EL ESPIRITU, Honduras — The tiny town of El Espiritu sits at the end of a long, red dirt road, nestled in the lush mountains of northwest Honduras. Home to Digna Asusena Valle, a 60-year-old drug trafficking matriarch, the town isn’t exactly a holiday destination; starting in the early ’90s, Digna ran El Espiritu with her clan like a fierce family fiefdom.
But by the time I visited, in March of this year, the old bosses were gone. Digna’s generation had been arrested and extradited to the U.S., ending nearly two decades of violent, repressive rule.
“Doña Digna,” as she was known, was arrested on a trip to Miami in 2014. She pleaded guilty to the drug charges against her, so there was never any trial in her case, and there was no witness testimony. If there had been, jurors might have been stunned at the details surrounding the role she played in her family’s criminal empire.
Digna’s family moved tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine a month across the nearby border with Guatemala, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, and they’d worked with criminal organizations across the region, including the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. The Valles were as famous locally as they were cruel: Digna’s brothers were known for abducting and gang-raping young local peasant girls, according to a former town local and press reports, returning them to their families days later after having been passed around the Valle men and their bodyguards. Then the families would be warned to keep their mouths shut, or else.
By the time I went to El Espiritu, Digna was a free woman in Houston, but she’d said no to several interview requests made via her immigration lawyer. The trip was my last hope of getting to know her, even if I had no hopes of meeting her.
An enormous, ostentatious house stood near the town’s entrance when we first drove in, in front of which lounged a Honduran soldier in a low-slung chair. Beyond him, inside, the house had been ransacked and liberated of its luxurious furnishings and appliances.
Darwin Andino Ramírez, the bishop of the Honduran department of Copán where El Espiritu sits, had brought me to the town in his truck. To this day, outsiders are allowed to visit El Espiritu only with permission from a handful of the 3,000 or so residents, and must be accompanied by a trusted local. We rolled to a stop in front of a modest, one-story cement house, painted blue. As we waited in the front room for our local connect, Norma, I looked at some of the framed certificates hanging on the walls. They bore the name of a woman, presumably a resident of the house we stood in, who had qualified as a lawyer. Another was a degree for a different individual. There were half a dozen of these hanging on the room’s faded blue walls, and nearly all of them bore the same surname: Valle.
The mansion that Digna Valle built, or was building, in El Espritu, Copan, before she was arrested in Miami in 2014. Following her detention, work on the house ceased. Photo by Deborah Bonello / VICE World News.
When Norma arrived, she ushered us up a sharp hill to her aunt’s house, right next door to Digna’s former, humble home. As we went inside, a woman walked out from the back of the house with her cellphone extended in her hand. “Do you want to talk to Doña Digna?” she asked me. Looking at the phone screen in front of my face, I could see a woman sitting on the edge of a bed in a house. And she was looking right back at me. It was Doña Digna Valle.
I froze. I had not, even in my wildest dreams, expected to speak to Digna face to face in El Espiritu. My mind suddenly began racing at a hundred miles an hour. I had described myself as a writer, not a journalist, to Norma and her mother. Would Digna figure out that I was the same “writer” she had denied an interview to at least twice? Would she be furious that I was sitting in the house next door to hers, in her home in the middle of nowhere that she missed so desperately? Did she still have a button that she could press to send the heavies over? It slowly dawned on me that the women I was surrounded by weren’t just her neighbors, but friends.
“Everybody’s there,” said Digna as the phone was moved around the house to the living room, showing every face sitting there, including that of my local-journalist colleague and my driver.
“Yes, they’re here asking for you, Doña Digna,” said the woman holding the phone.
I winced. We were being flagged. La Doña was being told she had visitors.
Digna looked tired and depleted, and no longer resembled the formidable force that local residents had described. “How are you?” Bishop Darwin asked Digna. “Good, thanks be to God,” she replied. COVID had delayed her immigration hearing, adding to her time in detention, she told us. I asked her if she was glad to be out.
“Yeah, but I don’t like going outside. They tell me here that I prefer being locked indoors,” she said with a laugh. Ours was a nervous laugh on the other end. Digna served just over half of an 11-year sentence, and then spent a couple of years more in immigration detention waiting to see if she would be deported home to Honduras—and almost-certain death. Ultimately, the U.S gave her the right to stay there, but if she leaves, she can’t go back.
“Are you just visiting?” Digna asked me and the bishop.
“Yeah, we’re having a look around the town,” I replied. “The town is lovely! Super pretty!”
“Ah yes, very. Did you like the church?” she asked.
“Loved it,” I said, just sorry we didn’t get to see inside. Norma would let us in, she said, looking delighted that we’d get to see the fruits of her labor.
“The details—those are my work and tastes,” she said, adding that she hoped to see me there some time.
I held my breath. She’s coming home?
“I don’t know yet,” says Digna after a pause. “But I think so.”
“You’re not afraid to come back to Honduras?” I ask, trying to hide my incredulity.
“No,” she says.
Digna’s role in the Valles’ repressive rule
Soon after that, the line drops off and Digna is gone. But Norma and the other women in the house carry on talking about her, saying she was the “good face” of the family, respected by the community.
“I liked her. She looked like a trabajadora [a hardworking woman]. She was made of brute force,” Teresa, another local resident who asked me not to use her real name, told me when we met in the city of Santa Rosa de Copán, about an hour’s drive from El Espiritu. “She was sociable, but of strong character.”
Digna might be gone, but her presence can still be felt in El Espiritu. Her charitable works, like the enormous Catholic church in the middle of the village she funded and helped build, remained. The church’s size far exceeds the spatial, if not spiritual, needs of its tiny congregation. Out front, a number of white benches were arranged in a circle, and the first had the words “DIGNA ASUSENA VALLE Y FAMILIA” embossed in capital letters.
One of the benches in front of El Espirtu’s outsized church bears Digna’s name. Other benches bore those of her brother and other family members. Photo: Deborah Bonello for VICE World News.
Next to Digna’s was another bench: LUIS VALLE, MAYRA LEMUS Y HIJOS. And another: JOSE REYNERIO VALLE Y FAMILIA. And another: REMBER CUESTAS VALLE Y FAMILIA.
“She was a great woman, a great woman and a fighter. She helped us a lot, helping with the construction of the church,” said Norma. “We built it all together, making tamales and cakes.” One local described her, the oldest of 13 siblings, as “the mother of them all.”
But Digna was a lot more than that—her position in the family was often less than nurturing.
“Once I was in the kitchen when locals were complaining to Digna that her brothers had taken young girls up [to their houses]. And Digna said that the young girls shouldn’t have gone around provoking her brothers,” remembered a former resident of El Espiritu.
“Doña Digna would say, ‘They have to be killed, we can’t leave them like that,’ about families and people who knew too much or did things the family didn’t like,” said a former employee. “I used to have a positive impression of her because she’s a woman and I was raised to think all women are good.” The charges for which Digna was eventually incarcerated in the U.S. did not include violent crimes.
Another former resident of Copán told me that Digna dispatched two trucks of armed men to her house to kill her and her entire family after learning that they’d betrayed the Valles. VICE World News could not independently verify these allegations.
Much like the male drug bosses of legend, if Digna did kill, she didn’t need to do it herself. She had people to do it for her, multiple sources said.
As I stood outside Digna’s house chatting to Norma about their days together in school, I noticed that unlike the homes of her brothers, her house was untouched. It was locked, but there were no soldiers standing guard, and peering through the windows I could see that the furniture remained as she had left it after she was arrested, unexpectedly, on that trip to Miami.
Digna Valle was the first member of her drug-trafficking clan to be arrested. Illustration by Michelle Urra for VICE World News.
She was the first of the Valle clan to be detained, and in August of that same year the Honduran authorities came in and seized the properties of her brothers and other family members around El Espiritu, which have been in government hands ever since. I wondered if she’d earned a favor or two with U.S prosecutors for her cooperation, and whether that got passed down to the Honduran authorities doing their bidding on the ground, who left her place alone.
One of the world’s most dangerous borders
El Espiritu is less than five miles from the border with Guatemala. Like most of the land borders in Latin America, the division is utterly porous and largely lawless. For the 15 or so formal entry points that exist along the border, there are more than a hundred clandestine ones, many of which can be traversed by trucks.
This sliver of Central America is considered one of the most dangerous in the region, with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Honduras is among the unfortunate countries to lie between Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia—the world’s biggest cocaine-producing nations—and the United States, the world’s biggest consumer of drugs. As a result, Honduras is a major transit hub for cocaine, which leaves behind a trail of blood, corruption, and dollars.
The lack of government presence in the country allows for other groups to fill the void, charming and terrorizing local communities in equal measure with their own type of criminal governance, providing them with amenities such as churches, jobs, and loans.
In El Espiritu, Digna Valle and her family were the providers and the law; they were feared as well as respected. Digna was the product of her circumstances, growing up in an impoverished part of the country where the state was almost completely absent. With little formal education, like many of the residents of El Espiritu, she gave the townsfolk a sense of security, as well as jobs and support, providing work to some 200 families through a variety of businesses—cattle, corn, beans, and coffee.
“They were millionaires. They were rich, and we were so poor,” said one former resident. But despite their obvious economic advantage over the locals, Digna would frequently visit workers on the Valles’ coffee ranches around Copán. She would ride up on her horse, wearing trousers and a shirt, and share modest meals with the trabajadores who worked the coffee fields.
But the Valle family put themselves above the locals. “They had a lot of bodyguards,” said Bishop Darwin. The family’s drug business became the town’s most profitable industry, overshadowing other Valle projects. Eventually, most of their other ventures were essentially designed to help them launder their cash from the drug trade. On the drive into El Espiritu, Bishop Darwin pointed to a field where 11 million dollars had once been unearthed, buried inside a water tank: At the height of their operations in the international cocaine trade, Darwin said, the Valles were simply generating more cash than they knew what to do with.
Though they started as cattle rustlers and contraband smugglers, the Valle family pivoted to cocaine sometime before the turn of the century, when dope began to come in waves from Colombia in the south and displaced the cows and cigarettes that the family used to smuggle into Guatemala. The trickle of cocaine turned to a gush after a coup against the government of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, which created even more political distractions from the activities of organized crime. After that, the number of illicit flights carrying cocaine kilos skyrocketed, according to observers.
The Valles grew into a vital go-between for organizations operating across the region. The U.S. government estimates that from around the year 2009 onward, they were moving tens of thousands of kilos of cocaine across the Honduras-Guatemala border every month, making as much as $800,000 from a single shipment for organizations that it provided transportation services to, such as the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. The Valles also had a base in Virginia in the U.S., where employees would receive and distribute cocaine kilos brought in by the family.
As the Valles accrued wealth, the lines between official and de facto authorities started to blur in Copán. They imposed their laws as they saw fit, corrupting or co-opting state officials as a means of furthering and protecting their interests. Police became an armed wing for private, not public, interests in return for increased salaries and other perks.
El Espiritu in Copán, Honduras, lies at the end of a long dirt road, and is a few miles from the border with Guatemala. This is one of the world’s most lawless regions, according to researchers. Photo: Deborah Bonello for VICE World News.
“It is like this,” a policeman on the Honduran side of the border told researchers. “If you need a battery for your patrol car, you can ask headquarters and it will take six months and may never come, and then the bosses will try to make you pay for it. Or the local Señores [the Valles] have someone give you a new battery, put in new brakes, fill the tank with gasoline, as long as you don’t bother them. We park where they tell us to park. We look where they tell us to look. No one has any trouble.”
But El Espiritu’s boom days are long over. The majority of the houses in the tiny town are one-story, small, brightly colored. The modest dirt roads are punctuated with the occasional ostentatious residence—blasts from the past.
At the entrance to the town stands what promised to be a majestic mansion. It is two floors high and curled around a huge courtyard with what looked like the beginnings of a swimming pool in the middle. But the building work froze years ago. Digna had been building the mansion before construction was forced to a sudden stop, her neighbors told us.
Now, a fence covered in weeds and vines partially obscured the grey monolith. Long grass was thriving where the pool was planned, and the holes where the windows would have been hung open, like mouths gasping for air.
Digna faced a sentence of anything from 10 years to life for the drug trafficking charges that she pleaded guilty to in Florida following her 2014 arrest. But the fact that she only served just over half of that suggests she proved helpful to United States prosecutors looking for information not only on her own brothers and son but also on the myriad other actors in Honduras who were part of her circle at that time. That circle included household narco names such as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Just a year before Digna was arrested, El Chapo had sat around a mountain of cash atop a table in Copán, surrounded by members of the Valle family and other local power players.
Chapo was on one of his visits to El Espiritu. He was something of a regular in Copán, according to locals, especially during the 13 years he was on the lam after his first escape from a maximum-security prison in Mexico, in 2001. Until he was recaptured, he enjoyed the famous Valle hospitality in El Espiritu, including, allegedly, parties to the tunes of Los Tigres del Norte, the world-famous ranchero band whom the Valles flew in especially. The band did not respond to requests from VICE World News to verify these allegations.
Locals would know when one of Guzmán’s visits was imminent, because security in the town would be increased and the movement of locals restricted.
One resident told me that brand-new, sparkling trucks would come into the village and drive down the main street on the way to the Valle residences. “That’s when we knew that the real bosses were in town. We would tremble all the way down to our feet.”
“When [the Valles] were still here, there were parties, and they paid for everything. A lot of people would come down from the mountains and the cars would be lined up,” remembered Norma. “People would come from all over the place.”
A couple of hours’ drive away, El Chapo visited with Amilcar Ardón in the small town of El Paraiso, where he was mayor. Ardón had invited another contact of his: Tony Hernández, the brother of the current president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, also known as JOH, who at that point was the head of the country’s congress. They probably met around the mountain of cash in El Paraiso’s city hall, which looked like the White House, only on steroids.
“We counted it,” Ardón later said in a court in Manhattan. “It was in plastic bags.” The money was a “donation” to JOH’s presidential campaign, which he won in November of that year, and was given in exchange for protection JOH’s government would provide for the drug trafficking managed by Digna’s family for El Chapo if he won the elections. If Digna wasn’t at that table herself, her interests certainly were.
But just months later, that expensive deal would sour horribly. “Tony Hernández told me that the Valles had been captured because they had tried to kill the president of Honduras, JOH,” said Ardón in court.
After Digna was arrested, the Valle brothers were enraged, and they wanted revenge. They put out a hit on JOH for having reneged on his promise to protect their clan. “Due to corruption, they knew JOH’s schedule and transportation plans, and they hired two or three men to make an attempt on his life,” said a former DEA agent close to the Valle case. “And that plan was foiled … let’s just say by a number of contingencies.
U.S. law enforcement, which had been working closely with its counterparts in Honduras, saw the hit coming, and learned that the Valles were being aided by the fellow signatory on the deal: El Chapo. The gunmen were arrested before they could carry out the hit, and Digna’s brothers Luis and Arnulfo were arrested, extradited, and convicted in the United States. They’re each serving 23 years. JOH has always denied any connection to the drug trade, even as the testimony of Honduran drug lords against him mounts in the U.S. courts.
At the end of her prison time in the United States, another legal battle was just beginning for Digna, who faced deportation—standard practice for foreign offenders who’ve done their time. But deportation when she finally got out of prison in 2018 would have meant certain death. Tony Hernández was arrested on a visit to Miami on drug trafficking charges days before Digna left jail. The noose around the neck of his brother was also tightening: Any Honduran traffickers, like Digna, who were seen as having blabbed to U.S. law enforcement about who they worked with back home would face certain consequences if they went back to Honduras.
“There is a hunt on right now in my country for people who collaborated and then co-operated [with law enforcement] in drug trafficking cases,” former army captain Santos Rodriguez Orellana told me at the time, over the phone, when I reported on Digna’s deportation battle. She was initially denied asylum but appealed and was eventually granted the right to stay in the U.S. under the Convention Against Torture.
El Espiritu today
A few days after our visit to Digna’s home, we drove toward the border with Guatemala. As we sped along the highway, we listened via speakerphone to the proceedings of another major drug trial in New York in real time, this one for the former drug boss Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez.
Once again JOH was being implicated, and once again, the town of El Espiritu was mentioned as a major trafficking hub. Years after the dismantling of the Valle cartel, the tiny town, which few outsiders will ever visit, continued to be referenced as one of the central hubs of the cocaine trade during the turn of the 21st century.
That her brothers were perceived as the worst offenders in the Valle cartel is clear from the fact that Digna is now free, while Luis and Arnulfo serve out their 23-year sentences.
Of all of them, she came out the least scathed. Like the women who sat around me that day in El Espiritu when I spoke to Digna on the phone, she survived. She was more than a pawn in a supposed man’s game, but ultimately she was still treated like one. Soon after we spoke about Digna’s fondness for the town church, the call got cut off. The women around us were silent for a moment, which is when I noticed that there were no men left in the house. Only the women remained.
Xiomara Orellana contributed reporting to this story.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.