
installed a hidden camera in the plane to get photographic proof of
Sandinista drug trafficking.
Just before dawn on June 26, 1984, Seal flew into Homestead Air
Force Base near Miami with more than a ton of cocaine that he said he
brought from Nicaragua. The conservative Washington Times broke the
story of Seal's flight and the photographs he made.
The article exposed Seal to the cartel as an undercover agent and
However, news articles have since cast considerable doubt on
Seal's claims about the Nicaraguan adventure. In an April 22, 1987,
article, The Wall Street Journal reported that federal officials
could find no evidence other than Seal's word that the people in the
photographs were Sandinista officials.
The article also reported that DEA officials said the cocaine
shipment Seal brought back from Nicaragua was the only Nicaraguan
shipment it was aware of. And, the officials told the newspaper,
Seal had brought the drugs there from Colombia in the first place.
Co-pilot dies in crash
Emile Camp, Seal's co-pilot, was killed in February 1985 when the
plane he was flying slammed into the side of Fourche Mountain, north
During the summer of 1985, Seal testified against Norman
Saunders, the prime minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and
other officials. Seal had recorded a meeting in which he said
Saunders had accepted a bribe to allow the islands to be used as a
stopping point for drug planes. Seal himself had used the islands in
the early 1980s.
He also testified in the trial of members of the cartel's Florida
operations, and in October 1985 Seal testified before the President's
Commission on Organized Crime.
Co-operation pays off
Seal's co-operation with authorities paid off. Federal officials
went to bat for him, and a federal judge in Florida reduced his
sentence to time served and six months probation.
But there was a catch.
Federal Judge Frank Polozola of Baton Rouge ordered Seal to spend
each night of his probation at the Salvation Army Community Treatment
Center, a federal halfway house, on Airline Highway. The judge also
ruled that Seal could not carry a firearm and could not employ anyone
who carried a firearm.
The Fat Man's problems were far from over.
Anyone who wanted Seal dead knew where and when to find him.
Seal began serving his probation January 25, 1986. Seal's problems
were compounded when the Internal Revenue Service presented him with
a $29 million tax bill.
"Toward the end, he was highly tense and nervous," Seale, his
former secretary, said. "The IRS took everything."
Seale was to have visited Barry Seal the night he died. Her
husband telephoned her with the news. "They got him," he said.
A few days later, he was buried in a sky blue casket.
Next: Mena officials are tired of Barry Seal.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank