"Made in America": Barry Seal is No Biopic

I've been looking forward to the reviews of "Made in America" which opens Friday, starring Tom Cruise as real life cartel pilot Barry Seal. Most reviews says it's fun, typical Cruise, light-hearted and bears little resemblance to the real life events surrounding Seal. The director says they didn't want to do a biopic.

In real life: Barry Seal was gunned down in a parking lot outside the Salvation Army half-way house in Louisiana he'd been ordered to stay at during his probation in a federal case, when a car drove up with two men and shot and killed him. The U.S. insists it was a cartel hit. Others say it was ordered by the CIA. The truth will probably never be known.

The director of the movie is the son of the lawyer who was chief counsel for the Senate in the Iran Contra investigation. In an interview, the director acknowledges that He says he ordered the screenwriter to change a part of the script about Seal, drugs and the CIA, because his father maintained there was no such connection. connection.

There were things in the original script that contradicted my father's work. ... The screenwriter had in the original script some allegations about the CIA's actions that I checked with my father's deputies, and they said my father had actually looked into those allegations and they weren't true. They weren't in my father's reporting anywhere because my father actually found them to be so unsubstantiated that he didn't even want to bring them up to disavow them and give them that kind of credibility. ...I said we have to take it out of the script.

And the screenwriter was arguing back, and I was like, 'This is almost Shakespearean! You're asking me to put something in a movie that goes against my dead father's work.' You're never going to win that fight!

I wonder what the movie would have been like if Ron Howard hadn't bailed. He had initially signed on to the project when it was called "Mena", after the town in Arkansas where Seal flew a lot of drugs.

Here is the story of Barry Seal, according to a Louisiana state appeals court, in a 1991 opinion upholding the murder convictions of three men tried for killing him. [More...]

The court reviews the physical evidence and the cooperator testimony, of traffickers turned informants, especially that of Max Mermelstein, which was key to the convictions. (Mermelstein ended up in witness protection and died around 2008.) From the opinion:

On February 19, 1986, Adler B. "Barry" Seal was shot to death with machine gun fire in the parking lot of a Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge. The facts and circumstances leading up to Seal's death appear in the record as follows:

Barry Seal was a pilot and drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel, a Colombian cocaine enterprise. While employed by the Cartel, Seal flew numerous shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the United States, earning as much as $500,000 per flight. Seal, who was known to the members of the Medellin Cartel as McKenzie, was eventually arrested in connection with his drug smuggling activities. He was indicted in a Florida federal court, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison.

Shortly after Seal was sentenced, he approached the Drug Enforcement Administration with a proposal to cooperate with the government as an informant. The federal government eventually decided to use Seal as an informant, agreeing to advise the sentencing judge of his cooperation at hearings on any motions for reduction of sentence. Pursuant to this agreement, Seal began working as a federal informant in March of 1984.

Richard Gregory, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, testified that Barry Seal was vitally important to the prosecution of drug traffickers, to the extent that many convictions could not have been obtained without his testimony. As a result of Seal's cooperation, indictments were brought against Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa, two of the top men in the Medellin Cartel. Shortly after these indictments were returned in July of 1984, Jorge Ochoa was arrested in Spain. Extradition procedures were begun, and Seal provided the supporting affidavits which were filed in the Spanish courts.

In November of 1984, a documentary entitled "Uncle Sam Wants You" was produced and aired by WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge. The documentary was prepared by investigative reporter John Camp and outlined Seal's experiences as a drug smuggler and federal informant.

Max Mermelstein, a former drug trafficker and member of the Medellin Cartel, testified that in December of 1984, he attended a meeting at the Miami home of Raphael Cardona-Salazar, another member of the Medellin Cartel. Also present at Cardona-Salazar's residence were the defendant, Miguel Velez (who is sometimes referred to in the record as "Cumbamba," the Spanish word for "chin"), an employee of Fabio Ochoa's named Cano, and several others. Fabio Ochoa had taken over the leadership of the Cartel after Jorge Ochoa was arrested in Spain. Away from the others, Mermelstein, Cardona-Salazar, and Cano watched a video of "Uncle Sam Wants You", and Mermelstein was instructed that he had been selected to take care of Barry Seal. Seal was to be kidnapped and returned to Colombia or killed outright. Either at this meeting or at a second meeting, Fabio Ochoa and Pablo Escobar were contacted by telephone, authorized the contract, and personally thanked Mermelstein for agreeing to take it on.

The price for kidnapping Seal was $1,000,000, while the price for murdering him was $500,000. Mermelstein was chosen to carry out the contract because he was American and would not be noticed in Baton Rouge the way Colombians would. He testified that he accepted the contract out of fear for the safety of himself and his family. Mermelstein was given expense money and a variety of information on Seal's residence, vehicles, restaurants which he frequented, and other personal matters. Pursuant to the contract, Mermelstein made three trips to Louisiana and was unable to locate Seal. He enlisted the help of two men, John Roberts and Bob Dragan, during his trips to Louisiana but was unsuccessful in carrying out the contract.

Mermelstein further testified that another meeting was held in February of 1985, during which discussions were had concerning the contract on Seal. Defendant Velez was present at this meeting. Cardona-Salazar said that he was being pressured by Pablo Escobar and the Ochoas to have Seal eliminated as soon as possible. At the conclusion of this meeting, Velez expressed privately to Mermelstein his displeasure at not being included in the contract on Seal. He inquired as to the details of the contract and expressed interest in obtaining the contract for himself. Velez then stated that he would complete the contract even if it meant taking out Seal's wife and children in the process. Mermelstein advised Velez he had no authority to include him and that the only persons who could do so were Fabio Ochoa, Pablo Escobar, or Raphael Cardona-Salazar. Velez stated that he intended to approach them about being included in the contract, but Mermelstein did not state whether Velez had carried out his intention or if Velez had been given the necessary permission to take over the contract.

Mermelstein noted that Velez was the last person he saw in physical possession of the Mac-10 machine gun which Cardona-Salazar had previously test fired in Mermelstein's home, and which was later used to kill Seal.1 Before Mermelstein was able to carry out the murder contract on Barry Seal's life, he was arrested for drug smuggling activities and became a government informant protected by the federal government's witness protection program.

....Meanwhile, because of Barry Seal's cooperation with the federal government, his 10-year sentence in Florida was reduced to time served. Pursuant to his agreement with the federal government, Seal pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Louisiana federal court. Lewis Unglesby, Seal's attorney from 1984 until his death, testified that it was his understanding that the agreement provided that Seal could receive no harsher sentence in Louisiana than what the federal court in Florida had imposed.

At Seal's Louisiana sentencing, United States District Judge Polozola recognized Seal's agreement with the government but sentenced Seal to a term of probation, with the condition that he reside in a Baton Rouge Salvation Army halfway house for six months. Seal was required to report to the halfway house at 6:00 p.m. each day, spend the night, and leave the following morning at 7:00 a.m. On January 24, 1986, Barry Seal reported to the halfway house to begin serving his sentence. As feared by Seal's attorney, Seal was murdered three weeks later on February 19, 1986.

So who ordered the hit on Barry Seal? Some believe it was Fabio or Jorge Ochoa, partners of Escobar in the Medellin cartel. Jorge Ochoa denied it (he was in a jail cell in Spain at the time with one of the Cali Cartel founders.) Others say the hit was ordered by the CIA to protect then President H.W. Bush, Oliver North and the CIA.

Barry Seal was asked by his close friend, Rene Martin, if he feared being killed by the Ochoa family. Barry Seal replied that he was not afraid of the Colombians because he had not implicated senior members of the organization. Seal was more worried about his contacts within the US government. This view is supported by Lewis Unglesby, Seal’s lawyer. He confirmed that the man Seal was willing to testify against was George H. W. Bush.

...The official story was that Jorge Ochoa had murdered Seal in order to stop him testifying at his U.S. trial. Yet Ochoa never stood trial in the U.S. Nor did Seal appear to be afraid of Ochoa. His concern was with George H. W. Bush and the CIA. For example, Barry Seal's secretary, Dandra Seale (no relation) does not believe the Medellin Cartel carried out the assassination. "The CIA people here allowed it to happen. He had a chart, he had dirt on anybody and everybody."

According to the same article, in a book by former DEA agent Michael Levine, and another by investigative journalist Daniel Hopsicker,

By 1982 Barry Seal was bringing in drugs to the United States on behalf of the Medellin Cartel. Seal moved his base of operations from Louisiana to Mena, an obscure airport in the secluded mountains of western Arkansas. Seal told friends that he once made $1.5 million on a single cocaine flight. Seal worked directly for Sonia Atala, the CIA protected drug baron (Michael Levine, The Big White Lie: The CIA and the Cocaine/Crack Epidemic). It is also claimed that Seal's fleet of planes to ferry supplies to Contra camps in Honduras and Costa Rica. His planes also made return trips to airstrips in the mountains of Colombia and Venezuela. According to Roger Morris (Partners in Power): "His well-connected and officially-protected smuggling operation based in Mena accounted for billions in drugs and arms".

Seal also obtained two new multi-million dollar Beech Craft King Air 200s. According to Daniel Hopsicker, these aircraft were purchased by a Phoenix-based corporation that acted as a "front" for John Singlaub. This company also owned Southern Air, a CIA proprietary connected to William Casey, Richard Secord, Felix I. Rodriguez and George H. W. Bush.

Here's a photo of Barry Seal with Porter Goss and Luis Rodriguez in Mexico City in the 60's. It's from the book Barry and the Boys by Daniel Hopsicker.

Here's an account of Seal's cooperation and the benefits he received. Here's a Frontline Interview with Jorge Ochoa who distances himself from events with Barry Seal, and here's a competing Frontline Interview with the pilot of Carlos Lehrer who claims an Ochoa did order the hit.

Here's Daniel Honiscker, author of Barry and the Boys, on American Made, which he's been writing about all week.

By contrast, here is an interesting account that accepts that it was the Ochoa's, and Fabio in particular, that ordered the hit. The hit was reportedly the result of the disclosure to the public by then President Reagen of a photograph showing Pablo Escobar, Barry Seal, Jorge Ochoa and a Sandinista official unloading a plane of coke in Nicaragua. Reagan released the photos to win support for the U.S.-financed Contra war against the Sandinistas.

From the highly respected El Spectador newspaper, on the period after Colombia approved extraditions in 1985 (and Carlos Lehder was extradited):

Pablo Escobar chose Nicaragua, where the Sandinista government fought the contras, entrenched in the border with Honduras and financed by the United States. Truth unveiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, how the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran for its war on Iraq and more than $ 47 million that moved through bank accounts in Europe, served to fund the contras. The episode resulted in a noisy political and judicial process in the United States after the capture of Colonel Oliver North, also a member of the CIA, although by the same time another illegal operation was uncovered with identical aims that did not have so much stir. The union of the cartel in Medellín and Guadalajara (Mexico) to bring cocaine to the United States and contribute to the same cause of cons.

The capo himself told the journalist Germán Castro Caycedo that, under pressure from Noriega, he went to the M-19 and soon moved in a helicopter, accompanied by the guerrilla commander Alvaro Fayad and a delegate of the president.In June 1984, leading newspapers in the United States released photographs of his presence in Nicaragua and a Florida court opened a criminal case with Jorge Luis Ochoa. They both ratified what they already suspected, that their trusted pilot, Barry Seal, was now working with the DEA. In February 1986 he was murdered. In the above-mentioned story, Escobar said that these photos were used to cover a scandal: "that of coca we managed by foreigners to finance Sandinistas and our coca to finance the enemies of the Sandinistas. Rather, Colombian coca defining the wars of the continent. "

Will I see the movie? Yes, but I expect it to be entertainment, not the true story of Barry Seal. I really prefer when movies and TV refer to real life characters by name, they be truthful accounts. I don't like when they make stuff up and invent characters because it's good for the story line. That's the problem with Narcos and why I won't watch it.

It's fine to watch and enjoy "American Made" as entertaining fiction, which had as its genesis, real life characters. I'm sure Tom Cruise, who has received really good reviews for his performance, deserves them. But it should be pointed out more that this is not the real story of the Medellin cartel and Barry Seal.

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