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QUERETARO, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico's army has made one of its biggest-ever drug busts, seizing a warehouse full of chemicals that experts say could have been used to make billions of dollars worth of methamphetamine.
Just under 840 tonnes of the chemicals used for making methamphetamine were found in a warehouse in an industrial area in Queretaro, about 125 miles north of Mexico City, the Defense Ministry said in a statement late on Wednesday.
According to local media and a leading analyst, it was the largest seizure of meth chemicals since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led crackdown on Mexico's drug cartels shortly after taking office at the end of 2006.
"This is the biggest seizure there's been of precursor chemicals (in Mexico)," said Alberto Islas, a security expert at consultancy Risk Evaluation. It may even be the biggest seizure ever made worldwide, Islas added.
The seizure in central Mexico, which the army conducted on Monday, included 787 tonnes of phenylacetamide and 52.5 tonnes of tartaric acid, all in 25 kilogram (55 pound) packets.
Both chemicals can be used in the manufacture of meth, a stimulant that is smuggled across the U.S. border and sold in crystal or powder form.
Government photos of the warehouse showed chemicals piled high in hundreds of white sacks, long rows of 200-liter (53-gallon) blue barrels, dozens of packing crates and a forklift truck.
The ministry declined to say whether there had been any arrests.
Islas said the size of the haul showed methamphetamine was being manufactured on an industrial scale in Mexico.
If the seized chemicals were processed in a sophisticated lab they could yield nearly 3.5 million doses, which would have a street value in the United States of nearly $28 billion, Islas calculated on the basis of current market prices.
Other estimates put the potential street value of the seizure at a minimum of $6 billion.
Queretaro has not been a hotspot in the Mexican government's fight against traffickers, which is mostly focused on states on the U.S. border in the north of the country.
Meth, which can cause brain damage and violent behavior, is a law enforcement priority in the United States, where the drug has ravaged many rural communities.
Addicts sometimes cook small, homemade batches of meth using recipes found on the Internet, but strict regulations have made it more difficult for U.S. producers to compete with bigger, more sophisticated operations in Mexico.
Reporting by Elinor Comlay, Dave Graham, Michael O'Boyle and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Eric Beech