The Salvadoran media organization El Faro reports from the Honduran province of Copan, rumored to be a hideout of drug lord 'El Chapo,' which sits on the mouth of the "road of death" trafficking route that winds from Nicaragua north to Guatemala.
The following is InSight Crime's translation of extracts from El Faro's report:
Talking with a police chief in the town of El Paraiso, Copan.
Police Commissioner Juan Carlos Bonilla, “El Tigre,” is 45 years old, almost 25 of those serving in the institution. Now he is the chief of three Honduran provinces on the border with Guatemala and El Salvador. He is in charge of Copan, where we are now, on the border with Izabal and Zacapa, in Guatemala. Izabal and Zacapa are under the control of the Mendozas and the Lorenzanas, who according to the Guatemalan police are two of the families most emblematic of the country’s drug trade. He is also in charge of Nueva Ocotepeque, which borders on Chiquimula, Guatemala, and Calatenango, El Salvador. This Honduran department is on the border with San Fernando, the small Guatemalan town where the domain of the Texis Cartel begins. El Tigre is also the police chief of Lempira, which borders with Caltenango and Cabañas, in El Salvador.
Because he rules Copan, El Tigre is in charge of the point of exit of what, in Honduras, is known as the road of death, the cocaine trafficking route which begins at the border with Nicaragua, in the Caribbean province of Gracias a Dios, and which runs along the coast through four other departments before arriving at this border with Guatemala. Among them is Atlantida, the most violent province in Central America.
El Tigre is a colossal, fat man, almost 1.9 meters tall, with a hard face, as if it were sculpted out of rock, which reminds you of the Mexican Olmec heads. Among his colleagues he is famed for his bravery, and he likes to be known in this way.
"Everyone knows you don’t mess with me," he says often.
In 2002, the police’s internal investigation unit accused El Tigre of taking part in a death squad against supposed criminals in San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in Central America, with 119 murders for each 100,000 inhabitants. There was even a witness who said they had been present at one of the executions by this death squad made up, allegedly, of police, and called Los Magnificos. El Tigre had to pay a fine of 100,000 lempiras (more than $5,000) for his freedom during the trial. Then, in proceedings which many branded as rigged, where the main sponsor of the complaint, the ex-head of the prosecution unit, left her post mid-trial, Bonilla was exonerated.
“Have you killed outside the law?” I asked him, as we were leaving El Paraiso.
“There are things that one takes to the grave. What I can tell you is that I love my country and I am ready to defend it at all costs, and I have done things to defend it. That is all that I will say.”
We are here because El Tigre wants to show that what I said is not true. I told him that, according to officials, mayors, journalists, human rights defenders, priests, men and women who asked that their names not be revealed, certain zones on the border of Copan, of his border, are controlled by drug traffickers --by "the 'señores.'"
El Tigre, one afternoon, mounted an operation. He told me that he did them routinely, and that today I could choose where to go, so that I would realize that he went wherever he felt like.
"To El Paraiso, I want to go to El Paraiso."
"Alright then... Wherever you want I will go. [Speaking to his assistant] Girl, leave those reports and prepare a good team of agents, call those on the roads, but don’t say where we are going, so that it’s a surprise."
El Tigre does not trust his police officers. He says that he only trusts one of those in his zone -- himself.
Talking with a Honduran intelligence agent in Tegucigalpa.
I wanted to ask a little about the zone of Copan, to know the place I would be going […] [The intelligence agent] spoke of a zone of cowboys and ranchers.
“Santa Rosa de Copan is a place where those señores relax, and do business. There they make deals, they meet, they have their families and houses to relax. There they also make deals with those politicians, mayors and officials who they they have bought off, hold their political meetings."
The agent differentiated Copan from other Honduran departments, above all from those like Olancho or Gracias a Dios, ports of entry for cocaine that comes up from Colombia to Honduras. There, shootouts are music heard every day. Yesterday there was one lasting two hours in Catacamas, the second city of Olancho, because the drug traffickers from that place are fighting for control of the routes with the families from Juticalpa, the capital. In Copan, the ephemeral peace of the narcos rules at the moment. When, after their battles, one is proclaimed king, they let him reign for a time. Only for a time.
"In Copan everyone knows who rules. That is the territory of the people linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, though they aren’t exclusive to them. They operate as free agents for whoever pays, but they have a close relationship with Sinaloa. We even have a constant alert because we know that Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman (head of the Sinaloa Cartel) often comes to the municipalities bordering Guatemala. This year we have detected the presence of the Zetas. That, confirming their interest in the zone, would change the outlook."
The intelligence agent kept describing Copan as a zone of the most organized drug traffickers, with the most experience. He says that the Valle family has a large part of the control of that border, with a headquarters in El Espiritu, a village of just under 4,000 inhabitants one hour from the border with Guatemala. A border without customs enforcement, obviously, a border in the middle of the forest.
The agent defends the theory that Guatemala leads Central America in terms of transporting cocaine towards the U.S., that they are the trusted henchmen of the Mexicans and the Colombians. However, he said that the Honduran organizations from the east of the country, like those of Copan, have a lot of power to negotiate, thanks to their experience, and that that is demonstrated by the constant sending of Mexican emissaries to negotiate to cities like Santa Rosa de Copan, without Guatemalan intermediaries.
Talking to a former Copan mayor in the city of Santa Rosa de Copan.
“If I thought that giving you my name would change anything, I would give you my name, but it wouldn’t do anything, because these señors who rule this border aren’t alone, behind them are the men in ties who govern the county,” the ex-mayor said, to explain why he would not identify himself in this conversation.
We met for breakfast in a restaurant on the outskirts of Santa Rosa de Copan. So that he would agree to appear, this two-term former mayor of a municipality in the border zone of Copan demanded all the usual protocol. A trusted contact of his told him to trust me. They told him that I would not publish his name, that I would not divulge the place of the meeting or the municipality he governed. They told him that I would not take photos. So he agreed to talk, and gave a very enlightening summary.
"Look, here things that seem like lies, exaggeration, aren’t. They do what they like because they have all the political support that they want. 'Chapo' Guzman has passed through here, everyone knows, he has been in a hacienda in El Espiritu protected by the Valle family, the big money launderers in the region, with hotels in Santa Rosa de Copan and another mountain of businesses. And he has been to El Paraiso."
For the first time I asked directly about El Paraiso, about its prosperity, its helipad, and its mayor with pretensions to the capitol.
"Look, all the mayors in the zone know how the mayor of El Paraiso operates. He doesn’t always offer you money. When you have municipal festivals he tells you to put on what you like, rodeos, well-known north Mexican groups that will attract people, and that way you will gather more money. Then he will ask you for a favor. That has happened to many of us mayors. And I ask you, if my municipality is so poor, as rural as his, why does he have so much money that he can bring Mexican groups who charge thousands of dollars for an event?"
What the former mayor told me while we ate breakfast was confirmed by another acting mayor who had also received offers from the mayor of El Paraiso. This notable mayor of El Paraiso is called Alexander Ardon, and he travels in an armored vehicle escorted by another two, which carry 20 armed men who guard him day and night.
The media interest in El Paraiso grew when in 2008 the former Honduran security minister, Jorge Gamero, called this municipality “the black spot of Copan,” a province already famous for being key in the transit of South American cocaine. In an interview published in August 2008 by the Honduran newspaper La Prensa, the only one that the mayor has given, Ardon boasts of having studied only until fifth grade, of having been born poor, and now having millions of lempiras in the bank. He says that he and his municipality are rich because of milk and cattle. He says that this is a millionaire business.
Ardon defines himself as a humble man, but says that he is, literally, the king of the people. He avoids answers over his links to drug trafficking, and accepts that, because of being close to the border, many cattle ranchers like him have benefited from cattle rustling. Otherwise, he does not give interviews or court the media.
Someone who does is the bishop of Copan, Luis Santos, who since 2008 has given interviews to various media outlets, which could make headlines if it wasn't for the fact that in Copan any revelations about the world of drug trafficking, however strange, is seen as normal. "In El Paraiso only the church remains, because everything else has already been bought by drug traffickers," he said. "In El Paraiso there are hamlets where you can see mansions," he added. "In El Paraiso the girls don't accept a boyfriend who doesn't have the latest model car, which the narcos do have," he said. Let's not get confused: let's remember that El Paraiso is a municipality lost on the border, lost in Honduras, accessed overland, through mud.