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Police find biggest cocaine lab yet in Bolivia

By HUMBERTO VACAFLOR

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- A U.S.-backed narcotics strike force searching for a scientific team murdered by drug traffickers uncovered the biggest cocaine laboratory ever found in Bolivia, officials said.

Air Force Gen. Jaime Zegada said soldiers recovered the bodies of noted botanist Noel Kempff Mercado and two assistants Monday from a jungle site near the Brazilian border where they were murdered Friday by cocaine traffickers.

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Zegada said the body of Kempff Mercado was flown to a military base in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's second largest city, but the bodies of his pilot and guide were left near the site where they weremurdered.

Interior Minister Fernando Barthelemy said narcotics police searching for the team in the Huanchaca national reserve, about 480 miles northeast of La Paz, found themselves in the middle of the largest encampment for processing cocaine ever found in Bolivia.

American pilots flying U.S. Blackhawk assault helicopters ferried the members of the Bolivian strike force to the site, he said.

The abandoned laboratory contained no cocaine, but police found more than 12,000 gallons of ether, a highly flammable compound used in processing cocaine, and several landing sites, Barthelemy said.

No arrests were made, he said.

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Kempff Mercado and his team, on a mission to study rare plants in the area, were killed Friday when they apparently wandered into an area controlled by drug traffickers, Barthelemy said.

A fourth member of the scientific team, Spaniard Vicente Castello, escaped unharmed and signaled a rescue plane after spending 24 hours in the jungle.

The murders were the first cocaine-related killings in Bolivia since a force of some 170 U.S. soldiers arrived July 14 to take part in joint narcotics raids.

President Reagan sent the troops and aircraft to Bolivia as part of an unprecedented U.S. decision to fight narcotics trafficking abroad with American soldiers as well as aircraft.

Barthelemy told United Press International the laboratory was the largest of the nine seized since the U.S. troops arrived.

He said the encampment contained large tents, generators, trucks, tractors and motorcycles.

'We found there some 500 barrels of ether, the element that is used in the refining of cocaine,' he said. Each barrel contained more than 25 gallons, he said.

Barthelemy declined to give further details about the laboratory, saying only that it was the largest ever seized in Bolivia.

A laboratory captured by the U.S.-financed narcotics strike force July 23 was capable of producing more than 2 tons of cocaine a week.

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Barthelemy said the joint narcotics raids now will focus on the area around the seized drug encampment.

Since the raids began, authorities say, cocaine production has been completely paralyzed in Bolivia, and drug traffickers have fled the nation.

Bolivia is the world's second-largest producer, after Peru, of the coca plant used in making cocaine.

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