10. Griselda Blanco
Almost the epitome of a poor ne’er-do-well, Griselda Blanco was born in Cartagena, Colombia and ‘went bad’ almost straight away. One of her lovers claimed that Blanco kidnapped, ransomed and ultimately killed her first victim at the tender age of 11, a child from an upscale neighbourhood geographically close to her own slum home. She went on to become a pick-pocket, running away from her physically abusive mother by the age of 14. Almost inevitably she drifted into prostitution, until she was 20. She married Carlos Trujillo and bore him three sons. Her second husband was Alberto Bravo, with whom the family emigrated to the United States in the mid-1970s. They established a thriving cocaine business, which saw Blanco indicted on drug-selling charges. She fled to Colombia, but returned after just a couple of years. She set about expanding her business, brutally killing anyone perceived to get in her way, including one of her husbands. She was one of the first drug lords to import cocaine into the USA and her exploits gained her a host of nicknames: such as, La Madrina, The Black Widow and the Cocaine Grandmother. She was gunned down in September 2012 at the age of 69.
9. Curtis ‘Cocky’ Warren
Warren was born in the inner-city area of Liverpool known as Toxteth, and dropped out of school at 11, quickly becoming known to the police for various petty crimes. He escalated to car theft at age 12, being sentenced to one month’s detention at the age of thirteen and serving three months at the age of 15. An assault on the police saw him sentenced to borstal at 18 but he was out in time to wreak havoc during the Toxteth Riots of 1981. Finally in 1982, he was sent to prison for assaulting a prostitute and her client (he was known to be running a blackmail scam on prostitutes and their clients, the latter of whom were keen on discretion). Upon his release, the authorities were pleased to see that the young hoodlum had apparently ‘turned his life around’, obtaining a job as a bouncer at the nightclub. On the contrary, the older and by-now slightly wiser Warren used his position to learn about the workings of the drug trade, bartering knowledge and favours in exchange for allowing the dealers to ‘work’ the nightclub. Soon Warren was a known drug supplier and trafficker and also served time for an armed robbery. In his mid to late-twenties, Warren began a working relationship with another drug dealer, one Brian Charrington. Together they travelled and imported a huge amount of cocaine to the UK, hiding the drugs inside lead ingots. Customs searched the ingots, drilling through one bar, but found nothing and allowed the pair to continue. A second shipment followed, and this time the pair was arrested. However, the case fell apart as it was revealed that Charrington was actually a police informant, although it was discovered that he was incredibly well informed as to Customs procedure, even knowing the length of Custom’s longest drill bits (a piece of information that allowed him to craft ingots that would conceal their secret no matter what). (Scandalously, one of Charrington’s handlers was seen, a short time later, driving an expensive car that had previously been registered to Charrington…) Upon his release, Warren allegedly walked past the Customs’ officials stating cockily ‘I’m off to spend my £87 million from the first shipment and you can’t touch me.’ Now high on the police radar, Warren moved to the Netherlands and made good use of his photographic memory, frustrating the police by keeping all his bank account information, contacts and any data that could have helped to cement a case against him, firmly locked inside his head. In 1998, Warren appeared in the Sunday Times Rich List, as a property developer worth £40 million, although his name was subsequently removed after he was found guilty of drug and gun smuggling, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in gaol. While serving his time, he was attacked by another inmate, who he punched in the face several times, as well as kicking him. The inmate died, and despite Warren’s claim of self-defence he had four years added to his sentence because of the vigour of his defence. Upon his release and return to England, Warren was closely monitored by several law enforcement bodies, after which he was arrested in 2007. He is currently in HMS Belmarsh, serving a 13 year term that began in 2009.
8. Ismael Zambada Garcia
Something of a real life Walter White, Zambada was a farmer, with an extensive knowledge of agriculture and botany. He began his criminal career by moving just a few kilograms of drugs, but rapidly expanded his gang’s production of both heroin and marijuana while simultaneously brokering deals with Colombian cocaine dealers. Zambada, whose entire family is involved with the ‘family business’ is known to the authorities and is listed as a fugitive from justice. He moves frequently and uses cosmetic surgery to change his appearance, but manages to run his powerful drug cartel, forming alliances and feuds with the other drug lords in Mexico. (There is a reward for his capture, of around US$5 million, or 30 million pesos.)
7. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén
With a striking look of a young Tony Soprano, Osiel Cardenas began his adult life as a mechanic, quickly being absorbed into the Gulf Cartel. When the cartel’s leader, Juan Garcia Abrego, was arrested, there was a deadly power struggle within the ranks, which Cardenas won by dint of killing his rival and one-time friend, Salvador Gomez. This earned Cardenas the nickname ‘El Mata Amigos’ which translates to ‘friend killer’. To consolidate his position, he recruited a number of deserters from an elite group within the Mexican Army. He was arrested after a shootout with the Mexican authorities in 2003 and was extradited to the USA, where is he currently serving a 25 year sentence for drug trafficking, murder, money laundering and threatening law enforcement officers.
6. Manuel Noriega
Manuel Noriega originally seemed to be one of the ‘good guys’, enrolling in the army and being active in politics. He worked closely with the CIA and appeared to bamboozle US president after president, all the while tightening his stranglehold over his country, eventually becoming leader of Panama from 1983 to 1989. It was later said that Noriega has established one of the world’s first ‘narcokleptocracies’. Once the US could no longer turn a blind eye to Noriega’s activities and spurred to action by a series of incidents in which US soldiers were murdered, the US invaded Panama and arrested Noriega, trying him on eight counts of drug dealing, money laundering and racketeering. That sentence ended in September 2007, after which he was flown to France having been convicted in absentia of murder and money laundering charges. Despite having to serve seven years, he was conditionally released in order to be sent to Panama, to serve a twenty year sentence there!
5. Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman
Joaquin Guzman, known as ‘The Shorty’ because of his height (a mere five foot six inches), took leadership of the Mexican Gulf Cartel after the arrest of his rival Osiel Cardenas. Until his arrest in February 2014, he was said to be the ‘the most powerful drug trafficker in the world’. While some sources state that Guzman’s father was a rancher, others claim that he was an opium poppy farmer, which would mean that Guzman was literally born into the drug trade. Guzman’s father was physically abusive, and Guzman and his siblings were educated at home and by travelling teachers who periodically passed through the area, the nearest school being 60 kilometres away. He worked cultivating opium poppies, helping with the harvest and helping to sell marijuana, although he rapidly tired of his father’s habit of spending all the profits on alcohol and women. Guzman, along with four cousins, established his own marijuana field and began to support the family until his father kicked him out of home. From there, and with the aid of an uncle, he drifted steadily into organised crime, working his way up to the top. He was arrested in 1993, but escaped and managed to remain free for twenty years, some say because of his habit of bribing officials to look the other way. He is currently awaiting trial and could potentially end up serving forty years.
4. Frank Lucas
photo: © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons
Frank Lucas is an African American drug lord who operated in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s. He is best known for cutting out the middleman in drug transactions and made use of the US Army’s practise of repatriating the bodies of fallen soldiers, smuggling drugs in pallets underneath the coffins. His life (or a rather sensationalised version of it!) is portrayed in the movie American Gangster which stars Denzel Washington. Lucas claimed that he segued into a life of crime after witnessing the murder of a cousin by the Ku Klux Klan for apparently ‘eyeballing’ a Caucasian woman. After several petty crimes he fled to New York and fell under the protection of gangster Bumpy Johnson. After learning the ropes of the drug trade Lucas realised that he would need to break the strangle-hold of the Italian mafia and came up with the idea of importing his own goods directly from source, a ploy that helped him to become very rich indeed. After his first arrest, all his property was seized, including funds in the Cayman Islands. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison, but co-operated with investigators, providing evidence that led to over 100 arrests, and ultimately was released after just five years. Some years later he was arrested making a relatively small drug deal and was sentenced to 7 years, being released in 1991. Lucas has seven children and has been married, somewhat tumultuously, for forty years. He is now confined to a wheelchair, following a car accident in which both of his legs were broken.
3. Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Amado was literally born to crime, with his uncle Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo being the head of the Guadalajara Cartel. Amado worked for his uncle from an early age, bringing his own innovative ideas into play. His nickname was ‘El Senor de los Cielos’ or ‘Lord of the Skies’, because of the fleet of planes (27 or so Boeing 727s) that he used to transport his product to airstrips and small airports all over Mexico. His power base grew and despite being actively sought by law enforcement, Carrillo managed to stay below the radar. He is thought to have been so very successful as he stayed low key, brokered deals with rival cartels instead of fighting with them and ran a fairly sophisticated operation. His sphere of influence was slowly and steadily growing (his business was reputedly worth US$25 billion) when he died during plastic surgery and liposuction to alter his appearance. Two of his bodyguards were in the operating room at the time, and rumours abounded: the body was not that of Amado but his cousin; the bodyguards killed him (the two surgeons were later found having been tortured, killed and stuffed into steel drums and covered with concrete) in an act of betrayal. Various law enforcement authorities satisfied themselves that the body was indeed that of Amado, but doubts still remain about whether the death was due to homicide or accident.
2. ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross
Photo: Patrick Bastien Photography / Wikicommons
Rick Ross’ life could have been so very different. He played tennis exceptionally well in high school, but unfortunately could not obtain a scholarship to college because of literacy issues. He began to spend time with an upholstery teacher who had a side-line: that of small-time cocaine dealer. Ross began to sell too, and quickly escalated until his teacher could no longer supply the amounts he needed. Ross and a friend found suppliers who could provide cheap Nicaraguan cocaine and they began to sell their cocaine up to US$10,000 cheaper than other the current street price. He reinvested all his profits at first, essentially to hide any the money that he was making from his mother, fearing her reaction if he suddenly began to spend lavishly on himself! He moved tremendous amounts of cocaine, reportedly making a profit of around $300 million and acquiring the nickname ‘Freeway Ricky’ because he worked and lived along the Los Angeles Harbour Freeway. He was caught in a police sting in which he purchased over 100 kilograms of cocaine and was subsequently given a life sentence. This was reduced to twenty on appeal with the judge agreeing that he had been ‘over sentenced’. Ross is now reformed and has a regular slot on The Joe Rogan Appearance and has co-authored a ‘Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography’. He has also appeared on several documentaries about the drug trade.
1. Pablo Escobar
photo: thierry ehrmann / flickr
Pablo Escobar was another drug lord who blurred the lines between criminal enterprise and high level politics. At his peak he was estimated to be worth US£30 billion with earned him the soubriquet of ‘The King of Cocaine’. Escobar started low, committing various petty crimes, peaking with a kidnapping that earned him US$100.000, before discovering the drug trade and setting himself the target of being a millionaire by the time he was 22. After his first arrest, Escobar established a pattern of either bribing or killing officials (this policy was known as ‘plata o plomo’ which means ‘silver or lead’!) and his business grew immensely. As well as flying drugs into the USA, Escobar ran two small submarines too. Escobar was persuaded to turn himself in, in exchange for a lighter sentence and certain privileges, but continued to operate his criminal enterprise from behind bars. When the government planned to move him in order to prevent a rumoured escape, Escobar had sufficient forewarning to make his escape in a leisurely and disciplined fashion! He went in to hiding, but was tracked down and killed in a shootout with authorities. Thanks to a Robin Hood image, he was widely mourned with around 25,000 people attending his funeral.