Barry Seal, The ‘Most Important Witness’ In The History Of The Drug Enforcement Administration

Published May 6, 2023
Updated March 6, 2024

Barry Seal smuggled cocaine for Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel for years — and then he became an informant for the DEA to help bring them down.

Barry Seal was one of the biggest drug smugglers in America in the 1970s and ’80s. He spent years working for Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, flying tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States and earning millions of dollars.

But when he was busted in 1984, he decided to double-cross Escobar, and he soon became one of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most important informants.

Barry Seal

TwitterBarry Seal, the drug smuggler-turned-DEA informant who helped take down Pablo Escobar.

In fact, it was Seal who provided the DEA with the photos of Escobar that exposed him as a major drug kingpin. When the cartel caught wind of Seal’s betrayal, they sent three hitmen to gun him down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bringing a bloody end to his work as an informant.

In 2017, Barry Seal’s life became the subject of a Hollywood adaptation titled American Made, starring Tom Cruise. The film never set out to be a documentary, according to film’s director Doug Liman, who described the blockbuster as “a fun lie based on a true story,” according to TIME.

Surprisingly, American Made actually downplayed just how integral an asset Seal was to the DEA — especially when it came to taking down the Medellín cartel.

How Barry Seal Went From Airline Pilot To Drug Smuggler

Alder Berriman “Berry” Seal’s life has become somewhat distorted over the years, and it isn’t really a mystery why: such an exciting and controversial story is bound to be reproduced or exaggerated.

His humble roots certainly didn’t foreshadow what would become, quite literally, a blockbuster life. He was born on July 16, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father was a candy wholesaler and an alleged KKK member, according to Spartacus Educational.

As a child in the 1950s, Seal worked odd jobs around the city’s old airport in exchange for flight time. From the get-go, he was a talented aviator, and before he graduated from high school in 1957, Seal had earned his private pilot wings.

Barry Seal On An Airplane

TwitterBarry Seal earned his pilot’s license when he was just 16, but he grew bored of typical flights and decided to use his skills to smuggle drugs and weapons.

Ed Duffard, Seal’s first flight instructor, once recalled how Seal “could fly with the best of them,” according to Baton Rouge’s 225 Magazine. He added, “That boy was first cousin to a bird.”

Indeed, at age 26, Seal became one of the youngest pilots to ever fly for Trans World Airlines. Despite his successful career, Seal had his eye on more exhilarating endeavors. He soon began using his flight skills for another purpose: smuggling.

Drugs, Weapons, And Pablo Escobar: Inside Barry Seal’s Life Of Crime

Seal’s career as a pilot for Trans World Airlines crashlanded in 1974 when he was caught trying to smuggle explosives to anti-Castro Cubans in Mexico. He ultimately escaped prosecution, and some believe this was because he was secretly working as an informant for the CIA, though there is no real proof that he ever worked for the agency.

Although Seal’s first foray into smuggling failed, by 1975, he had started trafficking marijuana between the U.S. and Central and South America. And by 1978, he had moved on to cocaine.

Barry Seal Portrait

Wikimedia CommonsBarry Seal started his career as a pilot for Trans World Airlines — but he soon turned to the more profitable life of drug smuggling.

Seal frequently smuggled 1,000 to 1,500 kilos of the illicit substance between Nicaragua and Louisiana, and he quickly earned a reputation in the world of drug trafficking. “He’d work at the drop of a hat, and he didn’t care,” a fellow smuggler later recalled of Seal. “He’d get in his plane and he’d go down there and throw 1,000 kilos on the plane and come back to Louisiana.”

Soon, Seal caught the attention of none other than Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel.

In 1981, the pilot made his first flight for the Ochoa brothers, a founding family of the cartel. Their operation proved so successful that Seal was at one time considered the biggest drug smuggler in Louisiana state. According to the Washington Post, Seal earned as much as $1.5 million per flight, and by the end, he had accumulated up to $100 million.

Seal used his knowledge of aviation to aid in his life of crime. Once he flew into U.S. airspace, Seal would drop his plane to 500 feet and slow to 120 knots to mimic a helicopter on the radar screen of anyone who was watching, as the small aircraft frequently flew between oil rigs and the coast.

Within U.S. airspace, Seal would have people on the ground monitor for any signs his planes were being tailed. If they were, the mission was aborted. If not, they would continue on to drop sites over the Louisiana bayou, where duffel bags full of cocaine were tossed into the swamp. Helicopters would pick up the contraband and transport it to off-loading sites and then on to Ochoa distributors in Miami by car or truck.

Pablo Escobar Mugshot

Wikimedia CommonsBarry Seal started working for Pablo Escobar in the 1980s.

The cartel was happy, as was Seal, who loved evading law enforcement as much as he loved the money. He once said in an interview, “The exciting thing to me is to get yourself into a life threatening situation. Now that’s excitement.”

Soon, Seal relocated his smuggling operations to Mena, Arkansas. And it was there, according to The Gentleman’s Journal, that he was arrested by the DEA in 1984 with 462 pounds of Escobar’s cocaine on his plane.

Although newspapers published his name after his arrest, Seal was known to the Ochoas as Ellis MacKenzie. With his real name unknown to the cartel, Seal was in the perfect position to avoid prosecution by becoming a government informant — or so he thought.

How Barry Seal Betrayed Pablo Escobar And Became A DEA Informant

Facing major prison time, Seal attempted to cut various deals with the DEA. He ultimately offered to act as an informant, passing along information about Escobar, the Medellín cartel, and high-level government officials in Central America who were involved in trafficking drugs to the U.S.

The DEA agreed to put surveillance equipment on Barry Seal’s plane and track him on his next flight to Central America. DEA Agent Ernest Jacobsen later said the technology they used was “the most expensive cryptic radio communications we had ever seen at the time.”

On the trip, Seal managed to snap photos of Nicaraguan soldiers, Sandinista government officials, and even Pablo Escobar himself. However, there was a moment when the pilot thought he had given himself up.

Fairchild C-123 Airplane

Wikimedia CommonsA Fairchild C-123 military cargo plane similar to Barry Seal’s “Fat Lady.”

As the cocaine was being loaded onto his plane, Seal noticed that the remote control for the camera was malfunctioning. He would have to operate the rear camera by hand. The box housing the camera was supposed to be soundproof, but when he took the first picture, it was loud enough for everyone to hear. To muffle the sound, Seal turned on all the plane’s generators — and he got his photographic evidence.

In addition to implicating Escobar as a drug kingpin, Seal’s photos provided evidence that the Sandinistas, Nicaraguan revolutionaries who overthrew the country’s dictator in 1979, were being funded by drug money. This led the U.S. to covertly supply arms to the Contras, the rebels fighting against the Sandinistas.

On July 17, 1984, an article detailing Seal’s infiltration of the Medellín cartel hit the front page of the Washington Times. The story included the photograph Seal had taken of Escobar handling the cocaine.

Barry Seal immediately became a marked man.

The Bloody Death Of Barry Seal At The Hands Of The Medellín Cartel

The DEA initially tried to protect Seal, but he refused to go into the Witness Protection Program. Instead, he testified against Pablo Escobar, Carlos Lehder, and Jorge Ochoa in front of a federal grand jury. He also provided testimony that led to drug charges against high-level government officials in Nicaragua and Turks and Caicos.

Though he’d done his job as an informant, Seal was still sentenced to six months of house arrest at a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, this meant that angry cartel members would know exactly where to find him.

Pablo Escobar Smuggling Drugs

YouTubeThe photograph taken by Barry Seal that outed Pablo Escobar as the Medellín cartel’s drug kingpin.

On Feb. 19, 1986, three Colombian hitmen that had been hired by the Medellín cartel tracked Seal down at the Salvation Army. Armed with machine guns, they shot him to death outside the building.

The life of the “most important witness in the history of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration” had come to a brutal end. But before he died, the photographs he captured made Pablo Escobar a wanted criminal and ultimately played an important part in the drug kingpin’s downfall in 1993.

What ‘American Made’ Got Wrong About His Astonishing Life

In many ways, the movie American Made does a faithful job of portraying Seal’s larger-than-life personality.

Tom Cruise In American Made

Twitter/VICEBarry Seal likely never worked for CIA, as shown in American Made. But he did become one of the most important DEA informants, infiltrating the Medellín cartel’s inner circle.

Despite differences in body type — Tom Cruise is not the 300-pound man that the Medellín cartel referred to as “El Gordo,” or “Fat Man” — Seal was just as charismatic and took many of the extreme risks portrayed in the film.

However, the film takes certain liberties in regard to Seal’s life as well. At the beginning of the movie, the fictionalized Seal gets bored on his daily flights with Trans World Airlines and begins performing daredevil stunts with passengers onboard. This leads to the CIA recruiting him to take reconnaissance photos in Central America. Additionally, the movie version of Seal quits his job with the airline to pursue a life of crime.

In reality, there is no evidence that Seal was ever involved with the CIA. And Seal never quit his job but was instead fired when Trans World Airlines learned he’d been trafficking weapons instead of taking medical leave, as he’d claimed.

American Made Movie Poster

Wikimedia CommonsTom Cruise portrays Barry Seal in the 2017 film “American Made.”

Overall, though, the film captures just how incredible Seal’s life really was. From earning his pilot’s license at the age of 16 to his blood-soaked end at the hands of a notorious cartel, Seal certainly got the life of “excitement” that he so desired.

After this look at the brazen smuggler Barry Seal, check out how the Medellín cartel became one of the most ruthless crime syndicates in history. Then, flip through these wild Narco Instagram posts.

Daniel Rennie
Daniel Rennie is a freelance writer residing in Melbourne, Australia.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
Cite This Article
Rennie, Daniel. "Barry Seal, The ‘Most Important Witness’ In The History Of The Drug Enforcement Administration.", May 6, 2023, Accessed April 19, 2024.