Crime, corruption, and political unrest remain remain rampant in Honduras, limiting its progress against the drug trade.
The second seizure of a coca plantation in Honduras within a year shows drug gangs are seeking to cut costs and turn the small Central American state into a producer rather than a transit hub for US-bound cocaine, authorities said on Tuesday.
At the weekend, law enforcement agents raided a 70.4-acre plantation in Gualaco, a mountainous region about 143 miles east of the capital, Tegucigalpa, near the site of a smaller coca plantation discovered last April.
"This plantation was in full production and there were signs of previous harvests, although not that it had been processed until cocaine was produced," Carlos Morazan, a spokesman for the Honduran attorney general's office, told Reuters on Tuesday.
Traffickers were likely experimenting to save on the costs of shipping the drug from Venezuela and Colombia, he added.
Troubled, crime-ridden Honduras has for years served as a key transit point for cocaine moving to the US from South America, where the vast majority of the coca plant used to produce the drug is grown. In 2014, the Honduran government authorized the used of military force against flights suspected of transporting drugs.
Honduras has made progress in capturing the leaders of drug-trafficking organizations and intercepting drug shipments, though its success has been limited by high rates of violent crime, weak enforcement, and widespread corruption.
"Honduras remains a primary destination country in Central America for cocaine-laden aircraft departing from South America," the US State Department said in its 2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy report. "The Caribbean coast of Central America is vulnerable to drug trafficking due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of government presence, and weak law-enforcement institutions."
Honduras was home to two of the world's 50 most violent cities in 2017, according to a ranking compiled by a Mexican civil-society group.
Distrito Central, a municipality that contains the capital, was 35 on the list, with 48 homicides per 100,000 people. San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras after the capital, was 26 on the list, with 51.18 homicides per 100,000 people.
Spiraling violence from drug gangs, political unrest, and economic malaise has led to an exodus of Hondurans to Mexico, the US, and elsewhere in recent years.
Hondurans were the majority of an annual caravan of migrants who started a journey through Mexico to the US at the end of March, attracting the ire of President Donald Trump, who has deployed the National Guard to the US-Mexico border. The caravan's organized trip ended in Mexico City in early April, though many migrants said they'd continue to the US border.
(Reporting for Reuters by Gustavo Palencia; editing by Delphine Schrank and Rosalba O'Brien)