Barry Seal: The Real Renegade Pilot Behind Tom Cruise’s ‘American Made’

Published February 6, 2019
Published February 6, 2019

He worked for both the Medellin Cartel and the DEA, but eventually, his double life would come crashing down.

Barry Seal Close Portrait

TwitterBarry Seal.

Alder Berriman, or Barry Seal, was one of America’s most notorious drug smugglers. He flew tons of cocaine and marijuana into the United States until he was busted in 1983 and became one of the DEA’s most important informants.

In 2017, Seal’s life became the subject of a second Hollywood adaptation titled American Made and starred 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.”

Surprisingly, American Made actually downplayed just how integral an asset Seal was to the DEA — especially in taking down the Medellin Cartel.

The Early Life Of Barry Seal

Seal’s life has been somewhat distorted and it isn’t really a mystery why: such an exciting and controversial story is bound to be reproduced or exaggerated.

Though his humble roots certainly didn’t foreshadow what would become, literally, a blockbuster life. Born on July 16, 1939, in Baton Rouge, La., Seal’s father was a candy wholesaler and an alleged KKK member. As a kid in the ’50s, Seal worked odd jobs around the town’s old Downtown Airport in exchange for flight time. From the get-go, he was a talented pilot and before he graduated from High School in 1957, Seal earned his private pilot’s wings.

In 1955 Seal joined a Civil Air Patrol unit at Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. One of his CAP cadets was Lee Harvey Oswald. Seal later enlisted in the Louisiana National Guard where he earned an expert rifleman’s badge and paratrooper wings. He was then assigned to Special Forces, a unit of the U.S. Army with close ties to military intelligence, and to the CIA.

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

Indeed, at age 26, Seal became one of Trans-World Atlantic’s youngest pilots ever assigned to a Boeing 707. But this career crashlanded when in 1972, Seal was arrested by U.S. Customs agents in New Orleans for trying to smuggle seven tons of military high explosives into Mexico.

The airline consequently fired him in 1974 because Seal had allegedly claimed medical leave when he was actually attempting to smuggle 1,350 pounds of plastic explosives into Cuba via Mexico in a DC-4. Seal escaped prosecution and some believe this was because he was already a CIA informant, a notion many refute including Del Hahn, a former member of the Baton Rouge drug task force, who wrote Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal to set the record straight.

The Smuggling Takes Flight

Although Seal’s first foray into smuggling failed, he nonetheless organized his own team of pilots and aviation mechanics in 1976. The smuggling operation transported marijuana from Central and South America into the United States and Barry was said to move “1,000 to 1,500 kilos” of cocaine. The operation came to an abrupt halt in 1979 when Honduran police discovered an illegal rifle in Seal’s cockpit. He was imprisoned for nine months.

Seal had a reputation in the smuggling world by then. “He’d work at the drop of a hat, and he didn’t care. He’d get in his plane and he’d go down there and throw 1,000 kilos on the plan and come back to Louisiana,” a fellow smuggler recalled of him. His audacity eventually caught the attention of a drug smuggler for the Medellin cartel and their leader, Pablo Escobar.

In 1981, Seal made his first flight for the Ochoa Brothers, a founding family of the Medellin cartel.

This operation proved so successful that Seal was considered the biggest drug smuggler in Louisiana state. According to the Washington Post, Seal earned about $1.5 million per flight and in the end accumulated a $60 million to $100 million fortune.

Seal used his knowledge of aviation to become the infamous smuggler he was. Once in U.S. airspace, Seal would drop to 500 feet and slowed to 120 knots to mimic, on radar screens, helicopters which frequently flew from oil rigs to 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 dropped into the swamp. Helicopters would pick up the contraband and take them to off-loading sites, and then on to Ochoa distributors in Miami by car or truck.

The Ochoas were happy, as was Seal, who loved evading law enforcement as much as he loved the money. Soon Seal relocated operations to Mena, Ark. to the Intermountain Regional Airport.

Seal was finally apprehended by the DEA as part of Operation Screamer, a sting aimed at infiltrating the ranks of drug pilots. Seal was indicted in 1983 for smuggling 200,000 Quaaludes, which are sedative pills taken as a recreation drug.

Barry Seal Portrait

Wikimedia commonsThe real-life Barry Seal

Although newspapers published his name along with 75 others, Seal was known to the Ochoas as Ellis MacKenzie. With his real name unknown to the cartel, Seal was now in the perfect position to become a government informant — or so he thought.

Seal Becomes A DEA Informant

Facing a ten-year sentence, Seal tried to cut various deals with the DEA and a U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, but both failed. Despite this, Seal brazenly continued to smuggle in planeloads of coke for the Ochoas.

In March 1984, the Ochoas planned for Seal to smuggle in a 3,000-kilo haul into the U.S. Seal was now getting desperate. With this haul pending, he flew to Washington and through Vice President George Bush’s Task Force on Drugs he managed to convince the DEA to monitor the shipment while he acted as their informant. Seal also agreed to testify against the leaders of the Medellin cartel in exchange for a reduced sentence.

On April 4, Seal became the first informant to infiltrate the Medellin cartel’s inner circle when he met with Jorge Ochoa, who would later deny paying Seal or talking to him directly.

From the meeting, Seal’s DEA handler, Jake Jacobsen, learned that Carlos Lehder, the senior cartel executive, had hidden the cartel’s cocaine in underground bunkers after a large laboratory was being investigated. He also learned that the cartel was working with Nicaragua’s communist Sandinista government.

In ten days, Seal was also scheduled to fly cocaine into the U.S. but it was postponed after Pablo Escobar had Colombian Justice Minister Lara Bonillo assassinated, forcing Escobar and the Ochoas to escape to Panama. In May, the cartel leaders asked Seal to meet them in Panama.

On the Ochoas recommendation, Escobar decided to hire Seal directly for a shipment of his own. Escobar introduced Seal to Federico Vaughan, a government aide to Tomas Borge, the Interior Minister of the Sandinista government. Vaughan told Seal that the Sandinistas were ready to receive cocaine from northern Bolivia to then be processed into the final product in their Nicaraguan labs. From there, the cocaine could be distributed within the United States.

Escobar worked hard to cover his tracks and keep himself removed from the business, but Seal would soon bring all that hard work crashing down.

Escobar’s Implication

Escobar gave Seal money to buy a C-123K military transport plane to transport cocaine. At this stage, the CIA joined in on the operation, primarily to mount hidden cameras in the plane’s nose and in a fake electronics box atop a bulkhead that was facing the rear cargo doors. Most sources believe this to be the limit of Seal’s involvement with the CIA.

Fairchild C123k Airplane

A Fairchild C-123k military cargo plane similar to Barry Seal’s “The Fat Lady.”

On June 25, 1984, Seal landed “The Fat Lady,” as he called his plane, at an airstrip in Los Brasiles, Nicaragua. As the cocaine was loaded, Seal noticed that the remote control for the camera was malfunctioning. He or his co-pilot 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 generators — and he got his photographic evidence.

As planned, Seal flew Escobar’s shipment to Miami where it would be packed into a Winnebago parked at Dadeland Shopping Mall — which was the same location where Cocaine Godmother Griselda Blanco‘s bloody shooting initiated the Miami Drug Wars years earlier.

The DEA followed the Winnebago in several cars and a helicopter. But they had a dilemma. By law, they had to seize the drugs even if it meant blowing the cover of an undercover operation. Their solution was to arrange an accident, while a trooper just happened to be passing by, and let the driver of the Winnebago escape.

Unfortunately, a citizen tackled the driver as he tried to escape and the police were forced to arrest the driver. Furthermore, a cartel member saw a car deliberately ram the Winnebago causing the accident.

Luckily, Seal escaped suspicion and the cartel sent Seal back to Nicaragua to smuggle more cocaine. The DEA wanted Seal to fly the next shipment of Bolivian cocaine up from Colombia to Nicaragua in order to identify the cartel’s cocaine labs there. But most of all they wanted to lure Ochoa and Escobar to Mexico where the pair could be extradited.

But before they could do so, the undercover operation was blown.

The photographs Seal took were now in the possession of Lt. Oliver North, the National Security Council advisor, who at the behest of the Reagan administration, covertly supplied arms to the Contras, the right-wing Nicaraguan rebels fighting the Sandinistas.

The White House wanted evidence that the Sandinistas were being funded by drug money and Seal’s grainy photographs did indeed show Sandinista officials getting on and off the plane as it was being loaded with cocaine. More importantly, the photographs showed Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa personally loading cocaine onboard.

Pablo Escobar Photograph

Photograph taken by Barry Seal that outed Pablo Escobar as the Medellin cartel’s drug kingpin.

On July 17, 1984, an article detailed Seal’s infiltration of the Medellin cartel hit the front page of the Washington Times. The story included a photograph of Escobar handling drugs. North was accused of leaking the story, though years later he would tell Frontline that the government had instructed him to tell a congresswoman who was then ultimately responsible for leaking the story to the press.

Either way, Seal’s cover was totally blown.

A Gruesome Death

Seal became a marked man.

Tom Cruise Seal

UniversalTom Cruise as Barry Seal in the 2017 film American Made.

The DEA tried to protect Seal but he refused to go into the Witness Protection Program and went on to testify against Escobar, Lehder, and Ochoa in a federal grand jury. None of the three cartel leaders were present: Escobar and Lehder were on the run, and Ochoa was languishing in a Spanish prison awaiting extradition to the U.S., and Seal was scheduled to act as the star witness in his trial.

But it never happened. On Feb. 19, 1986, Seal was gunned down by three assassins in the parking lot of the Salvation Army halfway house on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge. The hit was probably ordered by Escobar, though others say Ochoa did. In November, Spain, who were unconcerned with the U.S.’s drug charges, sent Ochoa back to Colombia to stand trial for the far lesser charge of smuggling fighting bulls out of Spain. After pressure from the Medellin cartel, Ochoa was soon released.

Tom Cruise Barry Seal

Barry Seal was never an informant for the CIA as shown in American Made. But he did become one of the most important DEA informants infiltrating the Medellin cartel’s inner circle.

From 1986 to 1988, illicit funding of the Contras blew up after a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation discovered that payments were made to drug traffickers from funds meant for Contra humanitarian assistance and that funds from weapon sales were used to aid the Contras. North provided key testimony but did not implicate the president. Shortly after, the Reagan administration admitted that drug money had in part funded the Contras, though without their authorization or knowledge.

Barry Seal, the DEA’s most important informant, had helped, indirectly, to blow the Iran-Contra Affair wide open with his photograph. But more importantly, his photographs had made Pablo Escobar a wanted criminal and ultimately played an important part in the drug kingpin’s downfall in 1993.

American Made

True to life, American Made portrays Seal as a larger-than-life figure.

Despite differences in body type — Cruise is not the 300-pound man that the Medellin cartel referred to as “El Gordo” or “the fat man” — Seal was just as charismatic and took many extreme risks as in the film.

But he was more a ladies man than the family man shown on screen. His wife “Lucy” never existed. But she does share some similarities to Debbie Seal, his third wife. And while Seal is depicted as a lovable rogue by Cruise, some who knew Seal, recall him as a lot more thuggish.


After this look at the brazen smuggler Barry Seal, check out how the Medellin cartel became the most ruthless cartel in history. Then, flip through these crazy Narco Instagram posts.

Daniel Rennie
Daniel Rennie is a freelance writer residing in Melbourne, Australia.