You may know Pablo Escobar but do you know the story of Juan Matta-Ballesteros? While he may not be the central figure in the TV show “Narcos,” he remains one of the most notorious drug-smugglers of all time. He is credited for the creation of one of the biggest cocaine-smuggling networks in Central America.

From his bizarre shifts in social status to the crime that earned him worldwide notoriety, this is the story of the famous drug trafficker known as Juan Matta-Ballesteros.

Ballesteros’ early life

Ballesteros’ childhood is foggy to historians. According to his family, he was born in Tegucigalpa in 1945 and raised alongside three other siblings.

His upbringing was far from conflict-free. Ballesteros was in the business of petty crimes from a young age, successfully pickpocketing, stealing bus fare, and even peddling marijuana in his early years of life.

After attempting to get to the U.S. illegally on multiple occasions, he was detained on a federal charge in Florida for the use of a false passport. He broke out of the prison a year after his arrest, returning to Honduras to continue to sell and distribute weed. 

Despite his many crimes, he was viewed as a hero in his local Mexican community.

His role in drug distribution made him a wealthy and charitable man, and he often provided for the struggling members of his community. However, in the U.S., Ballesteros had a target on his back. 

While he spent time living in the U.S., he was busted for immigration violations and major cocaine possession multiple times. He was frequently acquitted of charges, yet he could only evade consequence for so long.

As a man of riches in Mexico, Ballesteros returned to the Mexican society — where he was praised. However, he didn’t cut his ties with the international drug smuggling business that he had stuck his toes in while in the states.

Instead, he became a central player in such affairs, becoming one of the most important men in the Mexican underworld of illegal substances.

“Ballesteros is one of the most significant cocaine traffickers in the world…According to anti-narcotics officials, he was the contact between the Columbian cocaine suppliers and the Mexican smugglers.”

-“Drugs, Law Enforcement, and Foreign Policy”

Ballesteros’ true career as a cartel criminal started after his return to Mexico. Following his immersion into the world of drug trafficking, Ballesteros became associated with multiple career criminals, including two heads of major drug cartels.

After networking with the Mexican Guadalajara Cartel and the Columbian Medellín Cartel, Ballesteros had an epiphany: why not bridge the gap between the cartels to move even more drugs?

Before long, he began to oversee smuggling between Mexico and Columbia. His operation moved everything from enormous amounts of cocaine to precious jewels to dangerous weapons.

Not only was Ballesteros a skilled smuggler but he was also charismatic, capable of forging connections to further his agenda. Through his efforts, he invented and upheld one of the most significant cocaine-smuggling operations in Central America.

He went on to begin moving drugs (and, as popularly, emeralds) along with famed actor Mario Ferrari and his wife. Their enterprise stretched through Mexico and Columbia, with the smuggling of illegal goods becoming a natural career for a savvy Ballesteros.

While this sounds like a suspicious operation waiting to be uncovered, plenty of people ensured that their secrets didn’t explode in their faces — including the Mexican military.

His superior status in Honduras

In the wealth of his illegal business affairs, Ballesteros earned a status of superiority amongst his peers. Not only did poor communities depend on his financial generosity, so did the entire population of Honduras. He helped fund schools, parks, public buildings, agricultural companies, pharmacies, and other essential businesses.

He also enjoyed the perks of Ferrari’s power, including military protection. Ferrari’s relationship with the Mexican military allowed him to move through customs without the detection of illegal goods being called to attention. Ballesteros took advantage of these same perks.

The military frequently turned a blind eye to their illegal affairs. However, these practices eventually blew up in their faces, forcing Ballesteros to commit one of his earliest devastating crimes.

After military collusion was brought to light, the Ferraris and Ballesteros began to experience tension in their business relationship. In response to a perceived betrayal from the Ferraris, Ballesteros had the Ferraris flown to Columbia, tortured, and executed.

Their dumped bodies were found a month later, yet tying the crimes back to Ballesteros was difficult. The government tried (and failed) to draw lines between the horrific murders and military collusion.

Although the investigation was unsuccessful, a paranoid Ballesteros still spent several years living in Spain, evading authorities before being acquitted of the crimes.

No longer concerned about the possibility of being tried, Ballesteros returned to Mexico in relatively good standing, remaining one of the crucial members of the ever-growing 1980s drug-smuggling community.

”I promise you on the word of my mother who is dead and my children that I will never leave Honduras again. If I am seen in another country, it is because the DEA has kidnapped me.”

-Juan Matta-Ballesteros

Ballesteros was unaware that the U.S. government had their eyes on him. Although he rose in the underground chain of power, high-ranking CIA and DEA officials were keeping tabs on the criminal activity happening within the Mexican drug underworld. This was especially true after one of the crimes Ballesteros committed turned him into the most wanted man in the underworld.

The notorious DEA agent murder

By the mid-1980s, the DEA was making significant progress in apprehending multiple criminals involved in drug operations in Mexico and Columbia. Ballesteros, along with the Guadalajara Cartel, was fed up.

Rather than finding out how to take their operation even deeper underground, they decided to perform a drastic act of rebellion: kidnapping and murdering a DEA agent.

In 1985, Special Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena went missing while on assignment in Mexico. The agent, who had spent four years undercover in Mexico, disappeared outside the American Consulate in Guadalajara.

U.S. officials searched for the agent (and his pilot, who was also kidnapped), unaware that the details of their terrible fates were beyond comprehension.

The duo had been kidnapped by members of the Guadalajara Cartel, who tortured, interrogated, and eventually murdered the pair. They died slow deaths, all while cartel members recorded the confessions coerced from the agent and the pilot during their torture sessions.

“Matta Matta-Ballesteros was astute enough to know that when ‘Kiki’ Camareno was killed, that we would be coming for him.”

-Mike Vigil, DEA

A year later, these recordings were uncovered by Mexican authorities, who turned the horrific tapes over to the U.S. government. After listening, U.S. officials went looking for the duos’ bodies, locating them in a plot in Guadalajara with multiple other corpses.

This immediately spurred an effort to track down the criminals responsible for the gruesome slayings. Ballesteros knew he would be on the list.

What became of Ballesteros’ crimes

Somehow, Ballesteros spent years avoiding the consequences of his crimes. As other members of the Guadalajara Cartel were caught, charged, and sentenced, Ballesteros evaded arrest. Once he was captured, he escaped from custody, returning to Honduras with the hopes that his status would keep him protected.

At first, Ballesteros was protected by Honduras. His high-standing status in the community — as well as the fact that businessmen, politicians, and other important social figures were his friends — put him in a bubble that initially made him untouchable by the intervening U.S. authorities.

However, as the political atmospheres of both the U.S. and Mexico shifted, Ballesteros’ slack was tightened.

By the late 1980s, the U.S. took a vocal stand against communists, drug trafficking, and international criminals, placing Ballesteros at the top of their list. Ballesteros depended on his status to get him out of facing penalties, unaware that Honduras had been conspiring with the U.S. government.

“We tracked him to a house in Colombia…I was going to kill him, and he said, ‘Don’t shoot. I can get out of a prison, but I can’t get out of a tomb.’…he proceeded to offer me three and half million dollars if we turned him loose…Obviously, we told him to shove it…he said, ‘I want to congratulate you because no one has been able to capture me in 20 years.'”

-Mike Vigil DEA

In early 1988, Ballesteros went out for a jog and returned home to a plethora of authorities with an arrest warrant. They captured a sweaty and confused Ballesteros, and transported him to the U.S. Across multiple trials, he was found guilty for the kidnapping and murder of Enrique Camarena.

Although he attempted to appeal his convictions, he was relatively unsuccessful. As of 2020, he remains incarcerated in a high-security prison in Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, Ballesteros’ notoriety is undeniable. He remains one of the most infamous men in Mexico’s underground drug ring.

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