When Digna Valle Valle touched down in Miami’s international airport from her native Honduras on July 20th 2014, plans she might have had for pool-side business meetings and drug deal negotiations were ruined.
Valle, a rare female face in the hierarchy of international drug trafficking organizations, was arrested on arrival by United States law enforcement, the culmination of years of investigative work by the Miami division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
She might not have been completely surprised by her detention. The drug trafficking operation that she ran with her brothers, Miguel Arnulfo and Luis Alonso, and her son Gerson Stanley—collectively known as Los Valles—had been operating for some 20 years by then.
Nearly six years later, after having acted as a key cooperating witness in a massive investigation that brought down some of the strongest drug trafficking networks in the region, including her family’s organization as well as corrupt political elites, Valle now finds herself facing imminent deportation back to her home country—and almost certain death.
“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 Capt. Santos Rodriguez Orellana told VICE by phone from Honduras. Rodriguez was suspended from his role in the army in 2014 after calling for an investigation into whether a helicopter used to traffic drugs was connected to political elites in his country.
“It’s death sentence for her,” according to Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations at the DEA.
“Her chances of survival in Honduras are slim to none. Honduras is, without question, a narco state. The highest levels within the political spectrum along with the military and police are in the pockets of drug traffickers. Given the fact that she cooperated in key drug trafficking trials, she is not likely to survive in Honduras. She is going into a fiery cauldron and is definitely going to get burned.”
Los Valles worked out of the department of Copan in western Honduras, which shares a border with Guatemala, according to court documents. Digna and her family helped move tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine a month from Colombia across Honduras and north into Guatemala and eventually the United States using speedboats, submarines and small airplanes.
Her organization worked in collaboration with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico—her family is reputed to have been paid a visit by former Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán (now serving life in a United States prison) in their rural villa—as well as other traffickers in Colombia and the region, according to court proceedings and coverage of the trial. Her role was focused on the financial and logistical side of the business, not violence.
After pleading guilty and serving four and a half years of an 11-year sentence in the United States, Valle, who is now 53, was released in November 2018 only to be detained again, this time in an ICE detention center in Atlanta. Her asylum claim to remain in the United States was denied—a decision she is currently appealing. She refused a request submitted by VICE to be interviewed in detention as she awaits another hearing in the immigration courts. Valle has most likely been advised not to talk by her legal counsel as she awaits the next hearing.
Coverage of her criminal activities suggest that she was the sweetest face of the Valles' criminal organization, and was dispatched to broker collaborative relationships with the country’s criminal and business elites. Sources close to her said she also helped construct churches and gave money to charity during her time in criminal power in Honduras, mostly in her home department of Copan. Press reports say the same but VICE could not independently verify those claims.
There is very solid evidence of Valle's contribution to the legal investigation into her drug trafficking operation. Just months after her arrest, for example, her brothers were detained in Honduras and extradited to the United States. Honduran authorities also moved on and seized more than 50 properties owned by Los Valles that year and have since also arrested her daughter Tesla on charges of money laundering. Her son Gerson eventually turned himself in to U.S. authorities after years on the lam thanks to his mother, who convinced him to do so, according to local press reports. Her brothers and son have all since been convicted on drug-related charges.
Valle likely provided information relevant to another major drug trafficking investigation in the region during her time in United States custody: that of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former congressman and the brother of current Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernández.
Her predicament serves as an example of how some key witnesses in high-profile criminal trials can be thrown to the wolves after providing valuable and practical information to U.S law enforcement. Her arrest coincided with increased pressure on authorities in Honduras from the United States to bring down major drug trafficking groups there.
Sources in Honduras now point to a revenge-fueled backlash underway against anyone who gave information about the drug trafficking activity in Honduras’s highest echelons. One of Valle's main jobs within the criminal family organization she helped run was to build relationships with key politicians, like those with knowledge of drug-trafficking networks and legal cases.
Honduras Public Prosecutor’s Office told VICE that Valle faces charges of money laundering in Honduras, and is the subject of an arrest warrant. She is likely to be detained and imprisoned on arrival. But incarceration will offer her little protection.
In October last year, drug trafficker Nery Orlando López, a key player in the former drug trafficking network of Tony Hernandez, was brutally murdered in a Honduran prison. Notebooks seized from López following his arrest listed transactions for cocaine shipments received by and delivered to Tony and were widely thought to have been a crucial piece of evidence in convicting the former congressman. The director of the maximum-security El Pozo prison where López was killed, Pedro Ildefonso Armas, was subsequently murdered in broad daylight in December. He was speaking to López inside the prison moments before he was attacked and killed.
“Tony” Hernández was convicted for drug trafficking by a court in New York in October last year, but that doesn’t stop United States President Donald Trump from considering his brother, President Hernández, a "valued and proven partner," especially on the issue of immigration. As previously reported by VICE, it is corruption that is in part fueled by the international drug trade that drives so many Hondurans north in search of a better life, creating a cycle of toxic co-dependence between the two nations.
“Trump doesn’t care about drug trafficking in that country, he only cares about immigration, and as long as President Juan Orlando Hernández agrees to help keep asylum seekers in his country there is no doubt in my mind that there could have been a quid pro quo agreement between the two governments to have Digna Valle Valle handed back,” Vigil said.
“What this shows you is that even in these high-profile cases there are no guarantees for the security of a person that holds info that could compromise the political system in Honduras and are in jail. Landing in a Honduran jail represents a high-risk to her life and her safety,” said Hector Silva, a senior investigator at the think tank InSight Crime.
It remains to be seen whether an immigration judge in Atlanta will come to the same conclusion in considering Valle’s claim for asylum.