By Tom Aswell
Saturday, February 19, will mark the 25th anniversary of one of the most sensational high-profile killings to rock Baton Rouge since the 1935 assassination of U.S. Sen. Huey Long.
The brutal murder of Barry Seal, 46, at a Baton Rouge halfway house in 1986 would send shock waves up and down the political spectrum. It would focus the glare of the media spotlight on not only the Colombian Medellin Cartel, but also on the FBI and CIA as well as such political icons as then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Oliver North.
Most of all, Seal’s murder would lay bare for all the world to see the seamy underbelly of America’s duplicitous war on drugs, and how drug smuggling was in fact sanctioned by powerful men in order to advance a hidden agenda. That agenda would turn up in the sordid details of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Seal’s life—and death—would seem a perfect fit for Hollywood. In fact, there was a made-for-cable movie, Double Crossed, that starred Dennis Hopper as Seal.
Seal, who began flying at age of 15, flew weapons to Fidel Castro in 1958 when Castro was fighting to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. It was only after Castro succeeded in overthrowing Batista in 1959 and declared himself a Marxist that other forces then began their efforts to overthrow Castro.
In 1964, Seal went to work for TWA and became their youngest 707 captain and later their youngest 747 captain. He was fired by TWA after his 1972 arrest in New Orleans on charges of flying explosives to anti-Castro Cubans in Mexico. The buyer, it turned out, was a federal agent. Soon after that, Seal turned to drug smuggling and subsequently was arrested in Honduras with 40 kilos of cocaine worth a reported $25 million.
He spent nine months in a Honduran prison and while there, met William Roger Reeves, a fellow prisoner who worked for the Ochoa family of Medellin, Colombia. Reeves, Ochoa’s New Orleans business manager, brought Seal into what in 1982 officially became the Medellin Cartel after Jorge Ochoa and Pablo Escobar joined forces to form a 2,000-man army to destroy M-19, the Marxist revolutionary group that was causing problems for the Colombian drug barons.
By 1982, Seal was making regular runs on behalf of the Medellin Cartel, bringing tons of cocaine into the U.S. It was at this time that he moved his operations from Baton Rouge to Mena, Arkansas. Whether known or not at the time by Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, the use of the Mena airport by Seal and others would be used by detractors in efforts to tie Clinton to drug smuggling conspiracies, especially during his first four years as President.
In 1984, Seal was indicted in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on charges of smuggling Quaaludes and money laundering. Facing a 10-year prison sentence, he decided to flip but federal prosecutors were not interested in a deal so he simply went over their heads. He flew to Washington and met with two members of Vice President George Bush’s Task Force on Drugs.
In secret testimony before the task force, Seal said the Medellin Cartel had cut a deal with the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The agreement, Seal said, called for the cartel to give a cut of drug profits to the Sandinistas in exchange for use of an airfield in Managua as a trans-shipment point for narcotics.
That news proved too enticing for President Reagan who was eager to wage an all-out war on the Sandinistas. Because Reagan feared another communist regime in the Western Hemisphere, Seal was enlisted as an undercover informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
By this time, Seal had purchased a C-123. The larger transport plane, which he affectionately referred to as The Fat Lady, was needed to haul tons of cocaine for the cartel. As part of his agreement with DEA, he rigged the C-123 with a hidden camera and was able to photograph Pablo Escobar helping Nicaraguan soldiers load 1,200 kilos of cocaine at the Managua airport. Reagan was ecstatic and went on national television shortly afterwards, waving the photograph given to him by Col. Oliver North and denouncing the Sandinistas as “drug smugglers corrupting American youth.”
As a result of Seal’s cooperation, the judge in his Florida case praised Seal and reduced his sentence to six months probation.
North, meanwhile, was busy orchestrating a complicated arms deal with Iran in negotiations to obtain Iran’s help in freeing seven American hostages held by pro-Iranian terrorists in Lebanon. The U.S. would conceal the transactions by selling the weapons first to Israel and then re-selling them at significant “off the books” markups to Iran’s Islamist government for use in its war with Iraq. Despite several such transactions, it would take years to obtain freedom for all the prisoners.
Part of the $48 million paid by Iran to the U.S. for the Hawk and TOW missiles was in turn used to fund the Contras in their fight against the Marxist Sandinistas. This was in direct violation of a 1984 law banning such aid.
In December of 1984, Seal was arrested in Louisiana for flying a cargo of marijuana into the state. U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola was bound by the Florida plea agreement and was furious at being powerless to put Seal away.
Polozola on December 20, 1985, invoked the sentence handed down by the Florida judge and sentenced Seal to six months supervised probation, taking the occasion to say that people like Seal were “the lowest, most despicable people I can think of.” A condition of the sentence was that he had to spend every night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., at the Salvation Army halfway house on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge. Polozola further stipulated that Seal could not carry a gun or hire armed bodyguards.
Seal’s attorney, Lewis Unglesby, told Polozola his ruling amounted to a death sentence for his client. Seal told friends that the judge “made me a clay pigeon.”
At 6 p.m. on February 19, 1986, Seal promptly drove up to the Salvation Army in his white Cadillac. As he parked his car, he was approached by a man carrying an assault weapon. Two quick bursts riddled Seal’s head and chest, killing him instantly.
On March 27, a state grand jury in Baton Rouge indicted Miguel Velez, Bemardo Antonio Vasquez, Luis Quintero, and Jose Renteria-Campo for the murder. In May of 1987, a jury found Vasquez, Velez, and Quintero guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced all three to life in prison without parole. Renteria-Campo was extradited to Miami to be tried on federal weapons charges.
Unglesby said the Medellin Cartel killed Seal to prevent the extradition of Medellin Cartel co-leader Jorge Ochoa from Spain, where he was hiding. U.S. authorities wanted to put him on trial for drug smuggling. “It worked,” Unglesby said. “Ochoa wasn’t extradited.”
But even in death, Seal would not go away easily.
On March 3, 1986, only two weeks after Seal was murdered, Louisiana Attorney General William Guste hand-delivered a five-page letter to U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese. In his letter, Guste made a formal request for a complete investigation with respect to the government’s relationship with and handling of Seal.
“In October, as Chairman of the Subcommittee on Narcotics and Drug Interdiction of the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, I had presided over a seminar at which Barry Seal had testified,” Guste continued.
“His purpose there was to inform the commission and top United States officials of the methods and equipment used by drug smugglers….and (he) was scheduled to be a key witness in the government’s case against Jorge Ochoa-Vasques, the head of one of the largest drug cartels in the world. WHY WAS SUCH AN IMPORTANT WITNESS NOT GIVEN PROTECTIOIN WHETHER HE WANTED IT OR NOT?” Guste asked, using all capital letters.
There was no word as to whether or not Meese ever responded to Guste’s letter.
Seven months after Guste delivered his letter to Meese, on October 5, 1986, a Sandinista patrol shot down a C-123 cargo plane that was supplying the Contras. Eugene Hasenfus, who was on board the plane, survived the crash and told his captors that he thought the CIA was behind the operation to supply the Contras.
It proved to be the singular event that blew the Iran-Contra scandal wide open. The C-123 that had been shot down was The Fat Lady, Seal’s beloved cargo plane. Somehow, the plane had fallen into the hands of Oliver North and his covert operation.
Hasenfus said that was by sheer coincidence.
That’s not likely. Seal’s offshore bank accounts disappeared and the IRS filed a multi-million dollar lien against his assets. His property, including his home and all his airplanes, were seized. Seal’s wife was said to have found George Bush’s private phone number in Seal’s wallet. The C-123 was ultimately sold to a company with connections to the CIA and was shot down soon afterwards.
In 1993, Colombian and U.S. authorities cornered Pablo Escobar at a house in Medellin and killed the drug kingpin in a shootout.
The CIA, DEA, and State Department have each been implicated in various drug trafficking enterprises that were used to fund illegal covert operations in nations all over the globe.
A quarter-century later, America’s war on drugs continues at a cost of $52 billion per year, or $1600 for every second of every day. That investment includes not only the cost of preventative measures, but also the cost of housing fully 20 percent of all federal and state prison inmates (more than 400,000) for drug-related offenses.