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Saturday, October 30, 1999 Published at 00:54 GMT 01:54 UK

World: Americas

Cocaine haul turns to flour

The 96th Infantry Battalion: Charged with stopping drugs entering the US

An entire battalion of Mexican soldiers is under investigation after a hoard of confiscated cocaine was substituted with flour.

The swap was discovered just before the drugs haul was to be publicly burned.

General Rafael Macedo said: "I have ordered a thorough investigation. We shall leave no stone unturned."

The military authorities say 6.8kg of the drug is missing, but admit that the real total could be far greater.

An army spokesman told the BBC that anything up to six tonnes of drugs could actually have been removed.

The inquiry will attempt to find out if the haul was taken for personal use by soldiers, or for trafficking.

Mexican newspapers have reported that some soldiers are to be tested for drug addiction.

Border guards

All 570 soldiers in the 96th Infantry Battalion are under suspicion.

The 96th is stationed in Chihuahua, which borders Texas, and is responsible for seizing drugs shipments before they reach the United States.

The BBC's Mexico correspondent Peter Greste says that, whatever the quantity actually taken, it is highly embarrassing for the Mexican authorities.

The military took over anti-drug smuggling operations from the police because it was supposed to be free of corruption.

But it is not the first blow to the military's reputation.

In February 1997, General Gutierrez Rebollo was arrested and accused of protecting Amado Carrillo Fuentes, one of the country's most powerful drug-traffickers.

He has since been sentenced to more than 13 years in prison for abuse of authority and illegal possession of weapons.

Earlier this year, President Bill Clinton praised Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo for his efforts in the drugs war.

Mr Zedillo has referred to drugs trafficking as the biggest threat to Mexico's security, people and democracy.

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