Digna Valle was the first of her drug trafficking clan to be arrested, and she helped bring down her own organization.
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.
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.
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.