In Copán – a major transit point for cocaine – drug trafficking groups collaborate with local authorities to smuggle narcotics over the department’s porous western border with Guatemala. Despite a major crackdown on Honduras’ drug kingpins, remnants of the groups which once dominated cocaine transshipment in much of Honduras, may still be active. Human trafficking networks are also present in the department, luring women and girls with the promise of employment before taking them to Guatemala and Belize to be sexually exploited in bars, restaurants and nightclubs.  

The border between Copán and Guatemala is also used to smuggle contraband between the two countries, including livestock, food, coffee and clothes.  

Criminal Actors

The Valle Clan: Copán is a key exit point for cocaine being smuggled along an international drug trafficking route, which begins in the Honduran Atlantic and stretches to Copán’s border with Guatemala. The Valle Clan once controlled drug trafficking operations in Cortés, Santa Bárbara and the north of Copán. Though Honduran and US authorities have now arrested all of the group’s main leaders and severely weakened their operations, remnants of the group may still be active in the narcotics trade. In September of 2019, for example, a half-ton of cocaine seized by authorities in the neighboring department of Santa Bárbara was attributed to the Valle family.

AA Cartel: Once led by the mayor of El Paraíso, Alexander “Chande” Ardón, the AA Cartel trafficked illegal drugs. Its headquarters was in the village of El Espíritu, in the Copán Ruinas municipality, just under an hour from the border with Guatemala. The mayor allegedly had access to at least one cocaine processing lab and a runway used to land drug planes. Ardón’s term ended, and he fled the country before turning himself in to US authorities.

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: The Valle clan has historically maintained an important presence in Copán and used illicit firearms for their criminal activities. Street gangs, usually important consumers of illegal weapons, do not have a significant presence in the department. In 2019, the police seized 236 firearms in Copán meaning there is a mid-sized arms trade in the department.

Cocaine: At least 120 tons of cocaine transited through Honduras in 2019. Around 80 percent of cocaine in Honduras enters Guatemala through Copán, meaning close to 100 tons of cocaine passes through the department annually. The cocaine economy in Copán is very significant. For two decades, Copán was the operational hub for two of the most important drug trafficking organizations in Honduras (the Valle clan and the AA Cartel). Remnants of these groups continue to operate. In 2019, Honduran police seized 9.8 metric tons of cocaine in the department.

Cannabis: There is a modest marijuana consumption market in Copán. In 2019, the Honduran police seized 201 cannabis plants, as well as 27.7 kilograms of marijuana.

Human Trafficking: Copán houses one of the main human smuggling routes in Honduras. Migrants that hire smugglers are vulnerable to human trafficking networks. Women and girls in Copán are lured to Guatemala and Belize with the promise of employment but often end up being sexually exploited. In 2018, Copán was ranked among the Honduran departments with the highest incidence of human trafficking. Like many human trafficking centers, Copán is a tourist hotspot.

Human Smuggling: In 2019, close to 6,000 migrants were returned to Copán 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 $8,000), this appears to be a lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. Copán houses one official customs checkpoint – El Florido – as well as an estimated 24 unofficial crossings.

Environmental Crime: Copán is home to two national parks (Celaque and Cerro Azul) and borders Guatemala. Small quantities of pine are extracted from the department and sold on the domestic market and exported to Guatemala.

Extortion: There are few reported extortion cases in Copán. Micro-trafficking groups may also be linked to small-time extortion. Groups of alleged gang members involved in extortion have been captured and other smaller schemes have been identified, like a bank advisor in Santa Rosa de Copán who posed as a gang member to intimidate clients and extort them.

Sources: This profile is based on one field trip to Copán 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, local authorities in charge of protecting children rights, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US State Department report on narcotics, the Honduran National Police, the Honduran National Institute for Statistics, the NGO Calidad de Vida that analyzes human trafficking in Honduras, and the local press.

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