On February 19th 1986, Barry Seal, gunrunner and drug trafficker turned covert CIA operative, emerged from his white Cadillac in the parking lot of the Salvation Army Community Treatment Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was shot down by a Colombian hit man wielding a snub-nosed machine-gun. Ten days before, Seal had threatened to expose the Nicaraguan sting operation and the guns-for-drugs trade that had been flourishing in the small town of Mena, Arkansas. In coordinated hits across three continents, he had been silenced along with at least three other top lieutenants of the Medellin drug cartel, arguably the largest and most successful criminal enterprise in history.
In 1980, while in prison for drug smuggling in Guatemala, Seal befriended William Roger Reeves who was manager of the Medellin cartel’s New Orleans operation. A year later, using his personal C-123K cargo plane (he referred to it as the “Fat Lady”), he was flying cocaine shipments into the United States in the service of Colombian drug lords like Jorge Ochoa-Vasquez and Pablo Escobar. By the time he was arrested in Fort Lauderdale in March 1984, he had flown over 100 flights for the Medellin, bringing between three and five billion dollars’ worth of cocaine into the country, possibly more than anyone in history. After failing to strike a deal with the Florida Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he managed to persuade members of a White House task force on crime headed by Vice President George H.W. Bush to let him off with six months probation in return for testifying that the Sandinistas (the left-wing Nicaraguan government opposed at the time by the US-backed Contras) were complicit in the the Colombian cocaine trade. He also agreed to participate in a drug sting aimed at Pablo Escobar and other top-ranking members of the Medellin.
Now drug-smuggling with official sanction, he was at the hub of one of the most lucrative operations in the history of international drug smuggling. Distribution of the drugs was apparently handled by the Mafia and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits resulted in extraordinary money-laundering activities in Arkansas and Florida. Seal also made extensive use of an offshore foreign bank in the Caribbean. His financial records revealed daily deposits of $50,000 or more at the height of the operation. But the really striking thing about all this was that the US government was evidently acquiescent, and possibly complicit, in the illicit trade. Furthermore, the Mena municipal airport was used as a CIA drop point in the cocaine trafficking network right under the nose of future president Bill Clinton, then Governor of Arkansas (he had been a CIA operative since his days at Oxford University).
Before long, Seal obtained incriminating photographs of Escobar directing Nicaraguan soldiers loading 1200 kilos of cocaine onto a plane. The Reagan administration leaked the photos to the media and the President denounced the Sandanistas as “drug smugglers corrupting American youth”. However, the leak blew Seal’s cover as a clandestine informant. A $500,000 contract on his life was the inevitable outcome.
On October 5th 1986, a few months after his death, Seal’s cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of weapons destined for the Contras. The crash of the “Fat Lady” prompted a public unraveling of the Iran-Contra episode.
The national media paid no attention at the time and documentary evidence relating to the Mena operation did not emerge until a decade later. Officials repeatedly invoked national security to suppress most of the investigations, but court documents do clearly show that the CIA and the DEA employed Seal during 1984 and 1985 for the celebrated sting operation. His personal papers reveal government collaboration in the illicit enterprise and a decade-long cover-up of criminality. The vast quantity of drugs smuggled into the country took an incalculable toll on American society and the full degree of government culpability has still to be exposed.