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Top 10 Biggest Drug Busts

Since the War on Drugs started in the early '70s, the US has spent more each year to wage it. All the while, the cartels get bigger (and smarter) and the biggest busts have shrunk. Does this mean the War is unwinnable?

  • Is the War a good investment?

    Since the biggest drug bust ever recorded in 1989, the United States has opened an ever-widening spigot of federal spending, amounting to around $1 trillion. It has focused on military and paramilitary interdiction that has crossed countless borders into sovereign countries, in both covert and overt actions that have strained diplomatic relations. Every year since 1989, the US has spent more money than the last. In '89, under the leadership of President George H. W. Bush, the feds spent a modest $7.8 billion on the WoD. Today, the annual cost has risen to $26 billion. The result? The US incarcerates more of its citizens than Stalin did at the height of the Soviet gulags—most of them low-level drug offenders. So what do we get in exchange? Some flashy police work. Read on.  

  • 10. The Trans-Border Railway, 2010

    $21.2 Million (in today's dollars)

    Mexican marijuana traffickers took a page from American history and built their own version of an underground railroad—for a much less noble of a cause: transporting weed across the California-Mexico border. After following a suspicious truck to a Tijuana warehouse, police found the entrance to a freshly-excavated clandestine passageway. The 1,800-foot long tunnel was complete with a light rail system that smoothly delivered marijuana from a crawlspace on the California side. All in all, authorities seized 30 tons of pot worth $20 million. Fun fact: California had just voted against legalizing marijuana just two days earlier.

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  • 9. Operation Aussie X, 2008

    $309 Million

    Aussie ravers went home with empty Mickey Mouse-gloved hands after Australian Federal Police stung a big ecstasy supplier in Melbourne and seized 4.4 tons of MDMA (15 million pills) worth $309 million. The AFP undertook a year-long operation that netted them players from top to bottom, including bosses, dock workers and freight haulers who organized the massive E shipments inside 3,000 tomato cans imported from Italy. It's hard to tell who were the real victims here—clubbers trying to dance to house music without the stuff, or those forced to watch them try.

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  • 8. Cowabungle, 2010

    $425 Million

    Credited as the biggest drug bust in Mexican history, Cowabungle also boasts the least subtle packaging in which weed has ever been delivered: brightly-colored cartoon labels, some of which boasted an elated Homer Simpson exclaiming “Voy de mojarra, que wey!” which roughly translates to “I'm going to get high, dude!” Though Otto Mann might have been better qualified to offer such an endorsement, Homer actually did once have a (legal) stint with the stuff. Unfortunately for the cartels, the packaging made the 105 tons of pot easy to identify, and the police apprehended 11 suspects after a shootout in which no one died.

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  • 7. Can't We All Just Get Along? 2005

    Haul: $415 Million

    Right now, American politics might be blood-soaked battlefield, but in Colombia, politicians use real blood. Instead of chattering ceaselessly on cable TV, Colombian far-left and right wingers often squabble with assault rifles. However, there's one thing on which the Marxist revolutionaries and right-wing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) can reach across the aisle and agree: hawking coke. Colombian police put a dent in this love-hate relationship when they seized 14 tons of AUC-owned and Marxist-guarded cocaine, worth $350 million, hidden along the Mira River. "This is the biggest haul ever seized in the world in a single operation, in a single day and in a single place," Colombia's national police chief said.

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  • 6. Busloads of Hash, 2008

    Haul: $376 Million

    The War on Terror intersected with the War on Drugs in this bust, which netted a whopping 260 tons of hashish, or roughly equivalent in weight of about 30 double-decker buses—and worth about $350 million. With that much hash tucked inside a bunch of trenches and bunkers, the military found it most feasible to save on man-hours and call in an airstrike: “two aircraft were brought in to destroy the underground bunker in which the hashish was being stored." Now that's a full-scale operation.

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  • 5. Operation Decked, 2007

    Haul: $670 Million

    A cadre of coke smugglers opted to pull a Gus Fring and hide in plain sight. But after the DEA and the Coast Guard seized their 20 tons of cocaine in the waters near Panama, it's safe to say they wished they stuck with the tried-and-true muling of swallowed balloons. On this botched operation, the cartel “simply loaded these bales of cocaine into cargo containers on the top of the deck of this freighter,” said a DEA administrator in charge of the bust. “They were just sitting there on the main deck.” At the time, this was the largest maritime cocaine seizure by US forces.

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  • 4. You Don't Know Pablo, 1984

    Haul: $2.2 Billion

    At the height of his infamy, coke kingpin Pablo Escobar was raking in a million dollars a day by supplying America with 50% of its cocaine. He transported it with his massive fleet of vehicles, including helicopters, planes, boats—and even a submarine. A lot of the white stuff was made in Tranquilandia, an eponymous secret jungle laboratory complete with its own airstrips, a personal army, dormitories and off-the-grid water and electricity. But if you build it, the DEA will come: by following tracking devices hidden on Escobar's raw materials, agents were able to hunt down and seize 14 tons of cocaine worth over $1 billion. It put a modest dent in Escobar's estimated $25 billion a year till.

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  • 3. Cache and Carry, 2009

    Haul: Priceless

    Opium trafficking is a huge fundraiser for terrorist groups like the Taliban and a whopping 90% of the world's opium supply comes out of Afghanistan, so the Afghan military considers this raid, in which 92 tons of opium poppy seeds were seized, a win in both the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. It's credited as the “single-largest drug cache by Afghan-led forces in Afghanistan to date” in a statement by allied forces. Huge success? You decide: "A total of 60 militants were eliminated as they mounted an ineffective and uncoordinated defense against friendly forces,” the armed forces' statement reads. And just like the massive 260 ton hashish bust the year before, this stock was obliterated via airstrike.

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  • 2. I Lost My Smack in San Francisco, 1991

    Haul: $5 Billion

    San Fran's junkie population got a little involuntary detox when authorities made the biggest heroin bust ever. TV crews got footage of the 59 boxes filled with 1,059 pounds of China white heroin that had just made the long journey from Thailand and landed in the Bay Area with a street value somewhere in the range of $2.7 billion and $4 billion—more than the DEA's entire budget for 2010. Drug War commanders say that this seizure was roughly 5% of the world's yearly production.

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  • 1. The High Life, 1989

    Haul: $13 Billion

    In a warehouse located in an upscale California residential community in the foothills of of the San Gabriel mountains, the cops cuffed big time cartel kingpin Rafael Munoz Talavera and seized his $13 billion in illicit assets: a US record-breaking (and maintaining) 21 tons of cocaine, enough to cut five lines for every American. But even this impressive haul was small-time compared to the 77 tons that had moved through the warehouse in the time up to the arrest. For that much product, Talavera shelled out $81 million for transportation costs alone.

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By Bryan Le 10/21/12

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