A wealthy Honduran businessman, considered by federal prosecutors to be the most significant international drug trafficker ever tried in the western United States, was convicted by a federal court jury in Los Angeles on Wednesday of running a major cocaine syndicate and faces a possible life sentence.
U.S. Atty. Gary A. Feess said Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros "is on the level of the top 10 Colombian drug traffickers."
The conviction of Matta stemmed from a Sept. 24, 1981, raid in which U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents seized 114 pounds of cocaine and $1.9 million at a Van Nuys apartment complex--at the time the largest cocaine seizure in Los Angeles history.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Manuel Medrano said, "This prosecution is a complete vindication" of a federal law that provides severe penalties for those who run major narcotics organizations. The "continuing criminal enterprise" statute, Medrano said, also enabled the government to convict Matta even though "he never set foot in Los Angeles."
"He oversaw, managed and supervised the operation" from his headquarters in Cali, Colombia, Medrano said.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Jimmy Gurule, the lead prosecutor, said the case had been difficult because the government had to rely largely on ledgers and telephone records to link Matta to the Van Nuys operation.
"Someone as big as Matta, you won't find him in L.A., just like you won't find Lee Iacocca selling cars in L.A.," Gurule said in describing the Honduran as "the chief executive officer" of the drug ring.
Martin Stolar, Matta's lawyer, said his client was "an innocent victim of the war on drugs" and vowed to appeal the conviction.
"This trial could not have been held at a better time for the prosecutors, with all the stories about Colombian drug dealers in the papers and on television the last three weeks, including President Bush's speech last night (Tuesday)," Stolar said.
Stolar sent Bush a telegram Tuesday asking him to hold off on his major drug speech until after the jury had concluded its deliberations in the case here. Stolar said Wednesday that he received no response.
Matta, 46, who has significant cattle and tobacco enterprises in Honduras, faces additional federal narcotics charges in Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego. He is scheduled to go on trial here in November on charges stemming from a 1985 indictment.
A jury of seven men and five women deliberated for slightly more than four days, interrupted by the Labor Day weekend, before returning guilty verdicts on all seven counts. Matta was convicted of one count of conspiracy, four counts of drug possession, one count of possession with intent to distribute and one count of running a continuing criminal enterprise. The latter charge carries a potential life sentence without possibility of parole. The other counts carry sentences of up to 20 years each.
Matta remained calm as the seven guilty verdicts were announced by a court clerk, after jury foreman Oliver Willman informed Federal Judge Pamela A. Rymer that deliberations were concluded.
Later, Stolar said his client was "very upset," particularly about the fact that he would be separated from his wife, Nancy Vasquez, and his five children, three of whom attended the trial with her.
Felix Cerna Salgado, Matta's personal physician, who also is a Honduran senator, also attended the trial for many days. He told reporters that he had no knowledge of Matta being involved with drugs and said his patient gave money to the poor.
Stolar said he will ask Rymer to overturn the verdict and, if that plea is rejected, he said he would appeal.
Rymer set Oct. 5 as the date for Matta's sentencing.
"The government will ask for a life sentence without possibility of parole because that's what he deserves," Medrano said.
Matta will be held in the federal penitentiary in Lompoc until sentencing, then returned to Los Angeles to await his November trial.
One of the jurors said his colleagues had decided as a group not to talk to the press about their deliberations.
Made It Clear
However, their verdict made it clear that they had given credence to the prosecution's key witness, Hector Barona Becerra, who identified himself as a former cocaine trafficker. Now in the federal witness program, Barona pointed at Matta in the courtroom and said he had flown narcotics for him in 1981, although he said he had been told at the time that the man who hired him was named "Jose Campos."
Barona said he had met Matta in Cali and agreed to fly several loads of cocaine for him to Miami via the Bahamas.
Stolar cross-examined Barona for 3 1/2 days and spent half of his closing argument attempting to undermine his credibility. Barona served only seven months in prison after a drug trafficking conviction, and Stolar attempted to convince jurors that the witness had obtained his freedom by agreeing to tell tall tales about Matta.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Atty. Gurule countered by referring to documentary evidence that the government had presented during the four-week trial. The government introduced voluminous ledgers seized in Van Nuys in 1981 that detailed the drug ring's operations.
The ledgers indicated that the enterprise had generated more than $73 million in proceeds in just nine months. The documents seized in Van Nuys referred to money going to "El Negro," the head of the operation.
Prosecutors said Matta was "El Negro," while Stolar attempted to convince jurors that the nickname was a common one in Central America. Tuesday morning, he entered into the record a Times story on Saturday that referred to the arrest of a drug trafficker with the same nickname.
The prosecutors also introduced telephone records, including records of calls from the Van Nuys complex to the office of a business owned by Matta's wife in Cali. Another key witness for the prosecution was veteran Drug Enforcement Agency agent Larry Lyons, who explained the ledgers in detail and said the Van Nuys ring operated along the lines of "a classic Colombian cocaine cartel."
"We've never seen such detailed, voluminous, sophisticated ledgers, in Spanish, in code," said Medrano, who, like his co-counsel, Gurule, speaks fluent Spanish.
Government sources have estimated that Matta, who was once a chemist, is worth about $2 billion. They have also said that he played an instrumental role in persuading Colombian cocaine traffickers that they should shift many of their operations to Los Angeles in the early 1980s after intensified state and federal efforts curbed some of their operations in Miami.
Feess called the conviction "a major victory" in the government's anti-drug campaign. He said Matta ranked with Carlos Lehder, an international narcotics trafficker now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in the Federal Correctional Institute in Marion, Ill.
"This particular case sends the message to Colombia we want to send--if you extradite drug traffickers, we'll aggressively prosecute them, and they will face stiff penalties here," Gurule said.
The prosecutors declined to predict, however, whether the conviction would have any impact on the flow of drugs into Los Angeles. "Matta has been out of operation for some months," Feess said, referring to the fact that he had been in custody since April, 1988, after a controversial arrest.
Seized in Honduras
Matta was seized by Honduran police and U.S. officials at his ranch outside Tegucigalpa. Honduras has no extradition treaty, and widespread anti-U.S. riots ensued. The annex to the U.S. Embassy there was burned.
Matta apparently has generated considerable good will in Honduras by employing as many as 5,000 people at his cattle, cigar and milk production facilities.
The 1981 Van Nuys raid stemmed from a tip by DEA agents in Colombia. Seven people were arrested at the time. Five pleaded guilty and one was convicted in a trial. They are all serving lengthy sentences.
The seventh defendant fled and remains a fugitive. Matta was indicted in this case in 1984.