Valle is an important transit point for cocaine being shipped from South America to Honduras, bound for other Central American countries and the United States.

The department’s two ports in the Gulf of Fonseca represent the only maritime entry points for cocaine on the Honduran Pacific Coast. On land, the road connecting Nicaragua, Valle and El Salvador is a well-known route for smuggling drugs, contraband, illegal arms, and migrants.

Criminal gangs in Valle engage in extortion, micro-trafficking and theft. Since at least 2017, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has had a presence in the department. There are also indications that Barrio 18 operates in the department.

Criminal Actors

MS13: Since at least 2017, an MS13 cell has maintained a permanent presence in certain sectors of Nacaome, San Lorenzo, Alianza, and Amapala, where the group commits robberies, extortion, murder-for-hire, and drug peddling. The gang may also be hired as muscle by trafficking groups. The MS13 first entered Valle when its members were seeking refuge from El Salvador authorities. Now, the gang has many Honduran members and continues to recruit. MS13’s violence has led to forced displacement in the department.

Barrio 18: Barrio 18 is mainly present in Nacaome and San Lorenzo, where the gang extorts local merchants. However, there is not enough evidence to determine whether the gang has a fully established cell in Valle.

Pinto Clan: Orlando Pinto Olivo used to be the main drug trafficker in the Valle and Choluteca region. He worked with other drug trafficking groups, such as the Valle Clan and the AA Cartel, and he laundered money using various legal businesses throughout the country. Due to state pressure, Pinto fled to Guatemala, where he was later arrested in 2018. Remnants of his criminal network still actively traffic drugs in Valle.

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: Given the importance of the cocaine trafficking economy, it is likely that arms are widely available in Valle. However, the department was among those with the fewest arms seizures in 2019. It is likely that criminal groups obtain firearms legally, given Honduras’ weak gun regulations.

Cocaine: The Gulf of Fonseca, which links Honduras to El Salvador and Nicaragua, is the only entry point for cocaine smuggled into the country on the Pacific Coast. Remnants of the Pinto Clan are purportedly active in this area. A steady resurgence of Honduran drug trafficking routes has likely impacted the Gulf of Fonseca, albeit to a lesser extent than the traditionally more important drug routes in the North. Cocaine shipments sent from South America enter Valle by sea, through the ports of Amapala and El Henecán. Planes drop cocaine shipments into the sea, where they are later picked up by trawlers or private speed boats. On land, cocaine moves through Valle along the highways that connect the department to El Salvador and Nicaragua, via the department of Choluteca. Drug shipments are transported in private vehicles or are hidden among contraband, such as dairy and cattle. Cocaine shipments arriving in Valle are then transported along two drug routes: one that travels across El Salvador and another that passes through the departments of Intibucá, Lempira and Copán, bound for Guatemala. Street gangs also sell cocaine locally.

Cannabis: Cannabis trafficking is a small economy in Valle. The MS13 appears to be the main retailer and consumer in the department. The gang maintains a presence in four of Valle’s municipalities, including its capital Nacaome. Other gangs, including Barrio 18, also distribute and consume marijuana.

Human Trafficking: Human trafficking rings recruit and exploit victims in Valle, making it a small-sized economy. The most common cases of human trafficking in Valle involve women who travel to Mexico or Guatemala under the promise of employment, but end up being sexually exploited. The MS13 also commits acts of sexual violence, although no evidence was found that the gang manages human trafficking networks.

Human Smuggling: Valle is a transit point for irregular migrants bound for the United States – either Hondurans or foreign nationals who enter the country in the department of Choluteca, bordering Nicaragua. There is a constant flow of migrants passing through Valle. In 2019, some 2,000 migrants were returned to Valle from Mexico and the United States. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions. However, comparatively, human smuggling is not as substantive as in other departments of the country, such as those bordering Guatemala.

Extortion: Shop-owners and traders are hardly hit by extortion in Valle. The MS13 and Barrio 18 do not only coerce locals into paying extortion fees, but they also force victims to participate in extortion rackets. The threat of extortion has led to forced displacement in the department. Locals rarely denounce extortion, even though authorities say they have made efforts to encourage reporting. In 2017, only six extortion cases were reported.

Sources: This profile is based on three field trips to Tegucigalpa, where InSight Crime interviewed representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, representatives of the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), military officers, national police officers, human rights activists, and journalists. Due to security constraints, InSight Crime was not able to visit Valle, but conducted phone interviews with judicial authorities, human rights activists, and local investigative journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. 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.

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