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Ocotepeque, Honduras

COCAINE / 16 FEB 2021 BY INSIGHT CRIME EN

Corruptible customs officials and porous borders facilitate the smuggling of migrants and drugs from Ocotepeque into Guatemala, along with flows of arms and contraband to and from adjacent departments in both Guatemala and El Salvador.

Ocotepeque was once a major drug transshipment point for the so-called AA Brother’s Cartel and the Valle Clan, which worked with the Sinaloa Cartel to transport cocaine over the department’s border with Guatemala. These cartels have largely been dismantled, but the groups’ remnants continue to operate in Ocotepeque, although they are greatly diminished in importance in the distribution chain.

Criminal Actors

The Valle Clan: The Valle Clan, one of Honduras’ most infamous drug families, once had a permanent presence in Ocotepeque, despite their operational base being in the nearby department of Copán. This is because Ocotepeque, located on the Honduras-Guatemala border, is part of the cocaine-smuggling route connecting the two countries. The main leaders of the Valle Clan have been captured and extradited, but remnants of the group continue to use the drug routes.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS13): MS13 members from the departments of Chalatenango and Santa Ana in El Salvador often cross into Ocotepeque to evade authorities. In the past, they have tried to extort the local population but have been unsuccessful.

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: Firearms are smuggled into the department from El Salvador, via the El Poy customs checkpoint, or purchased from local armories without the necessary permits. The acquired firearms are used locally; there is no indication that these weapons are trafficked to other countries, making this a small-scale criminal economy.

Cocaine: Ocotepeque lies on the drug-smuggling routes connecting Honduras to Guatemala, and is therefore an important transit point. These routes were once controlled by major cartels, such as the Valle Clan and the AA Brothers. Though these groups have largely been dismantled, the smuggling routes passing through the department are still active. Authorities allegedly collaborate occasionally with drug trafficking organizations, and cocaine seizures are rare.

Cannabis: Various cannabis plantations have been found in Ocotepeque. The department shares a border with Chalatenango, in El Salvador, where the MS13 has a substantial presence and cannabis is produced. It is likely that cannabis is moved across the border, but so far, we estimate that this criminal economy is not as lucrative as in other Honduran departments, such as Cortés, where gangs have a permanent presence.

Human Trafficking: Ocotepeque, on the border with Guatemala and El Salvador, is part of Honduras’ most important human smuggling route. Agua Caliente border cross point is one of three main routes between Honduras and Guatemala for human trafficking. Given the vulnerability of undocumented migrants to criminal groups, it is likely that both sex and labor trafficking networks are present in the department.

Human Smuggling: Ocotepeque is the most important center for human smuggling in Honduras, as it is the main transit point for US-bound Honduran migrants that come from the northern and central parts of the country. Migrants exit Ocotepeque via the Agua Caliente and El Poy checkpoints on the department’s borders with Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as through unofficial border crossings. In 2019, approximately 2,500 migrants returned to Ocotepeque after being deported from the United States or Mexico, only a percentage of those who made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $8,000), this appears to be a very lucrative economy reaching into the tens of millions.

Contraband: Ocotepeque is an important transit point for contraband smuggled between Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Local authorities do not know the exact number of unofficial border crossings in the area, but Ocotepeque’s community police force estimates that there are 17 so-called "blind spots" on the borders with El Salvador and Guatemala, used to smuggled various products between the countries. The absence of adequate border patrols and high levels of corruption facilitate contraband flows. The bulk of contraband flows appear to pass through the Agua Caliente border checkpoint, or blind spots, on the Honduras-Guatemala border.

Extortion: Compared to the national average, there were minimal reported extortion cases in Ocotepeque between 2008 and 2016. In fact, Ocotepeque is among the departments with the lowest incidences of extortion. Individuals known as “brokers” offer services to migrants who do not have the necessary documents to legally cross the border. Brokers are purportedly extorted by police authorities in the department, who charge a fee of 200 lempiras ($8) a day to let them recruit and assist undocumented migrants.

Sources: This profile is based on one field trip to Ocotepeque and three field trips to Tegucigalpa, during which InSight Crime interviewed representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, representatives of the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), military officers, national and local police officers, authorities working in Ocotepeque’s town hall, transparency officials, the human rights ombudsman, and local journalists, most of hum requested anonymity. Our investigative team also visited the Agua Caliente customs checkpoint – on the border with Guatemala– and the areas directly bordering El Salvador. Additionally, InSight Crime drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Honduran National Police, the Honduran Attorney General’s Office, the Honduran National Institute for Statistics, and the local press.

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