Inside the U.S. Mexican Drug Ring Raids

They didn't knock. They didn't have to. From California's Central Valley to Atlanta's suburbs, they hit hard and fast before dawn - part of the biggest DEA operation in history - against a single Mexican drug cartel called La Familia.

CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassmann reports the raids capped a 44-month investigation named Project Coranado. Agents arrested nearly 1,200 people, including 303 in the last two days.

They seized 2,730 pounds of methamphetamine, just under 2,000 kilos of cocaine, and $33 million in cash.

Exclusive CBS News Footage of Drug Raids
Project Coronado Details from the FBI
Exclusive: Drug Cartels in Atlanta

"The toxic reach of its operations extends to almost every state within our own country," said Attorney General Eric Holder.

CBS News exclusively followed agents on a series of raids.

In a house in Atlanta, they found kilos of cocaine hidden in a boxspring. More kilos of cocaine were found hidden in the bathroom walls.

Three pounds of crystal meth were found in plastic tubs. La Familia exports more crystal meth to the U.S. than any other drug cartel.

DEA Agent Steve Whipple led the raid in Atlanta. "They make money. They send it back to families in Mexico. Buy more dope. It's what they do," he said.

In suburban neighborhoods outside Atlanta, drug cartels hide in plain sight, in so called "stash houses."

"This is a drug stash. There are other houses they use for money," said Atlanta Field Division DEA Special Agent Rodney Benson. "There's other ones we've seen that they use to bring people in as kidnapping houses."

In one house alone, agents hauled away eight kilos of cocaine and five pounds of meth. Street value? More than a million dollars.

What appears to be an average suburban home was actually a massive methamphetamine conversion lab. The mixing chemicals inside were so volatile, at first everyone kept back a block. The house could blow sky high.

Agents in protective suits carefully removed buckets of volatile meth oil and acetone. There was so much meth, in so many stages, that even agents were startled.

"Every large city, every medium city, every small city - you look and say 'who are the wholesale suppliers of meth, marijuana cocaine and heroin,'" asked Benson. "It's Mexican organized crime."

For more information:

Drug Enforcement Administration
Justice Department
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.