The recent arrest of a member of an alleged Honduran drug trafficking family in Florida is another subtle sign that there is a changing of the guard happening in Honduras.
Digna Valle Valle was arrested July 20, and is being held in a Ft. Lauderdale jail, US Federal authorities told InSight Crime.
Valle's lawyers in the United States did not respond to an inquiry about the circumstances of her arrest, but a December 2013 indictment that was unsealed just following her capture says Valle and her brothers Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alfonso Valle Valle, along with another man identified as Gerson Stanley Ortega Valle, illegally conspired to traffic cocaine from or through Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico to the United States between 2009 and November 2013.
SEE ALSO: Valle Family Profile
The arrest has not been reported in the Honduras press, although the Valle family is identified by local and foreign investigators as one of the largest drug transport organizations in the country. US authorities did not comment on the arrest or the pending case against Digna Valle, which is set to go to court on September 8.
But investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Valle is a major part of the organization, coordinating cocaine shipments north and money transfers south.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Valle family is thought to do a lot of cocaine trafficking, so if the family's other operators are pushed out of the game, the shifts could make for a more chaotic underworld in Honduras.
Estimates vary, but the group is believed to transport between 5 and 20 tons a month through Honduras. Assuming they charge at least $1,500 per kilo moved through their territory, the shipments would net the organization up to $360 million per year, a vast war chest that makes them one of the most formidable organizations in Central America.
The Valle family has grown in stature since the US Treasury set their sights on Honduras' other major transport family, the Rivera Maradiaga family, last year. Known as the Cachiros, the Rivera Maradiaga family operates from the northeastern coastline of the country, while the Valle family operates from Copan on the western edge along the border with Guatemala. Both families are thought to work mostly for Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, although they may supply other large criminal groups as well and Cachiros have been linked to Colombia's Rastrojos.
In September 2013, Honduras authorities seized numerous properties, businesses and bank accounts allegedly belonging to the Cachiros. But there are no known charges against anyone in the Rivera Maradiaga family in Honduras or the United States.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
The same cannot be said for the Valle family, however, which has a US indictment hanging over them. And the capture of Digna could signal that the noose is tightening on one of the region's foremost transporter groups.
The arrest of Digna also came just days before the seizure of at least a dozen properties belonging to the Matta Ballesteros family. The family patron, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, was a legendary drug trafficker from Honduras whose organization became a bridge between Colombian and Mexican traffickers.
Before US Marshals seized and extracted him from Honduras in 1988, then formally arrested him for aiding in the 1985-murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in Mexico, he had set up numerous businesses in Honduras and had bought large tracks of land, particularly in the Olancho province in Honduras.
It appears that some of these properties were the ones seized. However, Matta Ballesteros' son, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros Waldurraga, responded to the seizures by questioning the “morality” of the government and claiming some of the properties were inherited from his grandparents and some were obtained in 2009 and 2010, long after what he called the "kidnapping" of his father by US authorities.
“If they want to rob me, go ahead and rob me,” he was quoted in La Tribuna as saying.
There have been persistent rumors about the Matta Ballesteros family's continued involvement in drug trafficking, although this is the first known action the Honduran government has taken against the family or its properties.
There are still no known charges against any member of any of these prominent underworld families in Honduras. But given the recent actions against the Valle family, there is every reason to believe members of the Matta Ballesteros and the Rivera Maradiaga families could face indictments in the US very soon.
The actions against Valle and Matta Ballesteros families could also mean the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez is turning a page in its fight against large transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). The TCOs are thought to be behind much of the violence that makes Honduras one of the most homicidal countries in the world. Hernandez has already distinguished himself by extraditing the first alleged Honduran criminal in a century. And last month, authorities arrested and charged a mayor with running his own criminal operation.
However, the Hernandez administration needs to be mindful that removing these large players may upset the underworld, causing at least a short-term spike in violence as it has in places like Mexico. In fact, this appears to be happening already in San Pedro Sula where a battle amongst criminal organizations has left dozens dead in recent months, many of them Mexican.
If the Honduras government continues its foray into the uncharted territory of seizing properties of alleged traffickers while the US prepares indictments against them, expect chaos in hotspots like San Pedro Sula to continue and perhaps worsen.
The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.