Intibucá is not a major organized crime hub, though there is a notable gang presence along the department’s porous southern border with El Salvador and some signs of drug trafficking.
The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is the department’s most notable criminal actor, having gained a foothold in south Intibucá after gang members fleeing El Salvador set up a cell and began terrorizing locals with extortion threats and gruesome murders. The MS13 also traffics small quantities of marijuana and cocaine into neighboring El Salvador.
The department also serves as a minor route for cocaine shipments heading for the Guatemalan border, albeit a far less frequented one than Honduras’ main drug trafficking corridors in the north.
MS13: Between 2015 and 2016, MS13 members from El Salvador began crossing into Intibucá via the department’s porous southern border, initially to seek refuge from Salvadoran authorities. Since then, the migrant gang members have gained recruits and started to extract extortion fees from residents in Intibucá’s south, also committing brutal homicides and massacres to instill fear into the local population. Authorities refer to the cell as “Los Colochos.” Their presence has led to an uptick in homicides, extortion, and forced displacement in municipalities bordering El Salvador, such as Colomoncagua, San Antonio, Santa Lucía, and Magdalena.
Increased MS13 gang migration from El Salvador has also led to a spike in marijuana and cocaine consumption, and the group has brought in illicit firearms from El Salvador. The cell allegedly uses cars and buses to traffic small quantities of marijuana and cocaine into the Salvadoran departments of Morazán and San Miguel. There is a military checkpoint, located in the municipality of Camasca, manned by a special task force (Fuerza Lenca-Sumpul) sent to curb the MS13’s criminal incursions along Intibucá’s southern border.
Arms Trafficking: Intibucá houses a small arms trafficking economy. The hotspot for illicit arms possession is along Intibucá’s border with El Salvador. Over the last four to five years, MS13 members have smuggled weapons into the department to murder and intimidate locals into paying extortion fees demanded by the gang. In 2019, Intibucá police seized 234 firearms, most of which were small arms, such as 9mm pistols and revolvers.
Cocaine: The MS13 distributes cocaine on a small-scale, mostly in municipalities bordering El Salvador. The gang also uses cars and buses to transport small quantities of cocaine into the neighboring country. Additionally, the Jesús de Otoro municipality houses emissaries of drug trafficking organizations based in northern Honduras, who are purportedly trying to expand cocaine trafficking routes in the southern part of the country. The city of La Esperanza connects southern Honduras with the center and west of the country and is, therefore, a minor transit point for drugs. In 2019, Intibucá police seized just twelve doses of cocaine.
Cannabis: Minor cannabis seizures and the presence of an important MS13 cell in southern Intibucá are signs of a modest cannabis trafficking economy in the department. Consumption increased with the arrival of the MS13 in 2015 and 2016. The gang also traffics small quantities of the drug into neighboring El Salvador.
Environmental Crime: There is no evidence of wildlife trafficking in Intibucá, but some illegal timber extraction at a small-scale does occur in the department. In 2019, authorities seized modest quantities of pine and oak. On Intibucá’s southern border with El Salvador, there are various unmonitored crossing points used to smuggle various illicit goods –including timber– between the two countries.
Human Trafficking: Honduran women and girls are recruited in Intibucá and taken to other parts of Honduras for sexual exploitation. Victims are also exploited within the department, and the city of La Esperanza is a crossroads for a moderate human trafficking criminal economy. Despite this, there were no reported cases of human trafficking in 2019.
Human Smuggling: La Esperanza connects southern Honduras with the center and west of the country and is therefore an important transit point for migrant smuggling. In 2019, approximately 2,600 Honduran migrants were returned to Intibucá after being deported from the United States or Mexico, a percentage of those who made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $7,000), this appears to be a lucrative economy, reaching into the tens of millions.
Extortion: Intibucá has some of the lowest incidences of extortion in the country. Nevertheless, the increased presence of the MS13 in municipalities bordering El Salvador – particularly Colomoncagua, Magdalena and San Antonio – has led to an uptick in extortion, forcing many residents to abandon their homes and migrate to other parts of Honduras or abroad.
Sources: This profile is based on one field trip to La Esperanza (Intibucá) and three field trips to Tegucigalpa, during which InSight Crime spoke to national and local representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, national and local police officers –including those posted at Intibucá’s southern border– military officers, authorities from La Esperanza’s town hall, the human rights ombudsman, and local human rights activists, most of whom requested anonymity. Our investigative team also visited the town of Camasca, on the border with El Salvador, where the MS13 had increased its presence. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Honduran National Police, the Honduran National Institute for Statistics, and the local press.