Juan Matta-Ballesteros

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Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros
Born (1945-01-12) January 12, 1945 (age 71)
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Nationality Honduran
Other names El Negro
Occupation former Drug Lord, Medellín Cartel
Criminal charge Drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping
Criminal status Incarcerated
Spouse(s) Nancy de Matta
Children Claudia Matta, Juan Ramon Matta (Son) and Maria Matta

Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros (January 12, 1945) (commonly known as Ramón Matta) is a former drug lord with ties to the Colombian Medellin Cartel and the Guadalajara Cartel.[1]

In April 1988, he was taken from his Tegucigalpa home by United States Marshals, sent to the United States for trial, and convicted of the kidnap and assassination of Enrique Camarena, as well as other charges. Matta is serving 12 life sentences at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan, a high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Early smuggling career[edit]

The DEA first arrested Matta in 1970 at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC with 24.5 kilos of cocaine. Matta was not convicted for any of the drug charges, however he was convicted for passport violations and illegal entry. The following year, Matta escaped from the Federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and went back to Latin America.[2][3] Matta continued working in the drug smuggling business, brokering deals, running drug laboratories, and acting as a hit man for the Medellin Cartel. In 1974 Mexican authorities arrested Matta for selling 10 kilos of cocaine. He spent a year in prison, and was suspected of killing two other prisoners while incarcerated.[4]

Connections to the Guadalajara cartel[edit]

Matta was the primary connection between Andean drug suppliers and the Cuban drug lord Alberto Sicilia Falcon (who lived in exile in Mexico). He also introduced Mexican traffickers to Medellin Cartel boss José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha. Thus Matta was responsible for brokering some of the first deals whereby Mexican cartels would transport Colombian cocaine into the U.S. By 1975, Matta had formed a tight alliance with Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo of the Guadalajara Cartel (which was, at the time, the largest drug trafficking network in Mexico).[4]

Financing the "Cocaine Coup" in Honduras[edit]

According to a 1978 DEA intelligence report, Matta had become business partners with General Policarpo Paz García, and had directly financed the Honduran "Cocaine Coup" that brought Paz into power.[5] Under Paz, Matta's trafficking operations received protection and support from the Honduran armed forces, in exchange for a cut of the proceeds from the drugs. It is primarily through these connections with the military (especially with the head of Honduran military intelligence Leonides Torres Arias) that Matta became involved with the Contras in Nicaragua (and their handlers in the CIA).[6]

CIA operations in support of Nicaraguan Contras[edit]

According to the Kerry Committee report (an investigation into government involvement in drug trafficking, as a result of information that surfaced during the Iran-Contra affair): the Honduran airline SETCO was "the principal company used by the Contras in Honduras to transport supplies and personnel for the [FDN (one of the earliest Contra groups)], carrying at least a million rounds of ammunition, food, uniforms and other military supplies [for the Contras] . . . from 1983 to 1985." SETCO received funds for Contra supply operations from the Contra accounts established by Oliver North.[7]

In 1983, a U.S. Customs Investigative Report found that “SETCO stands for Services Ejecutivos Turistas Commander and is headed by Juan Ramon Matta-Ballestros, a class I DEA violator.” The same report states that according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “SETCO aviation is a corporation formed by American businessmen who are dealing with Matta and are smuggling narcotics into the United States."[8] Matta had been identified by the DEA in 1985 as the most important member of a consortium moving a major share (perhaps a third, perhaps more than half) of all the cocaine from Colombia to the United States.[citation needed] The report went on to conclude that "the Colombian-Mexican relationship, developed by Juan Ramon Matta-Ballesteros, a Honduran with close ties to the Cali groups, led to an explosion of cocaine shipments through Mexico, with cocaine seizures in that country rising from 2.3 tons in 1985 to 9.3 tons in 1987."[citation needed]

The July 9, 1984 entry in North's diary states, in North’s own handwriting, "wanted aircraft to go to Bolivia to pick up paste, want aircraft to pick up 1,500 kilos." The July 12, 1985 entry reads, "$14 million to finance [the arms] came from drugs."[9] August 9, 1985: "Honduran DC-9 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S." When the local DEA office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras began to move against Matta in 1983, it was shut down.[citation needed]

Matta's business empire[edit]

By the early 1980s, Matta had become extremely wealthy and employed thousands of people in the businesses he owned (in addition to SETCO Airlines). Matta also possessed investments in coffee, tobacco, spice, cattle, and dairy operations and founded several agricultural and construction firms in Honduras. A U.S. court of appeals estimated that Matta and Felix Gallardo were pulling in more than $5 million per week from their drug trafficking activity alone, and these businesses helped Matta launder much of these illicit earnings. In 1982, DEA agents reported that Matta had paid $50 million to Bolivian and other Latin American officials to protect his narcotics operations from law enforcement harassment.[10]


Matta was arrested in 1986 in Colombia, but bought his way out of jail with a $2 million bribe and returned to Honduras.[5]

In March 1988, the political fallout from the Iran-Contra affair devastated political support in Washington for the Contra war, and it began to be wound down.[5] In April 1988, after the full extent of Matta's criminal activities became known, he was taken from his Tegucigalpa home by United States Marshals, sent to the United States for trial.[citation needed]

Matta Ballesteros alleges that while en route to the US military base Palmerola he was interrogated under torture (burning repeatedly with a high voltage stun gun). This charge was never substantiated.[11] Later he was flown to the Dominican Republic where he was officially arrested for an outstanding warrant from 1971. From there, he was remanded to the United States Penitentiary, Marion, which was then a high-security federal prison.

Following his abduction, up to 2,000 protestors took to the streets of Tegucigalpa. U.S. Diplomats in Honduras said the riots were not in support of Mr. Matta, but in protest at the seizure of a Honduran citizen on criminal charges lodged by foreign governments, a direct violation of that country's Constitution. In the end, some 6 people were killed and the annex to the U.S. Embassy was torched by a small group of assailants in the crowd and severely damaged.[citation needed]

Matta contested his arrest[11] in 1988 on the grounds of violation of habeas corpus. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected his case. They found that “the circumstances surrounding Matta-Ballesteros's abduction, while disturbing to us and conduct we seek in no way to condone…” did not violate the Ker-Frisbie Doctrine. However, Judge Noonan wrote “that the abductors were law enforcement officers of the United States, rather than some fanatic band, doubles the horror of their activity. If agents of the mightiest power on earth are unrestrained from kidnapping by legal authority -- or rather, in obedience to higher authority in the executive department, see themselves constrained to kidnap -- the freedom of individuals throughout the world is at the mercy of a decision made by an official of the United States Department of Justice."

Similarly, Matta's abduction was followed by that of Mexican Humberto Alvarez Machain accused of complicity, like Matta, in the Camarena case. Machain fought his case on the illegality of the abduction; he won and was returned to Mexico.[citation needed]

Conviction and incarceration[edit]

Like other notable players in the Camarena case, like Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo before him, Matta was eventually convicted as one of the masterminds behind the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. DEA Agent Enrique Camarena in Guadalajara, Mexico. Further, Matta was later convicted for operating an importation and cocaine distribution ring into Van Nuys, California.[citation needed]

Matta served much of his sentence at the United States Penitentiary, Florence ADX, the federal supermax prison in Colorado. He is currently being held at the United States Penitentiary, Canaan, a high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Under the Volcano: Narco Investment in Mexico". PBS -Frontline. 1995. Retrieved 2010-02-08. 
  2. ^ Bunck, Julie M. & Fowler, Michael R. (2012). Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America. Penn State Press. p. 271. ISBN 9780271048666. 
  3. ^ Beith, Malcolm (2010). The Last Narco. New York, New York: Grove Press. pp. 40–55. ISBN 978-0-8021-1952-0. 
  4. ^ a b Bunck, Julie M. & Fowler, Michael R. (2012). Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America. Penn State Press. p. 272. ISBN 9780271048666. 
  5. ^ a b c The CIA's Ghosts of Tegucigalpa
  6. ^ Cockburn, Alexander & St-Clair, Jeffrey (1998). Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press. Verso. p. 281. ISBN 9781859841396. 
  7. ^ Bunck, Julie M. & Fowler, Michael R. (2012). Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America. Penn State Press. p. 274. ISBN 9780271048666. 
  8. ^ Cockburn, Alexander; St-Clair, Jeffrey (1998). Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press. Verso. p. 282. ISBN 9781859841396. 
  9. ^ The Oliver North File: His Diaries, E-Mail, and Memos on the Kerry Report, Contras and Drugs, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 113 (February 26, 2004)
  10. ^ Bunck, Julie M. & Fowler, Michael R. (2012). Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America. Penn State Press. pp. 275–276. ISBN 9780271048666. 
  11. ^ a b "896 F.2d 255: Juan Ramon Matta-ballesteros, Petitioner, v. Gary L. Henman, Warden, United States Penitentiary Atmarion, Illinois, Respondent". Retrieved 2011-08-08. 
  12. ^ http://www.bop.gov/iloc2/InmateFinderServlet?Transaction=IDSearch&needingMoreList=false&IDType=IRN&IDNumber=37671-133&x=75&y=16