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EL PARAISO, Honduras – The road to El Paraíso, nestled in the hills near the ruins of Copán, Honduras, is one of the best in the country. But there’s no traffic or road signs. The highway eventually turns into a dirt road before ending in a small town with an unusual flourish — a huge municipal office building built as a replica of the White House.

The building, constructed at a cost of nearly $1 million, was paid for by Alexander Ardón, who Honduran and U.S. law enforcement officials have linked to cocaine trafficking connected to the Sinaloa cartel. Ardón reportedly cut his teeth on the crime world as a small-time cattle thief and smuggler; he’s since become an economic master of the region, and even served as local mayor from 2005-2012.

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Municipal Office in El Paraiso. photo/ Douglas Farah

Ardón fled to parts unknown last August when elite Honduran police units and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) began a major operation in the area — the first in two decades — against the Valle drug trafficking clan, a close ally of Ardón. The drug gang controls the town of Espiritu in a neighboring valley.

In this otherwise dirt-poor region of one of the hemisphere’s poorest and most violent countries, the suspiciously well-paved road and huge municipal headquarters — complete with rooftop helicopter port—are not the only things that stand out.

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A manicured AstroTurf miniature soccer field faces the cobblestone central plaza, with its newly refurbished Catholic Church. From the hills above the town one can see spacious, colonnaded mansions with swimming pools and pastures stocked with fine breeds of cattle. Unlike San Pedro Sula, the world’s most violent city only 50 miles to the east, neither this town nor the surrounding area suffers from gang violence. San Pedro Sula last year had a murder rate of 158 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Life is peaceful here, if you are an honest person,” one resident said. “Mostly we just go to church, go to work, and go home. That way we don’t have any problems.”

Another resident laughed when asked if there were gangs in town. “Here there are no gangs; they’re killed as soon as they show up,” she said. “Here we don’t have gangs, we don’t have journalists, we don’t have policemen, we don’t have judges. We just have these guys who are the owners of all of our destinies.”

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The town, with its freshly paved roads and newly installed electrical service that extends out to the outlying areas, is one of the most eye-catching towns around Copán; the drug traffickers have essentially carved out a series of fiefdoms, where the state has virtually no presence and no control. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel is said by residents to have spent time here before being captured earlier this year.

“We always heard Chapo was here, he was there, and there were lots of armed men always moving through the different properties,” said one resident, who would not give his name for fear of retaliation. “We don’t know what is true because we don’t know anything that really goes on here. Those who know too much are dead.”

It’s not hard to see the attraction of the town as a citadel, given that it sits astride a traditional smuggling route used for the booming cocaine trade. The DEA estimates that more than 80 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. market transits through Honduras on its way north from Colombia, often passing through Venezuela and then moved by air and sea to Honduras, then pushed further north by road.

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Accessible only by one road with multiple choke points, strangers are easy to spot as they drive to El Paraíso. On a visit last week, our car was initially tailed by two motorcycles, each with two riders; they eventually roared by to inform of our presence, travel speed and vehicle type.

Upon entering the town, residents one after another slowly pulled out cellphones and called as we rolled passed with our windows down to show we were unarmed and not police. After stopping for a quick lunch and stroll to the plaza and municipal offices, we were tailed by a vehicle with darkened windows and a Guatemalan license plate. It stayed on our rear bumper until we passed the last house on the edge of town.

In the hamlet of La Acequia, at the end of a rutted dirt road across the plain from El Paraíso, lookouts on bicycles telephoned the local boss to tell him strangers had entered his territory. One of the men traveling with me knew the local crime boss and assured us everything would be all right. As we stopped to find the local boss, a row of young men with AK-47s quietly took up positions behind us. Only when the local boss emerged, embraced my fellow traveler and shook hands with the rest of us, did the young men lower their assault rifles and melt away.

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As we drove along the road out of town our guide pointed to a new chicken farm and processing plant being built near the road. Thoroughbred racehorses graze in pastures alongside herds of fattened cattle. Behind gated walls sit enormous houses with red-tiled roofs.

“This land belongs to a lawyer who works with all the narcos,” the guide explained as we passed a large property. “This belongs to a narco very close to Chapo. The next one belongs to a narco. The whole valley is just one narco after another.”