Juan Matta Ballesteros bribed enough guards to open seven gates to escape Bogotá’s La Modelo penitentiary the same day Christopher arrived. He witnessed the ruckus as he was arriving.
From the 1985 New York Times article, “Colombia Seizes Suspect in U.S. Drug Aide’s Death” (before Matta Ballesteros bribed his way out of La Modelo):
A man believed to be the leader of a major cocaine trafficking ring, who is also a key suspect in the killing of a United States drug enforcement agent in Mexico, was arrested in Cartagena, Colombia, on Tuesday, drug officials announced here today.
John C. Lawn, the acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the man arrested by the Colombian National Police, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, was one of four top suspects in the murder of Enrique Camarena Salazar, the American drug agent abducted in February in Guadalajara.
Two other suspects, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carillo, were arrested last month. Mr. Lawn said the fourth suspect, Miguel Felix Gallardo, who is still at large, was a ”subordinate to Ballesteros” and had been ”directly linked” to the drug agent’s murder.
Mr. Lawn said at a news conference today that Mr. Matta Ballesteros was one of the ”most significant cocaine traffickers in the world” and the head of the so-called Padrino trafficking organization, which supplies cocaine to the United States, especially the Southwest. It operates in Peru, Mexico, Colombia and Honduras, he said.
Escape From U.S. Custody
A Honduran national, Mr. Matta Ballesteros has been wanted by the United States law enforcement authorities since 1971, when he escaped from the Federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. He had been serving a three-year sentence for passport violations and illegal entry into the United States, Mr. Lawn said.
Drug agency officials said Mr. Matta Ballesteros was also wanted in New York on Federal charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine. According to an arrest warrant and complaint, he took part in a conspiracy between 1976 and 1982 to import five shipments of at least 660 pounds each from Colombia to the United States by way of Guadalajara.
”From Guadalajara, the Padrino organization funneled the cocaine into New York, Miami and Los Angeles,” the Drug Enforcement Agency said.
Mr. Lawn said Mr. Matta Ballesteros had offered the Colombian police who arrested him a payoff of $450,000 to ”unarrest him,” which they declined.
The Drug Enforcement Administration, which Mr. Lawn said provided the Colombians with information that helped lead to the arrest, is working with the Justice Department to seek extradition. Other nations, he said, will also seek Mr. Matta Ballesteros’s extradition on different charges. The D.E.A. is also investigating bank accounts around the world where Mr. Matta Ballesteros is believed to have deposited drug money. 3,600 Pounds of Cocaine Seized In the last nine months, drug agency officials said, they have seized 3,600 pounds of cocaine, $16 million in cash, three properties and several planes from the Padrino organization. They believe the ring is able to smuggle up to 60,000 pounds of pure cocaine into the United States annually. In addition, they said, the Internal Revenue Service has outstanding liens on the group worth $26 million.
Drug officials have said that one week after Mr. Camarena and his Mexican pilot were reported missing in February, they gave the Mexican authorities information that Mr. Matta Ballesteros was in an apartment in Mexico City and that they sought Mexican help in arresting him. But the Mexicans delayed acting for two days, they said, and Mr. Matta Ballesteros escaped, probably because of a tip.
Mr. Lawn said today that he was initially disturbed by Mexico’s failure to cooperate, which he termed ”at best, inaction – at worst, complicity,” but that he was encouraged by recent efforts by the Mexicans to help.
In testimony today before the House Judiciary Committee’s crime subcommittee, Mr. Lawn acknowledged that corruption had impeded efforts to attack drug trafficking in Mexico. As as example, he said, Mr. Caro Quintero – who has provided the Mexican authorities with information since his arrest – had said he had 700 to 800 local, state and Federal officials in Mexico on his payroll.
1986 Washington Post article, “Colombia Keeps Up Fight Against Traffickers; U.S. Antidrug Cooperation Expected to Continue as Power Shifts in Bogota”:
Paying about $2 million, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros bribed 18 prison guards and walked to freedom through seven doors of a Bogota prison in March. Accused of narcotics trafficking in the United States, and wanted as well in Mexico for the murder last year of a U.S. narcotics agent, Matta Ballesteros had been the most important accused drug dealer that Colombia had managed to put behind bars.
His escape to Honduras — his native country and one that does not permit the extradition of its nationals — set back Colombia’s antidrug effort and triggered the resignation of the director of prisons.
The Matta Ballesteros episode underscored what Colombian authorities are up against as other major traffickers continue to evade the law’s grip here by using bribes, intimidation, cunning or assassination…
After escaping from La Modelo and slipping out of the country, Matta Ballesteros was quickly apprehended in Honduras. From the 1986 New York Times article, “Suspect in Murder of Drug Agent Is Seized in U.S. Trap in Honduras”:
Springing a trap at dawn in Honduras, the United States today arranged the capture and arrest of a key suspect in the murder of an American drug agent in Mexico, law enforcement officials said tonight.
The suspect, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, is viewed by law enforcement officials as a leading international drug trafficker with close links to the Medellin organization in Colombia.
”This is one of the most significant fugitive arrests in recent years,” said Stephen Boyle, a spokesman for the United States Marshals Service. Mr. Matta, he said, had proven to be a prized and elusive target.
Concern Over Military Corruption
The arrest is also significant because it was made at time of mounting concern about corruption in the Honduran military. The New York Times reported in February that the Honduran Army was involved in drug trafficking and that Mr. Matta, who is Honduran, maintained close ties to senior military officers.
A reputed multibillionaire, Mr. Matta had escaped from an American prison and bribed his way out of a Colombian jail. He has been lively freely in Honduras, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
But his freedom abruptly came to an end this morning in front of his house in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, when he was seized by Honduran military officers. The officers later forced him onto a plane bound for the Dominican Republic.
Arrest in U.S. Airspace
The Marshals Service announced tonight that the Dominican Republic immediately put Mr. Matta in the custody of marshals and that he was put on a commercial flight for New York. Officials said he would be formally arrested when the plane entered American airspace and then held in custody for arraignment in Federal court. It is unclear what charges he will face or where or when the arraignment will take place.
Administration officials said in February that the Honduran military was stung by American criticism, and that the chief of the Honduran armed forces, General Humberto Regalado Hernandez. protested to American officials, arguing that the military as an institution was not corrupt.
Soon after, American officials challenged General Regalado to back up that assertion with concrete action: a move against Mr. Matta.
An Administration official said the issue of arresting Mr. Matta had been under discussion with Honduran authorities since last year. He said, however, that the talks gained momentum after the press reports on corruption in the Honduran military.
Abrams Praises Honduras
Elliott Abrams, the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, praised the Hondurans tonight for their role in the arrest and said, ”This could not have happened without General Regalado and it was a brave thing to do.”
Mr. Matta, Mr. Abrams added, ”is tied into the Medellin cartel, he’s a billionaire and he kills people.”
Mr. Abrams said that in the last two years, General Regalado had pressed the United States to reopen its Drug Enforcement Administration office in Tegucigalpa. The office was closed in 1983, but the agency is now moving to return to the country.
Law enforcement officials said that Howard Safir, associate director for operations at the Marshals Service secretly traveled to Tegucigalpa to negotiate the plan with senior Honduran military officers. The matter was diplomatically sensitive because the Hondurans are intensely protective of their sovereignty.
According to law enforcment officials, the plan to arrest Mr. Matta nearly came unhinged this morning when Honduran military officers arrived at his house to find he was not there. As they stood out front, one official said, they were surprised to see Mr. Matta returning from a weekend trip. He was promptly arrested.
American officials have been actively seeking Mr. Matta for years. Those efforts intensified after the killing in 1985 of Enrique Camarena Salazar, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Mexico. John C. Lawn, the head of the agency, said in 1985 that Mr. Matta was one of the four top suspects in the case.
Mr. Matta has not been indicted in the murder of Mr. Camarena, but American officials believe that he was one of those who had ordered the murder in response to damaging seizures and arrests put together by the American agent.
In May 1985, American officials believed that they were on the verge of bringing Mr. Matta to the United States to face Federal drug charges, but he was arrested in Colombia. Mr. Matta was later jailed, but is said to have escaped by paying a bribe estimated by American officials at $1 million to $2.5 million.
He then returned to Honduras, where he was also wanted on several charges, including murder. After a brief time in prison, he was set free in murky circumstances. Shortly afterward, he bought a house in Tegucigalpa, where he has moved about openly and befriended senior military officers and politicians.
Denies Drug Involvement
Since press accounts of his activities appeared this year, Mr. Matta has given several interviews in which he denied any involvement in the drug trade.
In 1985, Mr. Lawn said that Mr. Matta was the head of the Padrino organization, a cocaine smuggling organization that he said was moving 60,000 pounds of pure cocaine into the United States each year. At the time, he said, the Internal Revenue Service liens against the group amounted to $26 million.
Mr. Matta first became a fugitive from American charges in 1971, when he escaped from Eglin Air Force base in Florida while serving a three-year sentence for passport violations. More recently, he has been indicted on drug charges by Federal grand juries in Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego.
The arrest of Mr. Matta by Honduran authorities was known early this morning. But the involvement of the Marshals Service and the plan to spirit him to the United States were a secret.
This afternoon, Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, praised the Hondurans’ action at a hearing on drugs and foreign policy.
At the hearing, the committee also heard testimony from Osvaldo Quintana, a Miami businessman who is chief witness in the Federal drug charges against Colonel Jean-Claude Paul of Haiti.
Mr. Quintana said that Colonel Paul had been involved in a failed drug deal with him, and that the colonel had once taken a sample of cocaine through customs at a Haitian airport.
Watch Drug Wars: The Camarena Story: