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Now a Tom Cruise film, the story of Barry Seal, American pilot for the Medellín Cartel

In Tom Cruise’s latest film he plays the pilot, drug smuggler, and informant Barry Seal. A work of Doug Liman, previously known for Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the new film, American Made, could turn out to be the crime drama of the year in its telling of Seal’s story.

Born in Baton Rouge in 1939, Barry Seal had a father who earned a living from selling candy, but he was also noted for his sympathies with the Ku Klux Klan. Barry Seal did not follow in his father’s footsteps, he took on other interests and passions, most notably airplanes and flying. As early as 15, he flew his first plane.

Soon Seal was making money pulling advertising banners across the sky with aircraft. Then, after serving in the Louisiana Army National Guard and Army Reserve, Seal had a decent career with Trans World Airlines. American Made opens with Seal living the life of an outstanding pilot.

It is tricky to keep track of all the connections and deals Barry Seal made throughout his life. One source, namely Tosh Plumlee, claims that Seal was in the mid-1950s already somehow involved with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As Plumlee’s statement goes, “Barry was a peripheral player back then, but he was a CIA ‘contract’ pilot all the way back to 1956 or 1957.”

Director Doug Liman
Director Doug Liman

It was not until 1975 that Barry Seal got involved in smuggling drugs, as his wife, Deborah Seal, has testified. This illicit involvement would escalate at the beginning of the 1980s, when he forged his bond with the notorious Medellín Cartel.

Around this point, Seal also transferred his illicit “services” from his native Louisiana to a desolate airstrip in the west of Arkansas, so as to remain in the shadows. However, in 1983, he was nabbed in Florida while attempting to sneak in a large amount of Quaaludes. Up to that point, Seal had already logged many more than 100 flight hours of smuggling drugs into the United States.

Many flights carried loads of more than 1,000 pounds of heavy drugs such as cocaine. Seal was de facto flying billions on his craft. He was convicted for his crime and given a 10-year sentence, but as an ex-agent of the FBI, Del Hahn, explains in an interview given to Vice, Seal was desperate to evade time in prison.

Tom Cruise took over the role of drug smuggler and later CIA employee Barry Seal. Author: Georges Biard CC BY-SA 3.0
Tom Cruise took over the role of drug smuggler and later CIA employee Barry Seal. Author: Georges Biard CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, the administration of President Ronald Reagan was eager to influence the politics of Nicaragua. The U.S. offered help to the Contras, the native counter-government movement, in order to oust the Sandinista government in the small Central American nation. It seems that none other than the pilot Barry Seal was conveyed not to jail, but to Washington, D.C., to meet with several high-ranking officials of different departments, including the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). As a result of his cooperation, Seal’s sentence was reduced to six months’ probation.

Seal asserted that the Medellín Cartel was involved with the Sandinistas. Proof of this link would have been beneficial for Reagan’s administration and its support of the counter-movement. The plan was for Seal to fly into Nicaragua, landing on a tiny airstrip amid the dense forests at a secret location. This time, his craft would be well equipped with CIA spy cameras.

Barry Seal
Barry Seal

The photos showed Pablo Escobar and some of his Medellín Cartel associates loading mounds of cocaine on board the plane. The entire action was helped by Sandinista soldiers, among whom, as Seal has said, was one man with ties to Nicaragua’s interior ministry, Federico Vaughan.

This, however, would be the point of no return for Seal.

There was a leak of Seal’s involvement in a story penned by Edmond Jacoby on the front page of the Washington Times. The story focused on the connection between the Sandinista representatives and the Medellín Cartel, but it revealed the name of Barry Seal as somebody involved in the drug transactions. DEA officials did not lose a minute in disassociating themselves from Seal, finding him no longer of use.

The court system caught up with Barry Seal and in December 1985, his six months’ probation was turned into a supervised situation. He had to carry out community service and spend every night at a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge. He also could not carry a gun or hire bodyguards.

Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar

Barry Seal carried out his daily community service until February 19, 1986. On that day, while Barry sat in his Cadillac parked in front of the hallway house, his killers approached. The paid Colombian killers under Escobar’s command used a Mac-10 machine gun to carry out revenge.

Read another story from us: Pablo Escobar: The cocaine kingpin who designed his own prison – then escaped

As one of Barry’s friends who had witnessed the murder later told, “The killers were both out of the car, one on either side, but I only saw one shoot, ’cause Barry saw it coming and just put his hand down on the steering column.”

Stefan Andrews

Stefan is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The Vintage News. He is a graduate in Literature. He also runs a blog – This City Knows.