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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is filmfestivals.com  Senior New York Correspondent

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene, professor at Hunter University, accredited member of the Foreign Press Center,  U.S. Department of State NY.


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The Invisible Pilot, HBO Max

The common view that actual events are more compelling than fictional stories is rarely translated into documentary programs. The HBO documentary series THE INVISIBLE PILOT produced by Emmy award honoree filmmakers Phil Lon and Ari Mark delivers this message. Central to the three- part program is the life story of 81-year old Gary Betzner. The program covers his professional accomplishments, financial success in many areas, his numerous marriages with large families, and his time served in prison. From 1960 through 2020, without an advanced education, he became an accomplished crop duster, a small airplane merchant, an aeronautic engineering expert, a drug dealer, and an arms trafficker to Latin American countries. On his many trips returning to the United States, his planes were fully loaded with marihuana, cocaine, and other drugs. Apart from occasional arrests, he was able to carry out his work over decades using different airplanes he had modified to avoid detection. He survived eleven plane crashes. He was associated with major drug dealers, cartel officials and the CIA. When landing and departing from numerous Central American and US airports he rarely had to prove his identity and never secured the "necessary" permits for the transport of contraband arms and drugs.

Interviewing members of his family, drug dealers, experts and journalists covering the drug trade and politics, as well as detailed statements from many encounters with Gary Betzner and using archival material, the filmmakers were able to develop a superb profile of Betzner  covering most of his life. We learn of the many years he used other identities as well as his final years after he was released from prison. There are two outstanding compelling events. To avoid a 20-year prison sentence, Betzner prepared to fake his suicide. In 1977, accompanied by his wife, he jumped from a bridge, His body was never found. His traumatized wife was admitted to a mental institution with everyone convinced after a while that he was dead. He disappeared, changed his name to Lucas Harmony and continued in the drug trade with some occasional arrests until one arrest revealed his true identity. In his prior transactions he was close to the Medellin cartel, worked with Americans associated with the Contras, and earned large amounts of money.

Using his planes, he delivered arms ranging from explosives, small arms, M16s, machine guns, land mines and more to North and Latin American intermediaries working for the Contras fighting in Nicaragua. For the delivery of arms, he received significant amounts of drugs which he flew back to the United States. He acquired a solid understanding of the extensive network behind the illegal US policy trading drugs for arms to support the contras. Funding for these operations was secured by US agencies selling advanced weapons to Iran with full knowledge of the Reagan administration. Arrested and convicted again in 1984, Betzner was summoned from prison to provide evidence in Washington, DC. When Senator John Kerry held the Senate Foreign Policy Subcommittee Hearings on Narcotics in April,1988, Gary Betzner was his star witness, testifying for several hours. As Sen. Kerry reported afterwards, Betzner’s factually-based statements were the most significant testimony his committee received. The testimony demonstrated close covert cooperation between US agencies in the drugs and arms trades with the Contras and conservative sponsors. Betzner identified individuals involved, the collaborating networks, types of arms, drugs shipped, and the payments made to him. He had been warned by outsiders that he would be killed if he testified but decided to cooperate. He was never rewarded for being a witness, spending his full 27-year sentence before his release in 2011. None of the people essential for the illegal support of the Contras and the Iran-Contras arrangements were sent to jail. Others who had been sentenced received presidential pardons by President George Bush. Bush granted a full pardon and praise for Lieutenant Oliver North; he had been ordered by government officials to destroy all documents about the involvement of US agencies in the Contra-Iran affairs and related matters. He did so.

Throughout this outstanding HBO series, Betzner is most articulate and honest. He admits to drug use, specifically cocaine as a medical remedy, his opposition to the Sandinista ideology shared by many drug dealers and his financial support of the Contras. But he also opposed the criminalization of drug use and considered the laws penalizing drug use illegal. As he told Sen. Kerry, these US laws generated rampant Latin American and US corruption and violence and fostered the rapid expansion of Central American cartels. Looking at his fake suicide, he expressed sorrow of having suspended his past and losing many years of possible memories. This miniseries was impressive. However, the documentary could be shorter. Too many statements from numerous members of Betzner’s families and associates were included. But the articulate observations by his first wife Sally, were essential for  understanding the complexity of Gary Betzner .

 

Claus Mueller,  New York,  filmexchange@gmail.com

 

 

 

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