The Story Behind an Infamous Escobar Cartel Assassination
Pablo Escobar, left, and Jorga Luis Ochoa, right with hat, the two leaders of the Medellin cocaine cartel, are shown at a bullfight in Medellin, Colombia, in 1984. (AP Photo)
Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal was a drug smuggler who, in the early 1980s, orchestrated the importation of thousands of pounds of cocaine and marijuana into the United States via a remote airstrip in rural west Arkansas. But while working with the Ochoa Brothers from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, Seal was busted in Florida, in 1983. The Louisiana native soon went snitch and started working for the feds; the Philadelphia Inquirer later dubbed Seal “the most important witness in the history of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).”
Not long into his career as an informant, a front page story in the Washington Times by Edmond Jacoby seemed to out Seal as a government agent. (It may also have contributed to the brewing Iran-Contra scandal.) Now that he was no longer useful as a snitch, the DEA cut Seal loose, and not long after, he was arrested by the FBI in Louisiana, where the Baton Rouge US attorney’s office had prepared drug kingpin charges. Seal was eventually slapped with five years probation, along with six months at a local halfway house.
That’s where, on February 19, 1986, Barry Seal was shot and killed in his parked Cadillac by a Colombian assassin toting a Mac-10 machine gun.
The smuggler was romanticized as a soldier of fortune type hung out by the feds when Dennis Hopper played him in the 1991 movie, Double-Crossed. But the realities of Seal’s life are fleshed out in Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal, a new book out April 1 by former Marine and FBI agent Del Hahn.
A Clevelander who spent 22 years with the FBI working cases involving racial violence, corrupt officials, white-collar crime, Hahn says he first saw cocaine in 1967. But before drug task forces started sprouting up under the Reagan administration, he’d never worked a drug case. The former agent, who played a key role in the FBI’s Baton Rouge operation and now works as as a private investigator, says he saw a few wild rumors circulating on the internet about his old mark, and wanted to set the record straight. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: Tell us how you met Seal and how he was busted — and flipped — by the feds.
Former FBI Agent Del Hahn: He was dealing mostly in drugs and marijuana in 1983, when the DEA was running Operation Screamer — an undercover operation — in Florida. The undercover was Randy Beasley, a DEA agent. One of Seal’s smuggling cronies got caught up in Operation Screamer, later cutting a deal with the DEA and agreeing to give them Seal.
Shortly after he was indicted, Seal got in touch with Beasley and the assistant US attorney handling the case, Bruce Zimet, offering to cooperate and give them the Ochoas from the Medellin Cartel. But he wanted no jail time, he wanted his co-defendants to be cut loose, and he wanted to do it without telling his attorney. He was arrogant and demanding and I guess Beasley and Zimet were turned off. They turned him down.
He went back to Baton Rouge and tried to talk with our US Attorney, Stan Bardwell. Bardwell didn’t trust the attorney-go-between and refused to see Barry. So he flew to Washington, DC, and went to the office of the Vice President’s drug task force and offered to be an informant. They sent him to the DEA in Miami, where Agents Joura and Jacobsen became his handlers. March 28, 1984, is the date of the letter of agreement he signed with the US Attorney in Miami.
Throughout the book, Seal comes across as a fun guy. What’d you make of him at the time?
We knew we were dealing with an aircraft smuggler. We knew where his planes were kept. We knew from Randy Beasley and Operation Screamer that Seal did a lot of business over pay phones. We didn’t learn where and when a load of cocaine was going to arrive, but we got some good intelligence information and three solid criminal counts of using the phone for smuggling. I interviewed William Earle, Jr., the guy on the other end of those three calls. He had agreed to testify, and was in custody in New Orleans on a bust of a plane load of marijuana — and he wanted to help himself. The three calls all dealt with Earle flying a Piper Navajo to Mena [Intermountain Airport in Arkansas] to have an illegal fuel system installed. The Navajo was a new plane Seal was adding to his air force.
I had two personal meetings with Seal after I retired. Each time he was personable — he had a sense of humor. But he was not as smart and clever as he thought he was. For example: One of his helpers probably drowned during the recovery of a drug delivery. Another of his lackeys was providing information to the LSP [Louisiana State Police] and DEA. Seal got arrested in Honduras and spent almost a year in prison. He often used pay phones because he thought they were secure. But through surveillance, we were able to identify his favorite pay phones and get wire taps on ten of them. And he thought his DEA pals in Miami could help him — they didn’t.
Seal was right in the thick of it when cocaine was pouring in from Colombia. How did you approach the case against him, having never worked a drug case yourself?
I learned enough about the drug smuggling business to know how it generally operated. I knew Seal had a lot of help, and we knew who most of them were. Most good drug cases are made by undercover operations, good informants, and by wire taps, or a combination of all that. Also, the Louisiana State police narcotics people and the DEA had some good reliable informants who dealt with Seal.
We were after a Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) conviction and a life sentence. Conviction for a CCE violation requires three prior related drug convictions. Almost from the start, we had two of the required three: (1) The conviction from the Operation Screamer indictment that went to trial, and (2) his guilty plea to the second Screamer indictment, which took place when he became a DEA informant. We knew how he was money laundering in Mena [Arkansas] and we found the same activity in Baton Rouge.
How complicit, if at all, were the CIA and the other federal agencies when it came to the drug trade?
The only federal agency Seal ever worked with was the DEA. Seal’s sworn testimony was that he had no knowledge of ever working for the CIA. In debriefings, after his plea bargain, he never told me or anyone else he was a CIA asset or had worked for any agency other than the DEA. Our task force never developed any evidence that the CIA was involved with Seal in drug smuggling. There is not one iota of credible evidence that Seal ever worked for the CIA or assisted them in any operations. And CIA denied any connection with Seal.
My book doesn’t deal with allegations that the CIA was involved in the drug business, except to report what the Kerry Committee findings were — four pilots who worked for the CIA hauling some arms and humanitarian supplies were also known to be involved in drug smuggling. I fault the CIA for not vetting these pilots. If they had, they would have easily learned of their drug smuggling connections. They could then have not used them and avoided a lot of accusations and conspiracy theories. I believe the CIA was desperate for pilots and didn’t care what they might do when they weren’t flying on a CIA project.
What do you know about the circumstances leading up to his killing?
He finally signed a plea agreement with us in the [US Attorney] Middle District [of Louisiana]. He already had a ten-year sentence in Florida. His plea agreement with us specified that his sentence in the Middle District, on one count of possession with intent to distribute 200 plus kilos of cocaine, would not exceed the ten-year sentence he had already been given in Florida. On the second count of our indictment, for money laundering, it was agreed that he would be sentenced to probation. On a sentence of probation, the law allows the sentencing judge to order the defendant to spend time in a half-way house.
Judge Polozola went along with the plea agreement with great reluctance and agreed to the ten-year sentence and probation. He required that Seal spend his nights from 6 PM to 6 AM in a half-way facility run by the Salvation Army. Seal and everyone involved knew the Ochoas had a contract out on him to murder him. And they eventually sent a team of killers to Baton Rouge and killed him while he was seated in his car in the parking lot of the Salvation Army facility.
Given how high-profile he was, why didn’t this guy have protection once he was outed as an FBI informant and prosecuted?
Seal thought he was smarter and cleverer than the Ochoas. He underestimated their will to kill him and overestimated his ability outwit them. And a defendant can’t be forced to take witness protection — a judge can’t order it. It is strictly voluntary and is managed by the US Marshals Service. Arrangements had been made to transfer his probation to New York or Florida. He refused New York, and Judge Palozola didn’t think his going to Florida was a good idea
We learned later on from Seal’s pilot that he planned to jump his probation and flee to Costa Rica — and continue his cocaine-smuggling business — the very next day.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out the book here.
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Originally published at www.vice.com.