The $125 million theft of five paintings by artists like Picasso and Matisse from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in May caught the attention of the world. But compared with the total annual trade in illicit goods, the heist was small change.
According to estimates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the business of buying and selling stolen art is about a $6 billion racket worldwide. Trade in illegal drugs, by contrast, is estimated to be in the neighborhood of maybe $300 billion, making it the world’s biggest illicit activity.
The trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs has continued to frustrate the efforts of governments around the world. It has created a massive industry and political problem, financing violent groups like the Taliban and drug cartels that currently threaten the stability of important countries like Afghanistan and Mexico. The destabilizing effects of battling the drug trade can be seen most recently in Jamaica, where an entire nation has been swept up in violence as the government tried to seize drug lord Christopher Coke.