Barry Seal: Unveiling His CIA Role in Nicaragua’s Covert Ops

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On February 19, 1986, Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, a former informant for both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), was fatally shot on Highway 61 near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Shortly afterward, the DEA identified his killers as three members of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel. Seal’s murder stalled investigations into drug smuggling from Colombia to the U.S., and significantly affected CIA operations against Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.

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Drug Pilot

Born on July 16, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Benjamin Curtis Seal, a wholesale candy salesman, and Mary Lou, Barry Seal was flying planes by the age of 15 and obtained his commercial pilot license a year later. At 23, he joined the Louisiana National Guard. At 29, after leaving the military, Seal flew Boeing 707s for Trans World Airlines (TWA), primarily on routes to Western Europe. Later, he switched to South American routes, where the Medellin cartel bribed him to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. using food compartments on flights from Colombia and Panama. Each successful flight netted him $50,000.

With his earnings, Seal bought a lavish mansion in Louisiana. Eventually, realizing his activities could not remain hidden forever, Seal quit TWA and set up a private air transport company based at Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport in Arkansas. At its peak, his company owned 24 aircraft and operated routes to 27 U.S. cities, as well as to Colombia and Nicaragua.

However, the DEA had already begun targeting Seal’s operations. Records showed that between 1970 and 1978, 20% of the drugs smuggled into the U.S. were transported by Seal on TWA flights from Colombia and Panama to Florida.

In September 1983, Seal was arrested by the DEA and sentenced by a federal court in Florida to ten years in prison for drug smuggling. On March 28, 1984, during a meeting with Ernst Jake Jacobson, a DEA anti-drug expert, Seal offered to cooperate with the agency by providing information on the Medellin cartel. The federal authorities agreed, needing him as a live witness in court hearings. In return, Seal was released from prison early.

The plan was for Seal’s planes to be fitted with high-tech transmission devices, and for him to send signals to the DEA whenever he transported drugs.

According to Ernst Jake Jacobson, the DEA decided not to intercept the drug shipments immediately at the airport but to let them reach the distributors to catch more significant figures in the drug operation.

From Drugs to Politics

In June 1984, Seal began his first mission for U.S. special agencies. During a flight from Nicaragua to Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, Seal transported a cocaine shipment, allegedly brokered by a Nicaraguan army general. The plan fell apart, and the DEA seized the drugs before they reached the distributors, leading to suspicions among the Medellin cartel’s leaders, though they lacked concrete evidence.

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Barry died from three gunshots to the head and neck.

In February 1985, on a flight to Nicaragua, the CIA installed a special camera on Seal’s plane, which recorded Pablo Escobar, Jorge Luis Ochoa, and other senior members of the Medellin cartel loading cocaine onto a C-123 transport plane. The footage also captured Frederico Vaughan, an assistant to Nicaragua’s Interior Minister Tomas Borges, and Nicaraguan soldiers assisting in the operation.

This footage caused a stir in U.S. politics. The State Department spokesperson claimed the evidence undermined the U.S.-Nicaragua defense relationship, led by Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, the brother of President Ortega. President Reagan personally phoned a high-ranking Nicaraguan military leader, who dismissed the film’s accuracy and denied any military involvement in drug trafficking.

The controversy escalated when the Wall Street Journal published photos of the Medellin cartel leaders and Nicaragua’s Interior Minister during the cocaine loading, and the Washington Times ran a headline suggesting Barry Seal was a government secret agent. The article revealed that during the 1960s, while a pilot in the Louisiana National Guard, Seal was part of “Operation 40,” a CIA-led team. He had previously conducted secret reconnaissance flights over Cuba to support the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

According to the Washington Times, on July 1, 1972, in New Orleans, Seal was arrested with others for attempting to send explosives to Cuban exiles in Mexico to fight against Fidel Castro. Although they found nearly 7 tons of C4, 2,250 meters of slow-burning fuse, and 2,600 detonators, the prosecutors eventually dropped charges, linking the explosives not to anti-Castro activities but to other unspecified plans. President Reagan later allowed a photo taken by a camera on Seal’s plane to be broadcast, implying that a top Nicaraguan official was involved in drug smuggling. This public revelation put Seal’s life in grave danger.

Faced with political upheaval, the CIA distanced itself, stating they had never collaborated with Seal in drug intelligence or any operations. During a Congressional hearing, CIA representatives denied any association with Seal, who also swore he never worked for the CIA and that he was unaware of who installed the camera on his plane.

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Pablo Escobar (left) and Jorge Luis Ochoa (wearing hat), the two leaders of the Medellin Group.

After being abandoned and fearing retaliation from the Medellin cartel, Seal went into hiding. However, in September 1985, the FBI arrested him for drug-related activities. Despite his cooperation with the DEA, Judge Polozola of the Louisiana court sentenced Seal to five years of probation, requiring him to sleep at a local Salvation Army facility under police watch from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

In early February 1986, after gathering enough evidence of Seal’s double-dealing, Jorge Luis Ochoa of the Medellin cartel ordered his assassination. On the morning of February 16, 1986, as Seal left the Salvation Army facility, he was shot dead by assassins in a drive-by shooting.

In May 1987, the assassins were sentenced to life in prison without parole by a federal court in Louisiana. In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, Louisiana’s chief justice criticized the government’s witness protection program’s failure to safeguard Barry Seal.

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