The 10 Biggest Drug Busts Of All Time
Illegal drugs, in the right hands, can bring in millions—and even billions—of dollars. And with all that sweet loot, infamous drug dealers make even more infamous purchases, like incredible mansions, rare sports cars, and exotic pet trifectas. But it isn’t all lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). Sometimes, things quickly go south.
Here are 10 of the biggest drug busts in history.
“Cocaine Cowboy” (1989)
Amount Seized: 21.4 tons of cocaine
Value: $6.9 billion (roughly $13 billion today)
Authorities seized over 21 tons of cocaine—the largest amount ever—from a California warehouse that was said to have belonged to reputed drug lord Rafael Munoz Talavera. Though Talavera would eventually worm his way out of any kind of criminal conviction, he still lost all the cocaine and the billions it would've brought in.
The warehouse’s manager, James Romero McTague, was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole. As for Rafael? His body was found dead in a Jeep Cherokee a few years later.
Worth it? Maybe.
“Those Definitely Aren’t Mattresses” (2015)
Amount Seized: 15 tons of marijuana
Value: $19 million
In a clear-cut case of “How Not to Ever, Ever Smuggle Drugs From Mexico into the U.S.,” federal agents in California seized 15 tons of marijuana at the the U.S.-Mexico border, completely unhidden in the back of a tractor trailer. The feds got suspicious when they x-rayed the truck, whose driver listed its contents as “mattresses and cushions,” but saw nothing that looked even remotely like mattresses, and instead found 15 tons of drugs.
According to a TIME report, there were a few cushions cramped into the opposite end of the trailer, right behind the 1,296 packages of pot. So there’s that.
“It’s Not What It Looks Like!” (2014)
Amount Seized: More than 50 pounds of heroin and 20 pounds of cocaine
Value: $11 million
In May of 2014, federal agents seized over 50 pounds of heroin after busting a transport vehicle en route from the Bronx, New York to Hartford, Connecticut. Officers walked by a truck they suspected to be part of a huge heroin ring and saw—in plain sight—a brick of heroin just hanging out of an open box.
The bust also yielded three guns, two assault rifles, and $85,000 in cash. Officers recovered another 29 pounds of heroin from an apartment, as well as $75,000 in cash they found in a nearby car (again, in plain sight).
Amount Seized: 105 tons of marijuana
Value: $425 million
Credited as the biggest drug bust in Mexico’s history, Mexican authorities seized 105 tons of marijuana in Tijuana. Eleven people were arrested following a tense, Hollywood-esque, pre-dawn shootout with Mexican authorities, which ended in the seizure of 10,000 packages of pot.
As if the story couldn’t get more ridiculous, the weed was wrapped in color-coded packaging that included cartoon depictions of Homer Simpson saying “Voy De Mojarra Y Que Wey!!!” (which roughly translates to, “I’m going to get high, dude!”) stamped underneath it.
“Trouble Down Under” (2014)
Amount Seized: 2.8 tons of various drugs
Value: $1.5 billion
Australia is a pretty wild place. It’s home to rock n’ roll legends AC/DC, kangaroos, Granny Smith apples, and mountains upon mountains of MDMA and crystal meth, apparently.
In November of last year, Australian authorities seized approximately 2.8 tons of illegal drugs inside of a shipping container. The container, from Germany, housed 1,917 kilograms of MDMA and 849 kilograms of crystal meth. The score, valued at $1.5 billion, was the largest seizure of methamphetamines and the second-largest of MDMA in the nation’s history.
“Grande Central Station” (2011)
Amount Seized: 32 tons of marijuana
Value: $65 million
In November 2011, DEA agents busted one of the biggest U.S.-Mexico border drug-smuggling operations in recent history. The cartel responsible for all of it, undoubtedly taking a page out of the Spanish subtitled version of The Shawshank Redemption, dug an 1,800-foot underground tunnel from a building in Tijuana, Mexico, to a similar building in San Diego, California.
DEA agents, along with officers from San Diego’s Tunnel Task Force (which is an actual thing) uncovered the tunnel, which came complete with hydraulic steel doors, elevators, a wooden staircase, and a butler at either entrance. Ok, so that last part was totally untrue, but how cool would that be?!
“Hiding In Plain Sight” (2007)
Amount Seized: 42,845 pounds of cocaine
Value: More than $600 million
The U.S. Coast Guard seized over 42,000 pounds of cocaine in 2007 from a Panamanian vessel, the Gatun, about 20 miles off the country’s coast. Most logical drug smugglers would make an effort to oh, I don’t now, conceal the drugs they were transporting (see the above entries), but these geniuses just took the cocaine, stuffed it into cargo containers, and placed them front-and-center on the top deck of the ship.
When the Coast Guard ships, who were just out cruising around, approached the Gatun, the crew did not protest. The Coast Guard boarded the ship and, in what sounds like the most boring drug seizure of all time, happened upon the drugs.
“Afghan Midnight Express” (2008)
Amount Seized: 261 tons of hashish
Value: $400 million
You know those double-decker buses in London? The ones that shuffle tourists around between Westminster Abbey and Big Ben? Yeah, well go ahead and imagine 30 of them on a scale, all at the same time.
Now take that image and fill it with hashish—weed’s gnarlier cousin—and you’ll have an idea of just how much of the stuff Afghani police forces confiscated in June of 2008. The massive 261-ton stockpile would have netted roughly $400 million worth of profits, $14 million of which would have gone directly to the Taliban. ‘Murica!
“El Padrino’s Tranquilandia” (1989)
Amount Seized: 14 tons of cocaine
Value: $1 billion
Unfortunately not a Latino spinoff of Portlandia, Tranquilandia was the name of one of the largest cocaine processing laboratories in history, owned by history’s most infamous drug lord—Pablo Escobar. If you were blowing lines in the 1980s (read: everyone in the 80s), it probably came from him.
Tranquilandia was located deep in the unkempt jungles of Colombia and consisted of eight airstrips, had its own electrical grid and water supply, and housed 19 laboratories dedicated solely to the manufacturing of cocaine. It was like Disney Land, but for coke heads.
That is, until 1984, when DEA agents and the Colombian National Police raided the complex and shut it down. How did they find it so deep inside of Colombia’s dangerous jungles? By placing satellite tracking devices on tanks of ether purchased by an Escobar associate and tracking them back to the facility (obviously!).
At the end of the day, they confiscated over a billion dollars from Escobar. But when you’re spending over $1,000 a week on rubber bands just to wrap your stacks and stacks of money, does losing a billion of it really matter?
“Excuse Me, Is This Yours?” (2007)
Amount Seized: 27 tons of cocaine
Value: $500 million
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while writing this article, it’s that people who deal in drugs are really good at leaving their drugs around in places they can be found.
Take, for instance, the 2007 discovery of 27 completely unattended tons of cocaine by the Colombian navy. The 1,000 packages of coke (later mysteriously changed to 919 packagesby Navy Adm. Guillermo Barrera) weighed 55 pounds each, and were buried in an estuary near the town of Pizarro, 250 miles west of Bogota.