Coastal Louisiana’s intricate mazes of marshes and bayous have long been safe havens for bandits. Perhaps the most known is the pirate Jean Lafitte, a much celebrated local legend, and the namesake of a bar on Bourbon Street, a national park on the West Bank, and a pirate-themed festival in Lake Charles called Contraband Days. His career of attacking merchant ships, establishing colonies of outlaws, and selling slaves has largely been romanticized into acceptability. Lafitte is seen more as a quaint local character, part of Louisiana’s colorful past, rather than one of the first in a long line of successful smugglers dealing in illegal goods.
For much of modern times, New Orleans’ role as a port city surrounded by swampy, rural areas provided prime opportunities for the establishment of large networks facilitating the flow of contraband. During prohibition, New Orleans was the wettest city in the United States, stemming from massive rum running operations funneling the Caribbean liquor into the States, as well as domestic moonshine operations that ran stills from Opelousas to the Mississippi line. When Governor Huey P. Long was asked what he was going to do to crack down on the booze flowing through New Orleans, Long, known for his love of gin fizzes, replied, “Not a damn thing.”
While the end of prohibition meant that much of the black market for alcohol dried up, other substances soon took its place. Marijuana was perhaps the first illegal drug to wind its ways in through the bayous of Louisiana in large quantities. An Associated Press article from February of 1981 quotes a Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent as saying increased federal focus on Florida as a major drug conduit meant that trafficking moved westward into Louisiana. The vast coastal swamps of the state, along with the strong local maritime economy, offered multiple inroads for traffickers. Barges were a particularly lucrative way to bring in pot, considering their capacity and ubiquity in the region, although certainly not foolproof. One bust in New Iberia in 1980 found 70 to 80 tons of pot on board a barge. In 1982, a wealthy New Orleans oilman named L.J. Balliviero was indicted for planning to import 185 tons of marijuana with an estimated worth of $83 million dollars. Barges weren’t the only mode of transport. Some shrimp boats hauled in catches of dope instead of shellfish. Small airplanes hopped from Latin American farms, dropping sealed bushels of marijuana into the bayous to be scooped up by boats, a technique said to have been pioneered by pilot Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal.
Seal was a native son of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Described as an adrenaline junkie, he once said, “You can’t sit in Baton Rouge and go to work from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday, go to the LSU football game on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning and have an exciting life. That may be exciting to 99.9% of the population, but to me it’s not. The exciting thing in life to me is to get in a life-threatening situation.”
Seal began flying at age 15, and at 26 joined TWA as a pilot. In 1972, he was busted for trying to fly military explosives out of the United States, the weapons supposedly bound for anti-Castro fighters in Cuba. He was fired from TWA, and by 1974, running marijuana full-time. But more money was to be made in cocaine, and by the early ‘80s, Seal was flying for the Medellin cartel. Based out of Colombia, the Medellin cartel was a massive operation that controlled roughly 80% of the world’s cocaine market. The cartel brought in an estimated 70 million dollars a day. Facing mounting pressure from law enforcement in Louisiana, he relocated his operation to a regional airport in tiny Mena, Arkansas in 1982. Within a year, he had flown in nearly 56 tons of cocaine and made an estimated 60 million dollars.
The epigraph on his tombstone is an elegy invoking comparison to idealized folk heroes like Jean Lafitte: “A rebel adventurer the likes of whom in previous days made America great.”
The Medellin grew suspicious of Seal’s loyalties following the disappearance of a massive cocaine shipment under his care. The cartel was aware there was a leak in their organization following a story run by the Washington Post in the summer of 1984, which explicitly mentioned that one of the cartel’s pilots was providing information to the DEA regarding cocaine trafficking through Nicaragua. Seal had covertly taken photographs of several of the leaders of the cartel, including the notorious founders Pablo Escobar and Jorge Luis Ochoa, meeting with representatives from the Nicaraguan government to broker a cocaine trafficking deal. Ronald Reagan, eager to turn public opinion against the Nicaraguan government in order to boost popular support for the Contras, went so far as to show the photographs on live TV in 1986. It was a rather hypocritical move, considering the level of clandestine arms-dealing his administration was entangled in.
The resulting media frenzy ended up helping expose the Iran-Contra affair and the CIA’s role in cocaine trafficking in the United States, triggering a series of indictments against 14 high-level US officials, including the Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and National Security Council member Oliver North. North famously testified before Congress that he had destroyed documents related to the scandal, lied to Congress regarding the administration’s illegal support of the Contras, and altered official government records relating to the scandal.
Inevitably, the unfolding of this scandal revealed that Seal was an informant. As his involvement with the DEA and the CIA became public, he was on trial for charges related to a 1984 arrest in Louisiana for trafficking marijuana. His previous plea agreement in the Florida Quaaludes case made him exempt from serving jail time. The judge instead sentenced him to to six months probation at a Salvation Army Halfway House in Baton Rouge. Seal declined federal witness protection, but was shaken when the judge ordered him to dismiss his armed personal bodyguards. The Medellin cartel offered $1,000,00 to anyone who could capture Seal alive and transport him to Colombia, and $500,000 to kill him on the spot. “If I have to report every day at a certain time to the Salvation Army and I have no way of protecting myself, I’m a clay pigeon,” he told friends.
On February 20th, 1986, Seal reported to the Salvation Army. As he was sitting in his car, two assassins drove up and sprayed Seal’s car with bullets. He was struck 11 times in the head and chest, and died instantly. The three gunmen were arrested the next day in Mississippi, and all were sentenced to life in prison. One of the triggermen, Miguel Velez, recently passed away at Angola Prison, where he was known for his love of painting.
The Medellin cartel continued to operate for almost a decade, until internal power struggles, assassinations, and competition from new organizations caused it to collapse in 1993. The Drug Wars, already brutal in the 1980s, ravaged communities from the jungles of Colombia to the border towns of Mexico and city streets of the United States. Barry Seal was just one body out of an innumerable pile of the dead. The epigraph on his tombstone is an elegy invoking comparison to idealized folk heroes like Jean Lafitte: “A rebel adventurer the likes of whom in previous days made America great.” Perhaps there is little difference between the 19th century pirate and the 1980s drug trafficker. And maybe, with enough time, Barry Seal, the Iran-Contra affair, and the Drug Wars will seem similarly anachronistic and quaint, with parks and festivals named after them as well.