Federal authorities said they made the biggest seizure of cocaine in the world at a Sylmar warehouse today, finding at least 20 tons of the drug with a street value of up to $20 billion.
About $10 million in cash also was seized, said Ralph Lochridge, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
He said at least 20 tons was found, and authorities thought they might locate even more.
"This seizure should put to rest any further speculation (as to whether) Los Angeles is in fact the major pathway for cocaine entering the country and has in fact become a major distribution center in the United States," Lochridge said.
Lochridge said it was by far the biggest cocaine seizure in history. The domestic record until now is 8,700 pounds, a little more than 4 1/4 tons, seized in hollowed-out picnic furniture in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in November, 1987. In Colombia, there is a 12-ton seizure on record.
Light Industrial Area
The cocaine was seized at a warehouse in a light industrial area of Sylmar, a quiet, mostly residential section of Los Angeles in the northern San Fernando Valley, about 25 miles from downtown.
The warehouse is on a tree-lined street near the San Gabriel foothills. Across the street are offices for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co.; next door is a heart pacemaker manufacturer and a hydraulic pump supplier. The warehouse is two miles from Interstate 5, the state's main north-south thoroughfare.
John M. Zienter, the DEA special agent in charge for Los Angeles, said at a news conference today that the street value of the haul could be as high as 10 times the wholesale price of $2 billion.
"We are trying to send a message to the Colombian cartels that we are not going to allow them to take over the United States," Zienter said.
Three men, whose names were not immediately released, were arrested for investigation of conspiring to distribute cocaine, Lochridge said.
"They claimed to be Mexican, but their accents were South American," he said.
He said the DEA had been investigating and conducting "intense surveillance" for a year before moving in about midnight.
"It's about $2 billion in cocaine (wholesale), and that's a very conservative estimate," Lochridge said. "Twenty tons--nothing like that has ever been done before."
Lochridge's $2-billion estimate was based on a wholesale price of $100 a gram for pure cocaine.
The DEA and the U.S. attorney's office estimate that more than half the cocaine distributed in the country now floods in through Los Angeles. Colombian drug groups are bringing it across the border from Mexico, and Los Angeles street gangs are distributing it in more than 40 cities across the country, they have said.
Cash seizures from the drug trade totaled more than $100 million last year in Los Angeles, topping Miami for the first time. The city's Federal Reserve surplus--one way of measuring illegal money laundering--has jumped more than 2,000% in five years, to $3.8 billion last year.