ON February 12, 2012, the Los Angeles Times ran an article in the Op-Ed section entitled A Drug War Success Story by William C. Rempel. An accompanying photo shows yours truly in uniform standing with 21½ tons of pure cocaine and $12 million in bundled cash stuffed into duffel bags. A caption read, “To this day it stands as the biggest drug bust in history.”
The drug bust itself took place in Sylmar, California in September 1989. It was front-page news in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers throughout the country. I still have some of the original newspapers somewhere. The picture can also be seen in The Art of Modern Gunfighting, Volume One.
This was an interesting caper on many levels.
My partner and I were working SWAT at the time and in the very early morning hours we were called to roll, Code 2-and-a-half to the location. It was a small semi-industrial area housing a non-descript, well-worn building. A filthy, dirt-stained glass door and cheap $6 padlock were the only things observable from the outside.
In the entrance was a cheap veneered wooden desk. The phone on the desk wasn’t even plugged in. It was a classic case of hide in plain sight. There were no guards at the location and no alarms that I was aware of.
All this stuff had just been sitting there right under everyone’s noses for a long, long time. On a certain level it was rather ingenious.
Someone had been calling into Narcotics and the DEA for a period of time complaining about all the late-night truck traffic coming and going at the location. When law enforcement did finally decide to check it out, they made a vehicle stop of an individual pulling away from the location.
The driver not only failed the attitude test but—get this—in the back seat were kilos of cocaine. One thing led to another and voilà, an even bigger bust. (So much for giving the police an attitude!)
I remember getting the call, entering the location, turning to the right, and stopping dead in my tracks. It was a lot—and I mean a lot—of dope. Only a few members of DEA and LAPD’s Major Narcotics were on scene at the time. Surprisingly, no one had attempted to retake possession of this much dope.
To give you an idea of the scale of the seizure, the one-kilo (2.2 lbs) packages when combined would approximate the size of two school buses. Wholesale value was estimated at $2 billion and street sale at $7 billion (remember this was in 1980s dollars.) The weight of the cash alone flattened the leaf springs on the van that hauled it away for counting. It was a lot of dope (and dough).
LAPD Chief Daryl Gates spoke on the news that night and uttered one of his famous quips: “A lot of hearts are breaking all over Hollywood tonight!”
The dope was from the Medellin and Cali cartels of Mexico. The distributor, Amando Fuentes of Juarez, Mexico, had stored the combined shipments as a power play. It had been trucked in inside the false backs of 18 wheeledtrucks and then stored. Why they left the cash there was anybody’s guess.
According to legend, they forced greased-up midgets through a small opening in order to pile the dope in the back of the truck and then sealed up the false panel (with the midget removed, I presume). This had apparently been going on for quite some time.
The Major Narcotics guys later told me a lot of bodies turned up where they shouldn’t have due to this little narco SNAFU. I guess even the bad guys have bureaucratic problems.
The result of this dope bust was that it actually forced the cartels to re-evaluate their business model. The result is that the bad guys are now more efficient than ever.
The long-term results, of course, are the violence and outright war we read about in Mexico these days.
You probably won’t ever see this type of dope seizure again, and certainly not with cocaine. Marijuana is a different matter, but even still, that sort of tonnage would equate into bulk on the order of a football field.
When working the hype car together in the valley, my partner Ray Lyons and I once seized about seven pounds of pure cocaine and tens of thousands of dollars in cash after a foot pursuit.
That was small potatoes compared to this caper. This was a biggie, so we’ll just have to see if it is ever eclipsed in the future. I hope it is….