In 1971, President Richard Nixon set the stage for the War on Drugs when he called drug abuse “a national emergency.” Marijuana was the devil on the shoulder in those days, as well as heroin addiction, a problem aggravated by veterans returning from combat in the Vietnam War. By 1982, drugs were no longer a “national emergency,” but, in President Ronald Reagan's words, “a national security threat.” However, it was not until 1985, when the crack epidemic exploded and ravaged America's inner cities, and the Iran Contra scandal was plastered all over the news, that President Reagan officially launched America’s War on Drugs. “This is your brain. This is your brain on Drugs. Any questions?”
This is the only question that matters: Has the War on Drugs been a success? Last year, the DEA published a 28-page report called “The 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary. ” According to the report, 40 percent fewer people used cocaine in 2012 than in 2006. The report also states that 16,908 kilos of cocaine were seized on the Southwest border in 2011, while 7,143 kilos were seized in 2012. The DEA viewed that 58 percent decrease as a success; in other words, there was less cocaine seized in 2012 because there was less cocaine, period. America was finally winning the War on Drugs.
Interpreting the 58 percent decrease in cocaine seizures as a success is flawed reasoning. In fact, it is the type of political reasoning that verges on propaganda. The “2013 Drug Threat Assessment Summary” makes no mention of the level of sophistication cartels and drug rings are operating with these days, covert procedures that involve everything from narco-tanks to hi-tech smuggling submarines, with transportation routes so complex and convoluted they're known as "spaghetti slides."
If anything, the DEA's "Assessment Summary” illustrates that drug trends rise and fall. Popularity is a cycle. One decade cocaine is the drug of choice, and the next decade it is methamphetamine; meth is overshadowed by "Molly," and then, out of nowhere, heroin makes a comeback -Vermont, officially known as the “Green Mountain State,” is now nicknamed the “brown mountain state” due to its heroin epidemic, and Academy Award winning actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman recently died of a suspected overdose, 65 baggies of heroin stashed in his New York city apartment. As drug trends wax and wane, so the War on Drugs marches on. Here are 10 of the most lucrative drug busts.
10 Trans-Border Railway - $21.2 Million
What the Trans-Border Railway drug bust lacks in monetary street value, the criminal enterprise makes up for in inventiveness, diligence, and low-fi sophistication. Taking a cue from America’s Underground Railroad, Mexican marijuana traffickers excavated a 1,800-foot tunnel beneath the Mexican-California border, and while borderland tunnels are nothing new, this clandestine passageway had ventilation, electricity, and a light rail system for easy transport. A suspicious truck led police to a Tijuana warehouse, where they uncovered the entrance to the tunnel. 30 tons of pot was seized. Estimated value: $21.2 million.
9 Ecstasy Seizure, Australia -$309 Million
Glow-stick waving club kids from Australia to Amsterdam felt the sting and not the bass-drop when Australian Federal Police seized 4.4 tons of MDMA in 2008. The 15 million pills, worth $309 million, is the most lucrative ecstasy seizure of all time. 17 people were arrested in the sting. How were the little happy pills detected in Melbourne? Leave it to the criminal kingpins of rave culture to ship the “E” inside 3,000 tomato cans imported from Italy. It is certainly less conspicuous than floating the club drug in a shipment of Equalizer t-shirts or baby pacifiers.
8 The River Mira Raid, Columbia - $325 Million
The United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC), a far right paramilitary group, hid 13.8 tons of cocaine on the banks of the River Mira, near the Pacific Ocean port of Tumaco. In May 2005, police and Navy personnel unearthed the hidden stash of Bolivian Marching Powder, estimated to have a street value of at least $325 million. At the time, Columbia’s national police chief General Jorge Castro said, "This is the biggest haul ever seized in the world in a single operation, in a single day and in a single place." Nine arrests were made in the raid, and assault rifles, communications equipment, and boats were seized.
7 Spin Buldak Bust, Afghanastan -$400 Million
The War on Drugs and the War on Terror intersected in Spin Buldak, a region 25 miles from the Pakistani border. The Afghan National Police Special Task Force uncovered a stockpile of hashish said to weigh as much as 30 double decker London buses. 261 tons of the tarry, marijuana concentrate was concealed in trenches and caves. The Taliban is known to fund its operations and purchase weapons from finances accrued from the drug trade, and sources believe $14 of the $400 million hashish stockpile was to be funneled to the terror group.
6 “I’m Going to Get You High, Dude,” Mexico -$425 Million
In what has to be the most comical and misguided marketing campaign in history, not to mention the biggest drug bust to ever take place in Mexico, 105 tons of pot, most of it packaged with colorful cartoon labels, was seized after a pre-dawn gun battle with cartel members in 2010. 10,000 colorful packages of weed, some of which were labeled with bulls, wolves, arrows, and other symbols (the packaging label and color-code designates where the package is to be shipped) were hidden in cargo containers in a warehouse in Tijuana. However, in a clear sign cartel members were tasting a little of their product, some of the drug packages were designed with a picture of Homer Simpson, proudly declaring, “Voy de mojarra, que wey!” Translation: “I’m going to get you high, dude!”
5 Pizarro, Colombia -$500 Million
In a country that produces more than 500 tons of cocaine a year, drug seizures, both large and small, are almost weekly affair in Colombia. However, the navy uncovered more than it bargained for in the coastal town of Pizarro in 2007. 27 tons of cocaine, buried in 1,000 packages weighing 55 pounds each, was hidden along the Pacific coast, 250 miles west of Bogota. The cocaine was stashed in an estuary that was only accessible by sea. No arrests were made in the operation, but officials believed the drugs belonged to the Norte del Valle cartel. The Pizarro bust is the largest in Columbia’s history.
4 Coast Guard Bust, Panama -$600 Million
On a clear, sunny day in southwest Panama, March 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard spotted a suspicious cargo ship 20 miles off the coast. At the time, the U.S. was working with Panamanian authorities and other Central and South American agencies in a counter-narcotics effort known as “Panama Express.”
Two Coast Guard cutters made contact with the ship, the Gatun, and there, in plain sight, were bales and bricks of cocaine stacked on top of the freighter. 20 tons of cocaine was seized that day, with an estimated street value of $600 million. The Gatun seizure is the largest maritime Cocaine bust in U.S. history.
3 The Tranquilandia Takedown, Columbia -$1.2 Billion
To the DEA, “Tranquilandia,” the cocaine-processing laboratory set up in the jungles of Caquetá, Columbia, by Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin Cartel, was anything but tranquil; it was Public Enemy #1 on the War on Drugs. Tranquilandia consisted of 19 laboratories, an independent water source, electrical system, dormitories for workers, and eight isolated airstrips. It was a satellite tracking device on a tank of ether (a main chemical in cocaine processing) that led the DEA and Columbian National Police into the Columbian jungle. In March 1984, Tranquilandia was raided; 14 tons of cocaine valued at $1.2 billion was seized, and Escobar’s laboratory complex was destroyed.
2 The Hayward Warehouse, California - $2-4 Billion
The Hayward warehouse, in the San Francisco Bay area, was under surveillance for a month before law enforcement officials launched a raid on June 21, 1991. In what is considered the largest heroin bust in America history, authorities confiscated 1,200 pounds of China White heroin at a projected value between $2-4 million. Five suspects were arrested. One of the more interesting (and tabloid) side-notes of the Hayward heroin affair was the list of investors in the warehouse, one of which was future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
1 1. Sylmar Warehouse Bust, California -$7 Billion
21.4 tons of white powder, 7 billion dollars, and a 3,500-square foot warehouse on Bradley Avenue in the San Fernando Valley -the largest drug bust in U.S. history has all the cinematic flourishes seen in classic cartel-land films like "Scarface," "Traffic" and "Blow."
In September 1989, at the tail end of a go-go era marked by excess, officials raided the Sylmar warehouse on a citizen’s tip that the import business was operating as a front. What authorities found inside, however, was far more than the average drug cache, but a mother load the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimated to be 5% of the world’s annual production of cocaine. One-kilo packages of the drug were stored in boxes, piñatas, and canvas paintings. $12 million in cash was seized. Seven arrests were made. James Romero McTague, the manager of the warehouse, was sentenced to life without parole. The 1990 trial brought to light the following facts: prior to the September raid, 77 tons of cocaine moved though the warehouse; the cocaine ring raked in 81 million in transportation fees, and notebooks and ledgers indicated the cocaine was Columbian produced, smuggled in trucks to Juarez, Mexico, then on to El Paso, Texas, and finally to the 3,500-square foot warehouse outside of Los Angeles.