Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal – Del Hahn

sealAmericans in my age range and older will easily recall Nancy Reagan’s (1921-2016) advice to “just say no” to drugs.  At the time, America had become fully engulfed in a deadly war against the rising trafficking and use of narcotics.  The federal government continued to increase spending each year in the effort to combat drugs in America but regardless of the approach, the drugs kept coming and brought with them lengthy jail sentences, murder, and scores of addicts.  However, the drugs did not arrive without help.  Drug traffickers quickly realized that the growing market for cocaine and other hard drugs also produced large amounts of money.  Drug routes began to sprout up all over the planet as traffickers continued to find ways to elude authorities.  Stories of their exploits are plenty.  And I believe everyone knows the names of the major drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) and Joaquin Guzman known as “El Chapo”.   The bosses made the deals, but the groundwork was left to those willing to risk death and capture in a market worth billions of dollars.  Among these fearless individuals was Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986).  Fans of the Netflix show Narcos might recall Seal’s demise in season one.  The scene is graphic but is also a fairly accurate depiction of Seal’s final moments.  But what is missing from the show is Seal’s full background and his descent into the criminal underworld.  Rumors have persisted that Seal was working for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) or other secret parts of the U.S. Government. But is there any truth to that?  Author Del Hahn was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and worked in the Baton Rouge field office at the time Seal was under active investigation.  In this informative and gripping book, Hahn provides what may be the most accurate account of Seal’s tragic life.

Prior to reading the book, I had a fair amount of knowledge regarding Seal.  Movie buffs will recall that Tom Cruise played Seal in the 2017 film American Made.   The movie is pure Hollywood and its allegation that Seal was “recruited” by the CIA are nothing short of misleading. Hahn explores the issue at length and explains what did take place at the Mena Intermountain Airport in Mena, Arkansas as Seal was preparing to depart for a trip to South America.  Officially, the CIA has stated that Seal never worked for their agency even though it did have a presence at the airport.  Seal himself never said that he worked for the CIA.  But what is more important in the story at hand is Seal’s downfall and his work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).   However, before we reach that part of the book, Hahn provides a good biography of Seal, showing the twists and turns along the way even before he becomes involved in trafficking narcotics.  It is clear that Seal’s life was anything but ordinary even from an early age.   Further, I could see that Seal was an incredibly talented and articulate individual.  Readers might be surprised to learn how early he became involved in the field of aviation.  To say that flying was in his blood might be an understatement.  It will be recalled by some that he began working for Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) in 1967.   Although he was eventually terminated, he had established himself as a good pilot whose aircraft was the Boeing 707.   After leaving TWA, Seal found a new source of income in the world of smuggling.  But cocaine was not his first choice as Hahn explains as he shows the path Seal took from one drug to another.  In some instances, Seal was at the right place at the right time and around the right people.

Similar to other players in the drug game, incarceration is never far away, and Seal found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions.  But it was a major bust in an undercover sting operation by multiple law enforcement agencies that finally derailed the smuggler’s gravy train.  This is the part of the book where the story takes a sharp turn down a darker path.  At this point, Seal is fully engulfed in the cocaine business and associating with figures from the most notorious drug cartels in history.  Faced with a stiff prison sentence and additional time in other pending cases, Seal makes a life changing decision and becomes more acquainted with the DEA that some may realize.  The legal drama heightens the suspense in the story and Hahn does a solid job of putting everything in the simplest terms possible to help the story flow easily.  I personally picked up a couple of things about the Title III Wiretap law and the Brady Rule which put things into a more clarified context.  Law students and readers with an interest in criminal procedure will appreciate this part of the book.  A sub-story to the legal drama is that the author refutes some of the more outlandish rumors about Seal’s alleged “work” for the CIA or any other intelligence agency through the explanation of the wiretaps.   He also puts to rest any rumors about Seal’s connections to politicians in Washington.   Hahn states frankly that:

“Mena/CIA conspiracy buffs should take note that during the entire time the Title III wiretap was in operation, there were no conversations intercepted between Seal, Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, Lt. Col. Oliver North, or any representative of the CIA.”

The real story is not as sensational as some may wish but it is crazy enough on its own to keep readers glued to the pages of this book.  Seal was a larger-than-life character with a love for the darker side of society.  And he learned that in the drug game, no one can be trusted.

We know that Seal died in February 1986 but is what we see on Narcos the full explanation?  Hahn also discusses how and why Seal was gunned down.  And as I read the account of the events leading up to his death, I shook my head at the fate in store for Seal who has no idea that he has become a pawn in a much larger and deadlier game.  As the 1980s progresses, Central America becomes a hotspot and the Reagan Administration becomes deeply involved in the war in El Salvador, events in Nicaragua and affairs in Honduras.  Ret. Lt. Col. Oliver North also makes an appearance and provides the author with a statement that I believe should help put an end to the Seal mystique.  North may be viewed suspiciously as some due to the Iran Contra affair but that is a discussion for another time. The focus here is on Barry Seal and North clears up any possible rumors about his alleged association with the notorious smuggler.

Throughout the book, not once does any information surface that Seal was anything other than a drug trafficker who got caught in an undercover operation and decided to work for the U.S. Government to help his own cause. That decision came with a heavy price, and he could not have known he was on a collision course with fate. His death while tragic, did nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. And Seal himself stated more than once that the narcotics could not be stopped by the war on drugs. Today we know that he was correct in his assessment.  Seal may have been romanticized on screen, but the truth about his life is far more bitter and less glorious.  If you want to know exactly who Barry Seal was and what really happened behind the scenes during the war on drugs, this is a must read.