Jury Finds Honduran Guilty of Drug Charges
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A drug baron whose capture and extradition sparked anti-American riots that left five people dead in Honduras was convicted of cocaine smuggling today.
Honduran billionaire Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, 45, was accused of overseeing a ring that distributed $72 million worth of cocaine in Los Angeles. The Drug Enforcement Administration said he controlled a narcotics empire worth up to $2 billion.
The federal jury found Matta guilty of conspiracy, running a continuing criminal enterprise, possession with intent to distribute cocaine and distribution of cocaine.
Matta faces 10 years and life in prison at sentencing Oct. 5, Stolar said.
Defense attorney Martin Stolar sought to portray Matta as a legitimate businessman who was the largest employer in Honduras. The government argued he was a kingpin of the powerful cocaine cartel based in Cali, Colombia, that smuggled tons of cocaine into Arizona and Southern California through Mexico.
″We’re sending the right message that we want to send to the Colombian government, that if they extradite drug kingpins we will prosecute them to the full extent of the law,″ said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jimmy Gurule.
Stolar argued that Matta was illegally extradited from Honduras, which does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
Police and troops arrested Matta in a pre-dawn raid on his Tegucigalpa home in 1988 and deported him to the United States by way of the Dominican Republic. The Honduran constitution forbids the extradition of Honduran citizens.
Enraged over the extradition, some 2,000 demonstrators burned the U.S. Embassy annex. Five Hondurans died in a week of disturbances.
The charges stemmed from a 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.
Also seized were ledgers tracing the drugs to ″El Negro,″ or the Black One - a name a witness said was used by Matta.
Stolar said his client was a victim of overwhelming publicity from Colombia and Washington that culminated in President Bush’s speech unveiling a battle plan for the war on drugs Tuesday night.
Stolar said he had sent a telegram to the president asking him to withhold his speech until the verdict was returned. He said 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.″
The government’s key witness was Hector Barona Becerra, a former Colombian cocaine trafficker who said he made smuggling flights for Matta in 1981.
Barona said he was introduced to the defendant in Cali and knew him by the names ″Jose Campo″ and ″El Negro.″ Stolar argued that ″El Negro″ was a common nickname in Latin America.