Authorities are trying to decide which jurisdiction will get the first legal shot at Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, called "the major cocaine trafficker to the United States," after his arrest and imprisonment.
Matta, nabbed Tuesday in Honduras and whisked overnight to the most secure prison in the United States, is a key suspect in the torture-murder of an American drug agent, government officials said Thursday.Drug Enforcement Administration officials said Thursday Matta faces criminal drug charges in Los Angeles, Phoenix and New York. Authorities now are weighing which of the three pending indictments will take precedence and determine where Matta would be moved for a probable court hearing. Officials said they expect a decision to be made by early next week.
Matta is also wanted in three cities on federal drug charges and for escaping from a federal prison in Florida in 1971. The DEA said he is a suspect in the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena, but no formal charges have been filed.
Matta, 42, was arrested Tuesday morning in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where officials placed him on a flight to the Dominican Republic, where he was turned over to U.S. marshals and taken to New York on a commercial flight that arrived shortly after midnight. U.S. marshals then arrested him and spirited him to the federal prison in Marion, Ill.
Matta, also wanted for his escape from the low-security prison in Florida, was placed temporarily in Marion's administrative detention unit the most secure federal prison in the country.
Marshals spokesman Steve Boyle said that "Matta emerged as the major cocaine trafficker to the United States" and that he far surpassed cocaine kingpin Carlos Lehder in the volume and value of the cocaine he trafficked.
"If he isn't the No. 1, I don't know who is," Boyle said.
Matta was indicted in Los Angeles in 1985 along with James Victoria-Cano and Jairo Delgado-Gutierrez, in connection with a San Fernando Valley cocaine ring that distributed at least 650 pounds of cocaine in 1981, said James Walsh of the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office. All three had been fugitives since the indictment was returned.
DEA spokesman Robert Feldkamp said Tuesday night Matta was wanted in connection with the kidnapping, torture and murder in Mexico three years ago of Camarena.
"There is no question in our mind that he if he wasn't there, he was certainly associated with the case," a Justice Department official said.
Camarena and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala, were abducted, tortured and killed in February 1985 outside Guadalajara, Mexico. Camarena had been investigating a narcotics ring run by reputed Mexican drug lords Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, who are both in Mexican prisons in connection with Camarena's killing.
Officials said a Tegucigalpa judge ordered the arrest of Matta, a Honduran citizen allegedly protected by his country's military. Honduran police then arrested him and forced him on a plane bound for the Dominican Republic.
Matta's family contends Honduran police entered Matta's home and planted the cocaine they used to accuse him.
The expulsion from the Dominican Republic was based on a federal warrant for Matta's 1971 escape from the Eglin Federal Prison Camp in Florida, where he was serving five years for illegally entering the United States and using a fraudulent visa, the Marshals Service said.
NBC News said Matta is believed worth about $2 billion. He reportedly moved to Honduras after paying $2 million in bribes to get out of a Colombian prison in 1986.