By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA, May 24 (Reuters) - Honduran authorities have confiscated the country's first coca plantation, used by local drug gangs to make domestic cocaine presumably bound for the United States, law enforcement officials said on Wednesday.
The plantation was discovered late last month next to a drug manufacturing lab in the mountainous region of Esquipulas del Norte, about 220 kilometers (140 miles) east of the capital Tegucigalpa, said Carlos Morazan, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office.
"We have confirmed through toxicological exams that we're dealing with coca plants. This is the first time we've confiscated a coca plantation in Honduras," Morazan told Reuters.
For years, Honduras has been a key pit-stop in cocaine's journey north from Colombia and Venezuela, through Central America, and eventually up to the United States. Thousands of drug planes a year depart northern South America for poor, violent Honduras, before the drug is hauled north overland.
The vast majority of the world's coca plants are farmed in the mountainous regions of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, where the coca leaf is traditionally used to treat altitude sickness.
Small-scale coca plantations occasionally crop up in other parts of Latin America, but the plant is hard to grow outside of the Andes and the discovery in April was the first time a plantation has been found in Honduras.
"At the site, we found a laboratory with tools and precursor chemicals for making coca paste and for processing the drug up to its final power form," Morazan added.
He did not say how many plants were discovered, but local media reported it was about 7,000.
Morazan said nobody was arrested, adding that an investigation was under way to determine who was behind the plantation. (Reporting by Gustavo Palencia; Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Frances Kerry)