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Jury Finds Honduran Kingpin Guilty in Case Linked to Drug War With AM-Gambino-Drugs

September 6, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A Honduran drug kingpin, whose extradition triggered deadly riots in his homeland, was convicted of cocaine smuggling Wednesday in what prosecutors hailed as a victory for the U.S. war on drugs.

Prosecutors had called Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, 45, one of the most significant narcotics traffickers in the world, but his lawyer portrayed him as a legitimate businessman and the single largest employer in Honduras before his arrest.

U.S. District Court jurors found guilty of masterminding a California drug ring linked to a Colombian cocaine cartel. He was convicted of one count of conspiracy, one count of running a continuing criminal enterprise, one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and four counts of distribution of cocaine.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claimed Matta ran a narcotics empire worth up to $2 billion. He was accused of overseeing a network that distributed $72 million worth of cocaine in Los Angeles.

″The conviction of Ballesteros is a major blow to the gangsters who run the international drug rings,″ Attorney General Dick Thornburgh said in a statement from Washington.

Matta’s extradition triggered outrage in his homeland and 2,000 demonstrators burned the U.S. Embassy annex. Five Hondurans died in the disturbances, which lasted a week.

Matta’s lawyer called him a victim of massive publicity surrounding joint U.S.-Colombian efforts to extradite major drug kingpins. But U.S. Attorney Gary Feess said: ″He was convicted by evidence, not publicity.″

Defense attorney Martin Stolar said he sent a telegram to President Bush Tuesday urging him to delay his address to the nation about drugs until the jury returned its verdict. He received no response.

″The cocaine wars and the war against drugs have been front-page news for three weeks, more than half the length of this trial,″ Stolar said. ″That kind of prejudicial publicity makes it difficult for a jury to concentrate on what happens in the courtroom.″

Feess said Matta was the kingpin for a powerful cocaine cartel based in Cali, Colombia, that funneled thousands of pounds of cocaine to Arizona and Southern California through Mexico.

He said Matta’s power was comparable to that of Carlos Lehder, the powerful drug lord convicted earlier this year in Miami. Feess said Matta was one of the largest drug kingpins ever convicted.

The charges against Matta stemmed from a September 1981 raid on a Van Nuys apartment complex that netted $1.9 million in cash and 114 pounds of cocaine - at that time the largest seizure of the drug in California history.

U.S. District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer scheduled sentencing for Oct. 5. Feess said Matta could be sentenced to a maximum of life imprisonment without parole.

Stolar said he would appeal.

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