By Gustavo Villela, edited by Bridie McGrail-
On February 15, 2022, the people of Honduras were shocked by images on TV and social media of an expansive police presence outside the house of former president Juan Orlando Hernandez (incumbent 2014- 2021), who was under arrest at the request of the US Government. It had long been known that as President, Hernandez had been an ally to drug cartels, ever since his brother was arrested in the US for trafficking cocaine. Under his mandate, Honduras descended into a virtual narco-state. But, how did we get here? How is it that an entire state managed to be so thoroughly captured by the interests of criminal cartels? The story begins with a single man, a drug kingpin who laid the groundwork: Juan Ramon Matta-Ballesteros.
Rise to notoriety: Ballesteros in the 1970s
Juan Ramon Matta-Ballesteros had grown up in poverty in Honduras, initially making a living as a pickpocket and later becoming part of the criminal underworld. He started off his career as a smuggler of precious jewels before getting involved in narcotics. Throughout the 1970s, Ballesteros worked in low-level positions in the drug trade: shipping cocaine, personally smuggling it to the US, and even serving as a hitman in Colombia.
Throughout the decade, he gained valuable experience and forged connections with cartels in both Colombia and Mexico, as well as powerful members of the Honduran security apparatus. With these connections in hand, by the latter half of the 1970s, he had begun transporting cocaine from Colombia to Mexico through Honduras.
In 1979, Ballesteros provided funds for a coup that brought his ally, General Policarpo Paz Garcia to power. He also became a close associate of the head of Honduran Military Intelligence. With such powerful allies in Honduras, Ballesteros had his criminal record purged and even hired Israeli-trained Honduran special forces to serve as his bodyguards; by 1980, Ballesteros had become untouchable in the country. He was well-positioned to expand his operation dramatically.
Connections with the United States
In the United States, the 1980s brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency. His zeal in fighting communism and the drug trade introduced new opportunities for Ballesteros, which he took great advantage of. While in the 1970s the major cocaine route from Colombia to the US was through the Caribbean into Miami, by the 1980s a major crackdown had closed the route for good. Thankfully for Ballesteros, he had been working arduously to transport cocaine through Honduras and then Mexico. With the closure of the Caribbean by American law enforcement, Ballesteros’ route became dominant. Ballesteros’ airline, SETCO, would transport cocaine shipments directly to the US from Honduras in some cases.
The second axis of Reagan’s presidency, anticommunism, made Central America a hot spot of the Cold War. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the government battled communist insurgencies well into the 1990s while in Nicaragua, the communist Sandinista front had succeeded in overthrowing the government in 1979. Reagan had committed to supporting the anti-communist faction in Nicaragua known as the Contras. From bases in Honduras and with the help of the CIA, the Contras attempted to topple Nicaragua’s new revolutionary government.
The politics of the Cold War offered new economic opportunities to Ballesteros as well as a chance to buy political protection from the US. Using SETCO, Ballesteros made himself indispensable to the CIA by helping the Contras. Ballesteros not only donated money to the Contras but on top of this, SETCO’s fleet of planes became the primary suppliers of the Contras: transporting ammunition, fuel, food, and uniforms. The importance of Honduras in conducting the war in Nicaragua earned CIA protection to those involved in narcotrafficking. When a United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office in Honduras began recording the role of the military in cocaine trafficking, the CIA had the office closed. By this time, Ballesteros had become so fabulously rich that Honduras was unable to accommodate his wealth and he purchased lucrative properties in Spain and Colombia. But, in 1985 his house of cards began to crumble.
Fall from Grace
In February 1985, the leadership of the Mexican Guadalajara cartel ordered the kidnapping of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar. He was subsequently tortured and murdered, with his body being found a month later. Police surveillance showed Ballesteros checking out of a hotel in Guadalajara days after the kidnapping and forensic evidence allegedly showed his hair was present in the house where Camarena had been tortured. Such an act was a step too far, and the US led a manhunt for all those responsible, including Ballesteros.
He first fled to Madrid and then Colombia where he was located and arrested. From prison, he ordered the assassination of the warden and the dispensation of $2 million in bribes, and soon escaped, making his way to Honduras. Once there, with his connections in the military and his wealth, Ballesteros lived without fear of arrest, much less extradition to the US. Surrounded by his ex-special forces bodyguard, he spent his days living in luxury and giving money away to the poor to earn goodwill.
Unfortunately for Ballesteros, by 1988, his luck had truly run out. The US applied pressure on the military establishment that ruled the country to arrest Ballesteros. Although the claim has been denied by both American and Honduran officials, the American ambassador allegedly threatened to publish a list of all military officers involved in the drug trade to put extra pressure on them to arrest Ballesteros. Their link with the infamous drug trafficker was beginning to threaten the entire institution.
Thus, in April 1988, as he returned from a morning jog, Ballesteros was kidnapped by Honduran special forces and US marshals, taken to an air base and flown to the Dominican Republic. As soon as he entered Dominican air space, he was given over to the American marshals under the pretext that he did not have a passport. Ballesteros has been serving a life sentence in the United States ever since. Unlike the arrest of Juan Orlando Hernandez, which was celebrated throughout Honduras, Ballesteros’ led to riots and even the burning of the American embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital.
Honduras today: Ballesteros’ legacy lives on
Nearly 40 years after Ballesteros began his career, drug trafficking is again the most pressing issue in Honduran politics. In New York, trials of extradited Honduran drug traffickers revealed that mayors, politicians, businessmen, army generals, and police officers were involved in the drug trade. By 2017, nearly 80% of cocaine destined for the US was going through Honduras and as of 2020, 60% of homicides in the country could be attributed to organized crime.
The links and contacts forged by Ballesteros in the 1970s and 1980s continue to matter forty years later. Ballesteros and his network made Honduras a nexus of the drug trade, a state whose most powerful leaders have been thoroughly captured by the interests of the cartels. Even with Hernandez gone, Honduras’ role in the drug trade endures.
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