According to various accounts of those that have either been on the job or are simply smart enough to do the research, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman wouldn’t have lasted much longer than a year if the DEA had really been on to their operation. That makes sense really since the kind of technology that’s available, the methods that have been in use and have been evolving for the past several decades, and the fact that the crew used for the operation weren’t exactly that bright, to begin with, would have made this operation more than a little untenable. There are only a few individuals that might have been unflappable, and even then it would have happened that they would have been given up and found out since their subordinates wouldn’t have lasted long in interrogation. Can anyone imagine Skinny Pete and Badger holding out that long? Mike and Gus might have done what they could to distance themselves from the mess, but even they would have been busted eventually since the figures involved in the ensuing violence wouldn’t have made it easy for anyone to lay low. Plus, the fact that Hank wasn’t that big of a dummy and was that close to Walter would have made it that much easier to make the connection, especially when Skyler learned of Walt’s business. That kind of secret relies heavily on people actually KEEPING the secret, and there were just too many tells throughout the show that made it clear that Walt and the entire operation should have gone down much sooner than they did.
Some folks might want to argue that Walt and Jesse weren’t that stupid and knew how to handle themselves, but the reality is that Jesse could have been caught any time since he was a creature of habit, sometimes literally since he didn’t often know when to simply shut up and let things be. Plus, one thing that has always bothered a lot of people from the start is the fact that the show began with Walt standing in the middle of a dirt road, holding a gun in a shirt and his underwear, with a suspicious-looking RV sitting at a crazy angle off to the side of the road. The fact that no one reported a strange-looking guy in the middle of the desert at that point was a little off since things like that do tend to get reported, even if he wasn’t holding the gun after a few seconds. It’s something that would have still attracted attention, since deserts don’t just sprout RV’s that often, no matter how much shady stuff might go down in the middle of nowhere. On top of that, there are such things as surveillance cameras, fingerprint analysis, checking on a person’s whereabouts, and many other ways in which a person could be caught. Walt was a high school chemistry teacher and a bright one at that. But he wasn’t skilled in the ways of subterfuge, nor was he a tough guy until he absolutely had to be, and even then he wasn’t all that convincing.
The change in Walter’s character from one season to another was so profound that it would have likely sparked some kind of interest in Hank and other individuals that knew him, since like it or not, those dealing with cancer can change, but that kind of radical personality shift isn’t always bound to be ignored by everyone or simply accepted. Plus, Walt was acting so insanely different from what was deemed to be his normal self that it’s easy to think that those closest to him would have said something or gone and spoken to someone else that might have decided to keep an eye on him. Once things really started happening though, it’s likely that one trail or another would have started to lead back to him, so thinking that he would just get away with it wouldn’t have been likely. Plus, with new product being put on the market it wouldn’t have taken too long for the DEA to get wind of it, since informants, or snitches, are still important enough to keep around, and thus keep alive, since as shifty as some of them can be, they’re still quite useful to law enforcement since they can tend to get into locations that cops can’t.
Let’s put it this way, Breaking Bad was an awesome show, and it entertained a lot of individuals and probably even took its basis from a few of the more successful drug operations that have gone down over the years. But it was luck more than skill and intellect that kept Walter and Jesse from being picked up early on, since the cops aren’t quite that inept, and the DEA would have shut this operation down quickly without a doubt.