Offhand, drug lords make for a problematic top 10, as reliable data concerning their operations doesn’t exist, making their “achievements” impossible to verify and subject to all sorts of exaggeration and rumor. However, such legends and modern folklore also present the best criteria by which to rank these kings and queens of the black market; what follows is a list of the top 10 drug lords based on an amalgam of their influence, innovation, notoriety, and legend.
10.“Freeway” Ricky Ross
A major crack distributor during the 1980s, Ross’ operation is alleged to have purchased in excess of 400 kilos of cocaine a week while selling as much as $3 million of crack every day. As a result, some consider him to be solely responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in the U.S., a claim flatly refuted in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Justice, who acknowledged the mammoth size of his operation, but dismissed any notion that Ross — or any one individual — could conceivably shoulder all the blame.
Downfall: In 1996, Ross was set up by his partner to sell 100 kilos of coke to an undercover DEA agent.
2008 status: Ricky Ross is currently incarcerated in the U.S.
9.Paul Lir Alexander, aka “The Baron of Cocaine”
Some early aspects of Alexander’s story — namely his claims of having been trained by the Israeli Mossad — are highly suspect. What is known about him is that he became a major Brazilian coke trafficker before his luck ran out, and he also became a DEA informant. As an informant, he was instrumental in bringing down a number of major traffickers, or — to put it another way — he succeeded in eliminating many of his competitors, as Alexander did not bother to shut down his own operation while ratting out others.
Downfall: Alexander had a habit of double-crossing people, and the DEA didn’t appreciate that.
2008 status: Alexander is currently incarcerated in Brazil.
8.Santiago Luis Polanco Rodriguez, aka “Yayo”
Country of operation: USA
Clients: USA, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic
Product: Crack cocaine
Rodriguez brought crack to the masses by using a more traditional business model than is typically seen in the drug trade. His clever merchandising techniques included weekend discounts, the use of business cards, brand recognition, and distribution to dealers in glassine envelopes (the kind stamp collectors use). In the words of sociologist Robert Jackall, “One has to recognize his particular and peculiar genius even if one doesn’t honor it.”
Downfall: Rodriguez ditched a massive DEA dragnet in 1987, but non-drug-related trouble in the Dominican Republic earned him some prison time.
2008 status: Today, Rodriguez lives lavishly with his wife and children in the Dominican, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.
7.Felix Mitchell, aka “The Cat”
Country of operation: USA
Product: Heroin, crack cocaine
“Mob 69,” Mitchell’s massive, gang-controlled drug operation, was the first of its kind, and he controlled it in part with a brilliant bit of PR: Sponsoring local athletics and taking children on field trips to zoos and amusement parks. Yet, when he was thrown in prison, a new kind of inner-city violence was born: what had been a tightly controlled monopoly under Mitchell became an unstable battleground in his absence, replete with drive-bys and increased violence between competitors vying for his business.
Downfall: Mitchell’s notoriety made him a target for authorities, earning him a life sentence in Leavenworth.
2008 status: Mitchell was stabbed and killed less than two years into his sentence. His funeral was a spectacle: Rolls Royce limousines followed a horse-drawn carriage bringing his casket through crowded Oakland streets lined with thousands of mourners.
Lehder made two significant contributions to the illegal drug trade: 1) He cofounded the Medellin Cartel, possibly the most profitable and violent drug cartel in history; 2) He revolutionized the transport and distribution business by upgrading from drug mules to prop planes, flying drugs from Colombia to the U.S. via the Bahamas. In one stroke, he increased volume exponentially; profits — in staggering numbers — inevitably followed.
Downfall: Lehder’s megalomania got the better of him. He commandeered an entire Bahamian island and transformed it into his own untouchable transport headquarters, where an estimated 300 kilos of coke arrived every hour.
2008 status: Lehder is currently incarcerated in the U.S.
5.Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha
As a young man, Rodriguez was a hired gun for emerald-mine mobsters, working for notorious coke traffickers like Veronica Rivera de Vargas before moving up to become the Medellin Cartel’s No. 2 man behind Pablo Escobar. He would ultimately amass a fortune in the billions, drawing the attention of Forbes, which put him in their list of global billionaires in 1988.
Gacha was nothing if not tireless, always looking for new, creative trafficking routes from Mexico into the U.S. He is also credited with substantially raising the brutal profile of the Cartel by hiring foreign mercenaries to come to Columbia and train the cartel’s troops in such things as assassination and guerrilla warfare.
Downfall: Increasing violence on behalf of the Cartel, including multiple assassination orders direct from Rodriguez, led to a crackdown on Medellin in the late 1980s.
2008 status: Gacha died in 1989, following a gunfight with Colombian police.
4.Griselda Blanco, aka the “Cocaine Queen of Miami”
As the undisputed “Cocaine Queen of Miami,” the brutal, ruthless and probably psychotic Blanco proved a highly effective trafficker for the Medellin Cartel, amassing a personal fortune estimated at $500 million.
She also liked to wear haute couture fashions and loved to smoke crack, but her greatest passion — as well as the source of her enduring legend — was in ordering creative, cold-blooded assassinations, possibly as many as 200, including one failed attempt in which the hitman was instructed to use a bayonet.
Downfall: Blanco’s ruthlessness — which included the shooting death of a 2-year-old — gave DEA agents added incentive to hunt her down. In 1985, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking.
Status: Released from prison in 2004 and immediately deported to Columbia, Blanco’s current whereabouts are unknown.
3.Khun Sa, aka “The Opium King”
In the mid-1960s, Burmese warlord Khun Sa disappeared into the jungle with an army of 800 men and began to cultivate opium. An entire town sprung up around his operation, and at the height of his power, Khun Sa was the world’s most prolific heroin trafficker, producing as much as three quarters of the world’s supply and regularly running mule trains loaded with heroin through Thailand en route to the U.S. The DEA, which referred to him as a ruthless “Prince of Death,” desperately wanted to bring him to justice and continually offered Burmese officials as much as $2 million to hand him over.
Downfall: In the mid-‘90s, allegedly concerned that officials would in fact turn him over to the U.S., Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese government, which then steadfastly refused to extradite him.
Status: Khun Sa lived a luxurious life in Rangoon until his death in late 2007.
2.Amado Carrillo Fuentes, aka the ““Lord of the Skies”
Fuentes learned the drug trade by working for Colombians during the cocaine boom, but his first brilliant move was to eschew cash payments. Instead of cash, Amado took his pay in coke and used it to develop his own distribution system. As Colombian cartels buckled under the crackdown of the late 1980s, Fuentes was turning the colossal Juarez Cartel in Mexico into a $30-million-a-day juggernaut — in large part due to his audacious decision to use a fleet of 727s to ship product from Peru, Bolivia and Colombia to Mexico. At his peak, he had Mexico’s top drug enforcement official on his payroll, and his own net worth was believed to be somewhere around $25 billion.
Downfall: Although a sophisticated and diplomatic businessman, Amado’s operation was so huge that he inevitably became the most wanted trafficker in the world.
Status: In 1997, plastic surgeons altering his appearance fatally botched the procedure; those surgeons were later discovered stuffed into oil drums.
Pablo Escobar was not the most intelligent drug lord, nor was he the most organized or the most innovative. Simply put: He was the most ruthless, and this made all the difference. The head of the Medellin Cartel ran his empire with virtual impunity within Colombia, carrying out a campaign of violence against anyone who dared challenge it, resulting in the assassination of 30 judges, over 400 police officers, and the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 in the mistaken belief that Colombian presidential candidate Gaviria was on board (he wasn’t, but 107 civilians were). Estimates put the Medellin kill toll at over 3,000.
At its peak, Escobar’s cartel is believed to have controlled four-fifths of the world cocaine market, seeing an estimated annual revenue of $30 billion (roughly double the revenue for Oracle between Colombia and the U.S.).
Downfall: Anxious about being extradited to the U.S., Escobar brokered a sweetheart deal with the Colombian movement that put him in the most luxurious prison imaginable, but Escobar couldn’t stay out of trouble and soon he fled the prison.
Status: Pablo Escobar died in 1993 after being hunted down by Colombian and U.S. government forces.