TV programmes like Narcos, Weeds and Breaking Bad have turned drug lords into light entertainment – when the reality is that their lives are anything but entertaining.
Not only is the lifestyle of a drug lord fraught with violence, but you also face the constant threat of being caught and imprisoned for your part in the drug trade. 16% of prisoners in the US prison system have committed crimes that have a drug connection, which would suggest that the police are pretty good at catching those involved in domestic drug dealing.
However, drugs need to get into the country before they can hit the streets of US cities, and most of the drugs sold in America come from South and Central America – cocaine from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia, while Mexico is responsible for most of the heroin sold in the US and two-thirds of the marijuana consumed north of the border.
This means that the people who have made the most money from drug smuggling can also be found in South and Central America. In 2009, Mexico published a list of its 37 most wanted drug lords. As of January 2016, 25 of them had been captured, eight had been killed – but four still remain at large. Here are 15 most famous drug lords.
15. Marcos Arturo Beltran Leyva
Marcos Arturo was the leader Beltran-Leyva cartel which was run by him and his three brothers, Carlos, Alfredo and Hector in Mexico. Responsible for the production of meth, cocaine, heroin and marijuana, as well as its trafficking across the border into the US, Marcos Arturo and his brothers were also connected with the murders of several Mexican police officers, and had links to human trafficking, gun smuggling and kidnapping. All round nice guys. Marcos Arturo was killed by the Mexican Marines in 2009 – earlier that year he had been listed on Mexico’s most wanted drug lords list, with a price of over $2million on his head.
14. Rick Ross
“Freeway” Rick Ross was a hugely successful drug lord in Los Angeles in the 1980s. He claimed to once have sold $3 million worth of cocaine in one day, when his empire was at its peak. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1996, under the US three strikes rule, but after studying law, identified a loophole and managed to get his sentence reduced to 20 years. Upon his release in 2009, he reinvented himself as something of a cultural icon, writing his autobiography, and regularly acting as a consultant on movies and TV shows relating to the US drugs trade.
13. Amado Carillo Fuentes
Nicknamed “Lord of the Skies” because of his frequent use of airplanes to transport his goods around the Americas, Amada Carillo Fuentes was a leading member of the Mexican Juarez cartel – a position he obtained when he assassinated the cartel’s previous leader, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo in 1993. Fuentes had a very dull death for a drug lord, hence no going down in a blaze of glory for him. Knowing that the Mexican and US authorities were hot on his trail he decided in 1997 to have plastic surgery to change his appearance, and ended up dying of complications from the operation in a Mexico City clinic.
12. Frank Lucas
Frank Lucas was a notorious drug dealer who operated in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, buying heroin from South East Asia, and reportedly using the coffins of US servicemen who had died in the Vietnam War to smuggle the drugs back into America. In 1975, he was arrested and sentenced to 70 years in prison, though he had that drastically reduced when he turned informant, helping police to secure 100 drug-related convictions. He eventually left prison in 1991, and left the drugs business, celebrating his 85th birthday in 2016. His life was the subject of a major film starring Denzel Washington, American Gangster, which was released in 2007.
11. Griselda Blanco
As the only woman on this list, Griselda Blanco should probably be known as a famous drug lady, rather than a drug lord. Known as the Black Widow, Griselda was a key figure in the Medellin cartel, and is thought to have been responsible for as many as 200 murders during her drug smuggling days. Although she was sentenced to ten years in jail in 1985, Blanco managed to continue running her empire from behind bars, and she was eventually released in 2004. She was killed in a drive-by shooting in the city of Medellin in 2012 at the age of 69, as she visited her local butchers shop.
10. Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela
The Cali Cartel, named after the Colombian city where it was based, was established by a pair of brothers, Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and Jose Santacruz Londono. The trio had once been part of the infamous Medellin Cartel, run by the even more infamous Pablo Escobar (who makes his own appearance later in this list) but they decided to branch out on their own in the 1980s. At their height, it was thought that the brothers and their associates in the cartel controlled about 90% of the world’s cocaine trade, and that their business was worth several billion dollars a year.
9. Jose Gonzalez Rodriguez Gacha
José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha was one of the most successful members of the Medellin cartel – until his death in 1989, when he was killed in a shoot-out with the Colombian authorities in the city of Cartagena. Gacha was such a success at trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the west coast of the US, that the prestigious Forbes magazine even included him in their annual list of worldwide billionaires in 1988! When it came to his funeral, thousands of people lined the streets in his hometown of Pacho, where Gacha had donated money to renovate buildings and help local families.
8. Carlos Lehder
One of the founding members of the Medellin cartel, Carlos Lehder, was a major player in the cocaine trafficking business, and even survived an attempted kidnapping in 1981. Colombian guerrillas would often kidnap members of the drug cartels or their families, using the ransom payments they extorted to fund their continuing fight against the government. Lehder was finally caught by the Colombian authorities and then extradited to the US in 1987. He then agreed to testify against other key figures in the drug trade, and received a shortened 55-year sentence in exchange for his co-operation.
7. Felix Mitchell
Heading north into the US itself, Felix Mitchell is one of the most notorious of the American drug lords. Known as Felix the Cat, he operated in his home city of Los Angeles, as well as Detroit and San Francisco, dealing in cocaine and heroin, and doing it very well, as estimates suggest his enterprise was bringing in $5million every year. Mitchell was sentenced to life in 1985 for his drug-related crimes, and was killed in jail just one year later, at the age of 32, when he was stabbed by a fellow inmate at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.
6. Ismael Zambada Garcia
Ismael Zambada Garcia is one of the most successful drug lords on this list – as of 2017 he remained at large despite the efforts of Mexican and US police officers to track him down. He reportedly also uses plastic surgery, frequently changing his appearance, and never remaining in one place for too long in an effort to keep ahead of the law. He is head of the Sinaloa cartel, which transports heroin, cocaine, meth and marijuana into the US. Between 1990 and 2008, this one cartel alone reportedly imported 200 tons of cocaine into American cities.
5. Curtis Warren
Heading across the Atlantic now, where Curtis Warren is one the UK’s most infamous drug lords, working with the Colombian Cali cartel to smuggle cocaine into the country, as well as sourcing marijuana from Turkey and Eastern Europe. Warren’s success in the drugs trade saw him placed in The Sunday Times Rich List in 1998, and he owned properties and businesses across Europe, bought with his ill-gotten gains. Later that year, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison in The Netherlands for drug smuggling, and is currently serving a 13-year sentence for manslaughter in HMP Belmarsh in London.
4. Osiel Cardenas Guillen
Osiel Cardenas Guillen is a former leader of the Mexican Gulf cartel; he seized control of the organisation when he murdered his friend and former leader Salvador Gomez, which earned him the nickname El Mata Amigos or Friend-Killer. Osiel was captured by the Mexican authorities in 2003, and extradited to the US in 2007 where he is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and murder. Drugs are clearly a family business, as Osiel’s two brothers both worked for the Gulf cartel; Antonio was killed by Mexican Marines in 2010, while Mario is still going strong – for now!
3. Manuel Noriega
Although he is probably better known as a political figure, the former military dictator of Panama, Manuel Noriega, was also a major drug trafficker. Initially used by the US government as an informant, he was removed from power in 1989 by the American invasion of Panama, and subsequently faced charges of drug trafficking and money laundering – crimes that the US had turned a blind eye to when Noriega was useful to them. He left prison in the US in 2007 and was immediately extradited to France to face further charges, although he was allowed to serve his sentence in Panama, where he died in May 2017.
2. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman
Known by his nickname of El Chapo (Shorty), Joaquin Guzman was a major player in the Sinaloa cartel, taking over the top job when Osiel Cardenas Guillen was imprisoned in 2003. Forbes magazine rated him one of the most powerful people in the world from 2009 to 2011, and he is considered to be the godfather of the Mexican drug world. He was named Public Enemy Number One in Chicago, even though there was no evidence to suggest that he had ever visited the city! Guzman was extradited to the US in January 2017 to face charges connected to his criminal empire.
1. Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar is one of the most famous criminals ever, never mind the most famous drug lord. At the height of his success, he had a net worth of $30 billion, and his Medellin cartel was thought to be importing about 80% of the cocaine found on US streets. Escobar surrendered to Colombian police in 1991, but his wealth and influence meant that he served his time in his own private prison, from which he continued to run his criminal enterprise. He escaped jail in 1992 and went on the run, dying in a 1993 shoot-out with a special Colombian task force which had been set up to track him down.
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