INTERVIEW-Honduras cocaine flights leap after coup
* Ten drugs planes found in a month, up from four in 2008
* U.S. aid cut, de facto government without drug strategy
* Light aircraft carry Venezuelan registrations
TEGUCIGALPA, Oct 13 (Reuters) - The number of airplanes smuggling cocaine through Honduras has surged since the United States suspended drug cooperation in the wake of an army coup, the Central American country's drugs chief said on Tuesday.
Honduras has been internationally isolated since soldiers exiled President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint on June 28, and it lost $16.5 million of U.S. military aid after the putsch.
Drugs chief Julian Aristides said Honduras' de facto government, engulfed in a serious political crisis, had no clear anti-drugs strategy, although he added that Zelaya's government had also not fought trafficking well.
In the last month alone, authorities have found 10 planes abandoned on runways and remote highways. Aristides, a former army general, said there were just four such cases last year.
"These are the facts, the flights have intensified," he told Reuters in his modest office in the Honduran capital.
The increase could undermine the anti-drugs fight in Mexico, where President Felipe Calderon has sent thousands of troops to try to weaken powerful drug cartels and quell turf wars that have killed more than 14,000 people since late 2006.
Sparsely populated Honduras has little radar coverage and traffickers with night vision goggles fly small planes under the cover of darkness to load the drugs into trucks or boats.
U.S. agencies are still sharing intelligence with Honduran officials, but can no longer participate in operations.
Before the coup, the United States loaned helicopters to Honduras' under-equipped air force and provided the navy with fuel and logistics for advanced interception boats.
"Since the substitution of the president this has been suspended, we don't have the support that was so important given our lack of technology," Aristides said.
HEADED TO U.S. ADDICTS
Central America is a major trafficking route for cocaine taken by Colombian and Mexican traffickers to the United States, and regional governments are struggling to fight the smugglers.
Guatemala is facing a budget squeeze because of the global economic slowdown, leaving it less money for its anti-drugs plans.
While some Latin American leaders want U.S. President Barack Obama to take tougher measures against Honduras' de facto government, critics at home complain he has already done too much to support the leftist Zelaya and that the cut in aid threatens U.S. security interests by easing the pressure on drug gangs.
Almost all the planes found in Honduras recently were painted with Venezuelan registrations, and the pilots are usually Colombian, Aristides said.
"It is the population of the United States that will suffer, because the more drugs that arrive in Honduras, the more drugs can arrive in the United States," he said.
The United Nations says the Venezuelan coast is being used by drug cartels to traffic cocaine via Honduras, and anti-narcotics experts say Mexican and Colombian cartels are training Central American traffickers.
By Frank Jack Daniel
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher and Pat Markey; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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