I first heard about him in the early 90's when a film was made of his life starring the late and great Dennis Hopper called "Double Crossed". It was released at the height of the US's absurd war on drugs as a poorly underfunded DEA (along with unsubstantiated rumours of CIA involvement) battled the mighty and brutal Medellin Drug Cartels principally led by none other than that famous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. It seems that Barry Seal's involvement in helping bring down some of the cartel's most vicious and notorious figures was so clandestine that his death barely registered a blip on the worldwide media radar. So here is what we know.
Adler Berriman "Barry" Seal was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1939, and was thought to have started learning to fly at the age of 15. From 1966 to 1974 he was pilot for TWA Airlines until his dismissal. Now here is where it gets really murky; official reports indicate that Seal, in need of money went to work as a pilot and smuggler for the Medellin drug cartel transporting shipments of cocaine from Columbia to the US earning as much as half a million dollars per flight. That much is confirmed however stories have circulated that Seal worked for the CIA as far back as 1958 helping with the overthrow of Cuba's Batista regime to tenuous links to the assassination of John F Kennedy. Seal's drug enterprise was thought to be a CIA front with DEA support to aide the Cartel whom the agencies viewed as allies in the fight against Marxist revolutionaries in South America. Of course much of this has been denied which should come as no surprise.
What is recorded was that Seal ran his operation successfully from 1976 out of Arkansas before moving to Florida. In 1983 he was arrested for smuggling cocaine and marijuana and faced a prospect of 10 years in prison. Not surprisingly Seal negotiated a deal with the DEA to act as informant on his employers. The DEA ensured that his fleet of planes were equipped with the best surveillance equipment which coupled with his testimony resulted in the arrest of some of his former associates, all senior cartel figures. One of his most famous operations, and which sadly led to his disclosure as an informant and his death, was the 1984 Nicaragua sting operation. Armed with surveillance cameras,courtesy of the CIA, that were installed on his C-123 transport plane Seal presented pictures that showed soldiers of the country's Sandanista government alongside the Jorge Louis Ochoa Vasquez and Pablo Escobar loading huge cocaine shipments into the plane bound for the US. Seal testified that senior officials of the Sandanista government were involved in the deal though widely refuted.
In July 1984 a Washington Times article outed Seal as an informant, which made an already suspicious Medellin cartel angry enough to put a contract on his life, one that was carried out in 1986 when he was brutally gunned down by a Colombian hit-man. Interestingly enough rumour has it Colonel Oliver North, the king of plausible deniability and a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal leaked details of the operation to the press. This was most likely done to bolster support for the Contra rebels by showing the Soviet backed Sandanista government as both communists and drug dealers - not the sort of things you want to be accused of at the height of both the drugs war and the cold war.
Officially Seal is on record as a pilot, smuggler, money launderer and gun runner who turned informant on his bosses and paid for that with his life. Those who knew him denied any involvement with US government agencies outside the DEA. That has never put an end to the speculation of his working with the CIA and the more it is vehemently denied the louder the conspiracy theorists' voices raise.
A quick look at the trailer and it seems "American Made", a film reminiscent of the excellent "Air America", is playing on Seal's link to the CIA and their collusion to build a drug smuggling operation to get close to the Cartels. It has already attracted some controversy as to factual inaccuracies but with such a big shadow cast over Barry Seal's activities whose to say what is true or not?