Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, Mena
Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, Mena 2. Pine Bluff Chemical Activity, Pine Bluff
Oh dear God, it sounds too good to be true a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream! Bill Clinton, drug smuggling, the CIA, Oliver North, money laundering, the Contras, gun smuggling, assassinations by Colombian drug lords, Area 51, the original President George Bush, all tied together by this airport deep in the Arkansas backwoods
There’s nothing much going on around Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport these days. It attracted too much attention and too many reporters during the Clinton years, and even the slightest hint of something funny going on today would quickly be fodder for Rush Lim-baugh. But, just for historical reasons alone, Mena is still an essential stop on any tour of Top Secret America. Maybe one day the Top Secret Government will make Mena its first national park.
Shady doings around Mena began long before Bill Clinton and Oliver North entered the picture. Rural Arkansas, like much of the rural South, has a long and rich tradition of local law enforcement officials turning a blind eye to illegal activities, such as moonshine production, in return for cash. In the late 1960s, rural areas with airports, like Mena, became importation and distribution centers for the drug trade. The sum of money offered to ignore a single airplane full of cocaine could easily be more than a local sheriff’s annual salary, and soon drug smugglers like Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal were finding the Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas an ideal base of operations.
Mena Arkansas Map Photo Gallery
Seal’s activities prior to 1981 are a murky web of half-truths, omissions, and outright lies. He said he had been a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces; he also claimed to have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1981, he arrived in Mena and bought an interest in Rich Mountain Aviation, one of the aircraft maintenance and operations businesses at the Mena airport. Arriving soon after Seal were enormous quantities of cash; secretaries at Mena and local bank employees later told investigators of Seal purchasing numerous cashiers checks just under the $10,000 limit that would require a filing of a federal currency transaction report. One teller told a federal grand jury that in 1982 Seal walked into a local bank with a suitcase with over $70,000 in cash and bought cashiers checks; similar transactions of $50,000 were not uncommon.
In the early 1980s, the area around Mena was filled at night with scores of low-flying planes. Rumors swirled around Mena that loads of drugs and money were being dropped from these planes. There were also reports of Spanish-speaking men in camouflage moving through the woods around Mena at night, along with what sounded like automatic weapons fire. Witnesses to such things decided, wisely, to keep quiet.
You would expect these events would have soon attracted the attention of local and federal authorities. But, with only a few notable exceptions, the official reaction was indifference. The exceptions were Russell Welch, an Arkansas State Police investigator, and William Duncan, an Internal Revenue Service investigator. However, their efforts were stymied by indifference of local law enforcement officials in Arkansas (in fact, Welch was ordered by his superiors to drop his investigation into possible drug smuggling in Mena) and a puzzling lack of support from other agencies of the federal government. It wasn’t until 1983 that the Drug Enforcement Administration finally caught up to Barry Seal. However, instead of being arrested, Seal became an informant for DEA. While an informant, Seal continued his massive drug smuggling activities out of Mena.
Seal’s informant role was a risky one, involving several flights to Colombia and meetings with leaders of the Medellin cartel, including Carlos Lehder. Seal later would testify in several high-profile drug cases. As a reward, Seal received sentencing to a “halfway house” in Baton Rouge instead of prison for his drug crimes. It was a soft way to do time; Seal was often seen driving around Baton Rouge in his white Cadillac. Seal’s “turning over” to the DEA may have kept him out of prison, but it didn’t keep him safe from some very angry Colombians after he testified in court. At twilight on February 19, 1986, Seal was stepping out of his Cadillac in Baton Rouge when suddenly four Colombians, armed with silencer-equipped automatic weapons, opened fire on him. Seconds later, Seal was slumped over the steering wheel dead.
Barry Seal would have remained a footnote in history had it not been for the unraveling of the Iran-Contra conspiracy a few months iller his death. In a neat bit of irony, Seal was, in death, indirectly responsible for blowing the lid off the entire Iran-Contra mess.
On October 5, 1986, a C-123K cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua with a load of arms destined for the Contras. The lone surviving crew member, Eugene Hasenfus, was captured and began the public unraveling of the Iran-Contra affair.
The flight that Hasenfus Was aboard had originated in Mena. The (123K had previously been owned by Barry Seal. As more about the Contra affair became public, it was learned that the same C-123K h.id been used in a 1984 sting operation in which the CIA had installed hidden cameras before a flight to Nicaragua, and several pholos were taken of various Sandinista representatives loading cocaine .iboard the aircraft when it landed in Managua. Checks of Federal Avi-.it ion Administration records after Seal’s death revealed that a number -I the aircraft he used in his Mena operation had been previously owned by Air America, the CIA proprietary company active in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Of course, the Iran-Contra investigations eventually sputtered to halt with many unanswered questions. Oliver North has steadfastly ‘knied any knowledge of drug running at Mena, as has Bill Clinton. Congressional hearings and investigations were largely fruitless. However, a December 1988 report by the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics and Terrorism, then chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D Massachusetts), concluded “It is clear that individuals who pro-/nled support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking. The supply network of the Contras was used by drug trafficking organizations, and elements of the Contras themselves received financial and material assistance from drug traffickers.” Speaking of criminal investigations related to Mena, the report continued, “cases were
Iropped. The apparent reason was that the prosecution might have revealed national security information, even though all of the crimes which were the focus of the investigation occurred before Seal became ,i h’deral informant.”
There was hope that the true story of Mena would be told once the tMpublicans were out of the White House. In the 1992 campaign, Clinton said he learned officially about the activities at Mena only in Apiil 1988. In his only public statement on the matter, in September F)91, Clinton said investigations by the Arkansas State Police had lotind “linkages to the federal government” and “all kinds of questions about whether he (Seal) had any links to the CIA, and if that backed into the Iran-Contra deal.” But once inaugurated, Clinton was strangely reluctant to open investigations into a case that, on the surface, seemed to have great potential to embarrass Republicans. Part of the reluctance may have been because several of Clinton’s Arkansas associates reportedly had dealings with Seal, especially involving Seal’s efforts to launder large amounts of cash through Arkansas banks.
The mainstream press, with the exception of The Wall Street Journal, largely ridiculed the notion of CIA involvement in drug smuggling at Mena. In 1996, the San Jose Mercury-News ran a series by Gary Webb titled “Dark Alliance,” in which Webb developed a compelling case that the CIA’s involvement in drug running to support the Contras was responsible for the dramatic rise in crack cocaine use. After the series was published, the paper seized upon some relatively minor inaccuracies to repudiate the entire series and fire Webb.
Oh yes, when Eugene Hasenfus and Barry Seal’s C-123K were shot down in October 1986, the Sandinistas recovered several flight logs indicating the C-123K had recently made flights out to places in Nevada, including Groom Lake. At the time, Groom Lake meant nothing except to a handful of Americans. It wasn’t until the 1990s that it became well-known under another name: Area 51.
What’s There: For all of the mystery surrounding it, the Mena airport is a pretty dull place. There are two landing strips and numerous aircraft maintenance, refurbishment, and servicing companies on the airport property. Those other businesses were supposedly one of the main reasons Mena was selected; the level of activity was very high for such an isolated airport.
Getting a Look Inside: Since it’s a public facility, you’re welcome anywhere the public can go, although the private businesses there would likely not appreciate having to deal with non-customers.
Unusual Fact: Mena likes to boast that it is midway between Fort Smith and Texarkana. Go check a map by God, they’re right!
Lotting There: Mena is in west-central Arkansas near the Oklahoma bor-ilnr. Highways 8, 59, 71, and 88 all intersect there.
Ilnads to Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport, Mena.