Authors: Ioan Grillo
“It is so inhuman keeping my father there in isolation for so many years. Human beings just need contact with other humans. He is an old man now and doesn’t pose any threat to anybody. But they still keep him in that hole in the desert, suffering.”
Building on the interview with Ramón, I scoured dusty court documents, confidential reports, and aging newspapers. The gangster’s name crops up in an incredible array of places. He is most commonly referred to as a member of Mexico’s Guadalajara Cartel. But he is also considered to have been tight with top bosses in Colombia’s Medellín Cartel and is sometimes referred to as a member of that crime syndicate. In his homeland, Matta is reported to have become the biggest private employer in the entire country. His name even springs up in a scandal over the CIA’s working with drug traffickers to finance the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Damn, he was busy.
As with all drug lords, many details of Matta’s life are hazy and contradictory. Starting with his name. While he is most commonly referred to as Matta Ballesteros, he is imprisoned in Supermax under the name Matta Lopez. He also surfaces on occasions as Matta del Pozo and Jose Campo. All reports feature the same black-and-white photo of him, taken in the late 1980s. He is shown sitting at a desk lifting his right hand in a powerful gesture. He has thick, curly hair above rough, strong features—a powerful forehead, deep-set eyes, and a broad nose.
Matta was born in 1945 in a poor neighborhood of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, a chaotically built city that sprawls over mountains between jungles and banana plantations. He didn’t fancy working for a dollar a day picking bananas. So at sixteen he did what many young Hondurans do and took the long trek north to search for the American Dream. Working as a supermarket clerk in New York City, he mixed in a cosmopolitan Latin ghetto with Cubans, Mexicans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, and many others attracted to the lights of the Big Apple. He married a Colombian woman, and when he was deported from the United States, he curiously claimed to be Colombian himself and was flown back to the Andean nation just as its cocaine industry was developing.
Since the 1914 Harrison Act banned cocaine in the United States, a variety of smugglers have brought blow to the noses of consumers who sniffed hard enough. These early cocaine traffickers came from a range of countries, including Peru—in the heartland of the coca-leaf country—Cuba, and Chile.
Just as Matta arrived, Colombians were building their own cocaine labs, particularly around the Medellín area.
Matta was soon sneaking back into the United States, where he got nabbed by police for a passport violation and locked up in a federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base. But the prison “camp” wasn’t a great barrier to the young crook, and he escaped in 1971 to work with Colombians building up the budding U.S. cocaine market. One of Matta’s early clients, the DEA say, was Cuban American Alberto Sicilia Falcon—the bisexual gangster in Tijuana. Matta supplied Falcon with Colombian cocaine, they allege, which he unloaded in California. The curly-haired Honduran realized it made better sense to stay in Central or South America and let others risk their liberty at U.S. ports.
Once the cocaine was in the United States, it was U.S. citizens who got it out to the biggest number of consumers. Neither Colombians nor Mexicans had any real reach into white suburban America. Among Americans who got rich off the blow explosion were Boston George Jung, Max Mermelstein, Jon Roberts, and Mickey Munday.
Cocaine was an easy sell. Unlike heroin or LSD, it didn’t send people into an inward trance but sparked partying, prolonged sex, and didn’t curse the user with a stinking hangover. In fact, it didn’t do anything more than give a simple energy high for a couple of hours before the snorter would need another line. That is the great trick about cocaine: it really is nothing special. But the disco drug gained an image as being clean, glamorous, sexy, and fashionable. And it took America by storm. As Boston George remembers:
“I thought cocaine was a fantastic drug. A wonder drug, like everybody else. It gave you an energy burst. You could stay awake for days on end, and it was just marvelous and I didn’t think it was evil at all. I put it almost in the same category as marijuana, only a hell of a lot better. It was a tremendous energy boost.
“It became an accepted product, just like marijuana. I mean Madison Avenue promoted cocaine. The movie industry. The record industry. I mean, if you were well-to-do and you were a jet-setter, it was okay to snort cocaine. I mean Studio 54 in New York, everybody was snorting cocaine, everybody was laughing and having a good time and snorting cocaine.”
Lines of white powder on mirrors were a staple of seventies America like
Saturday Night Fever
discos and blockbuster movies. Cinema audiences exploded with laughter when Woody Allen sneezed on a pile of coke in the 1977 flick
The front line of the Pittsburgh Steelers partied all night with cocaine dealer Jon Roberts, then went out two days later to win the 1979 Super Bowl. In 1981,
magazine ran a front cover calling cocaine THE ALL AMERICAN DRUG.
All the hype about cocaine helped dealers sell it for an insanely high price. That is the simple beauty of
—it is bloody expensive. From the seventies right through to the twenty-first century, the drug has retailed from $50 up to more than $150 for a single gram. Dealers make a much bigger markup on cocaine than on other mind-bending substances—and in turn traffickers make mind-boggling profits. The white lady churned out way more money than heroin and marijuana had ever come close to touching, billions upon billions of dollars.
Matta helped channel this money back to gangsters in Medellín, who fast became the richest criminals on the planet. No one ever knows how much drug kingpins really make, probably not even the gangsters themselves. But the Medellín traffickers were likely the first drug-smuggling billionaires.
magazine later estimated the personal fortune of the number one Medellín smuggler, Pablo Escobar, to be $9 billion, making him the richest criminal of all time. The number two is estimated to be his colleague Carlos Lehder, at $2.7 billion. Who knows how the hell
found data for those numbers. But they were certainly on the right track: the cocaine cowboys were stinking rich.
By the early eighties, Medellín mobsters had become visible and powerful figures. Escobar built an entire housing project for the homeless and was elected to Colombia’s parliament in 1982, serving a short stint before being pushed out because of his trafficking. Around this time, the gangsters began to be called the Medellín Cartel, the first time the word
was used to describe drug smugglers. The term implied that traffickers had become an omnipotent political bloc. It was a frightening concept. But was it true?
has won scorn from some academics, who argue it misleads people by giving an inaccurate description of traffickers engaged in price-fixing. But despite their moans, the word has firmly stuck for three decades, used by American agents, journalists, and, importantly, many traffickers themselves. Consequently, the cartel concept has had an immense influence on how the drug trade in Latin America is perceived, both by people inside it and out.
It is unclear who first coined the phrase. But it was certainly influenced by use of the term
to describe the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, which was ever present in the media in the 1970s. OPEC represented the interests of exploited third-world countries who banded together to set oil prices and wield power over wealthy nations. In a similar vein, the Medellín Cartel cast an image of men from struggling Latin America who threatened the rich North. Escobar himself cultivated this idea, dressing up as revolutionary Pancho Villa
and calling cocaine an atomic bomb that he dropped on the United States.
For the DEA, the concept of cartels was highly useful to prosecute gangsters. Many early cases against Latin American smugglers were built using the so-called RICO laws, from the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which had been designed to combat the Italian-American mafia. Under RICO, you need to prove suspects are part of an ongoing criminal organization. It is far easier to give that organization a name, especially one that sounds as threatening as the Medellín Cartel, than to say it is just a loose network of smugglers.
Later, prosecutors attacked traffickers with the law against conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Again, it makes it easier if these conspiracies have names, and indictments against Mexican traffickers usually quote cartel titles. For example, court documents used to send Matta to the Supermax say, “The evidence showed that Matta-Ballesteros was a member of the Guadalajara cartel and that he participated in some of the meetings with other members of the cartel …”
One man with explicit knowledge of the Medellín gangsters was their attorney Gustavo Salazar. Perhaps the most famous narco-lawyer of all time, Salazar has represented twenty major capos, including Pablo Escobar himself, and some fifty of their lieutenants. He has survived to tell the tale. He goes on today working with the latest generation of Colombian cocaine smugglers.
On a visit to Colombia, I called Salazar’s office and left a message with his secretary saying I wanted to talk about drug cartels. Two days later, I got a surprise call from Salazar saying he would meet me in a Medellín café. When I asked how I would recognize him, he replied, “I look like Elton John.” Sure enough, I arrived and found he was a dead ringer for the English pop icon. After some Colombian crepes, Salazar said the cartel concept was a fiction made up by American agents:
“Cartels don’t exist. What you have is a collection of drug traffickers. Sometimes, they work together, and sometimes they don’t. American prosecutors just call them cartels to make it easier to make their cases. It is all part of the game.”
The media was also quick to jump on the cartel label. It is easier to give a group a name than some long-winded description. Hacks were also fond of the alliteration, Colombian cocaine cartels. It all made for lively copy.
Three decades later, the idea of cartels has taken on a definitive meaning on the bloody streets of Mexico. Corpses are found daily next to calling cards of organizations such as the Gulf Cartel—scrawled CDG in shorthand. These networks of killers and traffickers are far bigger than mere street gangs. And they certainly do try to limit competition, as in the dictionary definition of
They are also federations of gangsters rather than monolithic organizations. Perhaps modern dictionaries need to define
as a separate entry, to better reflect the way the word has come to be used.
In the early eighties, the Medellín cartel smuggled most of its cocaine straight over the Florida coast. It was a nine-hundred-mile run from the north coast of Colombia and was simply wide-open. The Colombians and their American counterparts would airdrop loads of blow out to sea, from where it would be rushed ashore in speedboats, or even fly it right onto the Florida mainland and let it crash down in the countryside.
Traffickers of the era smile over happy-go-lucky stories of those carefree days. In the documentary film
smuggler Mickey Munday—a Florida redneck with an out-of-shape quiff—remembers driving in a speedboat loaded with 350 kilos of cocaine and giving a tow to a customs boat whose engine had blown out. On another occasion, an airdrop of cocaine crashed through the roof of a Florida church just as the preacher was giving an antidrug sermon. It was better than fiction.
The cocaine trade also rained dollars onto the Florida economy. No one will ever know quite how much of the white-stained money built Miami’s skyline. But the financial storm left some obvious traces. In 1980, the Miami branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta was the only branch bank in the U.S. reserve system to show a cash surplus—a whopping $4.75 billion!
Authorities weren’t too worried about these greenbacks. But they got uppity when the bullets flew.
Over the first five years of the cocaine boom, the homicide rate for Miami-Dade County almost tripled from just over two hundred in 1976 to over six hundred at its peak in 1981.
Violence wasn’t just about blow. The influx of 120,000 Cuban immigrants, many from the island’s jails, also sparked crime. Furthermore, the gangster killings had little to do with the Medellín bosses and more to do with local beefs of Colombian distributors, such as a psychotic female dealer called Griselda Blanco. The stocky Colombian had been a child prostitute and then teenage kidnapper in Medellín before moving to the United States to sell yayo. She snuffed anyone who pissed her off in any way, including three of her own husbands, earning her the nickname the Black Widow. It was certainly quicker than divorcing through the courts. But back in Medellín, the bosses cursed her for bringing heat on their billion-dollar operation.
This heat rose all the way up to the White House of Ronald Reagan. Old Ronnie took the helm after his predecessor Jimmy Carter had taken a less confrontational policy to narcotics, focusing on treatment rather than war. Reagan’s first move was to blame Carter for the cocaine explosion. The charges stuck, with drug warriors holding up Carter and the liberal 1970s as bugbears for decades to come. These bad years of permissive America were over, roared a triumphant Reagan. It was time to get tough on evil drug pushers. And Miami was ground zero.
In January 1982, Reagan created the South Florida Task Force to go toe-to-toe with the cocaine barons. Headed by Vice President George Bush, the task force brought in the FBI, army, and navy to the fight for the first time. This was a real war, Reagan said, so let’s fight it with real soldiers. Suddenly, surveillance planes and helicopter gunships swarmed on Florida while FBI agents hit dirty banks. The state was so wide-open it didn’t take long to haul in results. Within eight months, cocaine seizures were up 56 percent. Reagan and Bush sung their success and smiled for photo ops with confiscated tons of snow.