A drug lord, drug baron, kingpin, or narcotrafficker is a person who controls a sizable network of people involved in the illegal drug trade. Such figures are often difficult to bring to justice, as they are normally not directly in possession of something illegal, but are insulated from the actual trade in drugs by several layers of underlings. The prosecution of drug lords is therefore usually the result of carefully planned infiltration into their networks, often using informants from within the organization.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Guzmán is the most significant drug lord in history. He is well known for his use of sophisticated tunnels—similar to the one located in Douglas, Arizona—to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the United States in the early 1990s. In 1993, a 7.3-ton shipment of his cocaine, concealed in cans of chili peppers and destined for the United States, was seized in Tecate, Baja California. That same year he barely escaped an ambush by the Tijuana Cartel led by Ramon Arellano Felix and his gunmen. After being captured in Guatemala, he was jailed in 1993 and in 1995 he was moved to the maximum-security prison called Puente Grande, but paid his way out of prison and hid in a laundry van as it drove through the gates. On 22 February 2014, Guzmán was arrested again. He is considered a folk hero in the narcotics world, celebrated by musicians who write and perform narcocorridos (drug ballads) extolling his exploits. For example, Los Traviezos recorded a ballad extolling his life on the run. In July 2015, Guzman escaped a second time from a maximum-security prison through a hole in a shower floor that led to a mile-long tunnel, ending at a nearby house. A large-scale manhunt ensued. On 8 January 2016, Guzmán was captured by the Mexican Marines.
Jorge Alberto Rodríguez, also known as Don Cholito, is a notorious Colombian-Puerto Rican drug lord from the Bronx, New York, who headed The 400 criminal organization, a dismantled secret cell of the Cali Cartel. Pulled into the drug trade at age 12, he left home at age 14 to begin working for his father, Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, who headed the Cali Cartel. Within six years he had made hundreds of millions by shipping drugs from Colombia to nearly every U.S. state. He was one of the most-ruthless international drug lords unknown to law enforcement or governments. During that time, the nation's murder rate and cocaine-related hospital emergencies doubled. He was arrested in 1990 in Tallahassee, Florida and sentenced to a 25-year prison term for a number of federal violations. Following his conviction, Rodriguez continued to operate his illicit business from behind bars, importing as much as 12,500 kilograms (27,600 lb) into the U.S. every month and ordering numerous murders of informants, witnesses, and law-enforcement officials in the U.S. and Colombia. He reigned and flourished while incarcerated until he was placed in court-ordered high-security isolation in 1994.
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (December 1, 1949 – December 2, 1993) was a Colombian drug overlord. Often referred to as the "World's Greatest Outlaw", Escobar was perhaps the most elusive cocaine trafficker to have ever existed. In 1989 Forbes magazine declared Escobar as the seventh-richest man in the world, with an estimated personal fortune of US$25 billion. In 1986, he attempted to enter Colombian politics. It is said that Pablo Escobar once burnt two million dollars in cash to keep warm while on the run.
Griselda Blanco (1943–2012), known as the "Godmother of Cocaine", was a drug lord who operated between Miami and Colombia during the 1970s and 1980s. During the height of her operation, she smuggled nearly 1,600 kilograms (3,500 lb) of cocaine into the U.S. every month through a network in south Florida. She was noted for her ruthlessness and use of extreme violence, employing tactics such as publicly assassinating people in broad daylight, bayoneting a rival trafficker inside Miami International Airport, and inventing the drive-by motorcycle shooting execution method. It was estimated that she was responsible for the homicides of 200 people in Colombia, Florida, New York, and California. Arrested in 1985 for drug-trafficking charges, she was subsequently convicted and spent almost 20 years in a U.S. prison. She was killed by motorcycle hitmen in Colombia on 3 September 2012 as she was coming out of a butcher's shop.
Pablo Escobar started to buy cocaine from Roberto Suárez in the 1970s when he had just created the Medellín cartel. Suárez started building cocaine laboratories in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon jungle and in the zone of "Los Yungas" in the end of the 1960s and created the first cocaine cartel in Bolivia called "La Corporación". At first, the Medellin cartel bought cocaine at $8,000 per kilogram ($3,600/lb). La Corporación then sold cocaine-based paste to Colombian cartels, and they finished and distributed it in the east of the United States. The finished cocaine was sold directly to Mexican cartels for distribution in the west of the United States. Suárez received untold amounts of money, but as detectives and journalists discovered the corruption between Bolivia and the U.S., the empire Suárez built began to fall. Suárez was arrested by the DEA in 1988, and Escobar took over of the production and distribution of 80% of the world's cocaine.
Rick Ross (born January 28, 1960), a.k.a. "Freeway" Ricky Ross, is a convicted drug-trafficker best known for the drug empire he presided over in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. The nickname "Freeway" came from Ross growing up next to the 110 Harbor Freeway. During the height of his drug dealing, Ross was said to have made "$2 million in one day." According to the Oakland Tribune, "In the course of his rise, prosecutors estimate that Ross transported several tons of cocaine to New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, and made more than $600 million in the process."
In 1998, Ross was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of purchasing more than 100 kilograms of cocaine from a federal agent during a sting operation. Ross became the subject of controversy later that year when a series of articles by journalist Gary Webb in the San Jose Mercury News revealed a connection between Ross's main cocaine source, Danilo Blandon, and the CIA as part of the Iran–Contra affair. Ross's case went before the federal court of appeals and his sentence was reduced to 20 years. He was later moved to a halfway house in March 2009 and released from custody on September 29, 2009.
For more than a decade, Panamanian Manuel Noriega was a highly paid CIA asset and collaborator, despite knowledge by U.S. drug authorities as early as 1971 that the general was heavily involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Noriega facilitated "guns-for-drugs" flights for the Nicaraguan Contras, whom the U.S. were heavily supporting: providing protection and pilots, safe havens for drug cartel officials, and discreet banking facilities. He was arrested in 1990.
As the top drug-trafficker in Mexico, Amado Carrillo (1956–1997) was transporting four times more cocaine to the U.S. than any other trafficker, building a fortune of over $25 billion. He was called El Señor de Los Cielos ("The Lord of the Skies") for his use of over 22 private 727 jet airliners to transport Colombian cocaine to municipal airports and dirt airstrips around Mexico, including Juárez. In the months before his death, the DEA described Carrillo as the most-powerful drug trafficker of his era, and many analysts claimed profits neared $25 billion, making him one of the world's wealthiest men.
Arellano Félix was a Mexican drug trafficker linked to the Tijuana drug cartel (a.k.a. the Arellano-Félix Organization). Arellano Félix was allegedly one of the most ruthless members of the cartel and was a suspect in various murders. He had been linked by Mexican police to the 1997 massacre of twelve members of a family outside of Ensenada, Baja California. The family was related to a drug dealer that had an unpaid debt to the Arellano Félix Cartel. On September 18, 1997, Arellano Félix was placed on the FBI's ten most-wanted list. In a sealed indictment in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, he was charged with conspiracy to import cocaine and marijuana.
Ismael Zambada García is a drug smuggler in Mexico. Mexico's top anti-drug prosecutor, José Santiago Vasconcelos, called Zambada "drug dealer No. 1" and said the fugitive has become more powerful as his fellow kingpins have fallen, including one who was allegedly killed on Zambada's orders.
Klaas Bruinsma (1953–1991) was a major Dutch drug lord, shot to death by mafia member and former police officer Martin Hoogland. Bruinsma was known as "De Lange" ("the tall one") and as "De Dominee" ("the preacher") because of his black clothing and his habit of lecturing others.
Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva (September 27, 1961 – December 16, 2009) was the leader of the Mexican drug-trafficking organization known as the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, which is headed by the Beltrán Leyva brothers: Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo and Héctor. The cartel was engaged in cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine production, transportation, and wholesaling. It controlled numerous drug-trafficking corridors into the U.S. and was also responsible for human smuggling, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, murder, contract killing, torture, gun-running, and other acts of violence in Mexico. The organization was connected with the assassinations of numerous Mexican law-enforcement officials.
Frank Lucas is a former heroin dealer and organized crime boss who operated in Harlem, New York during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was known for cutting out middlemen in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from his source in the Golden Triangle. Lucas boasted that he smuggled heroin using the coffins of dead American servicemen, but this claim is denied by his South Asian associate, Leslie "Ike" Atkinson. His career was dramatized in the 2007 feature film American Gangster starring Denzel Washington.
Leroy Antonio "Nicky" Barnes (born October 15, 1933) is a former drug lord and crime boss of the notorious African-American crime organization known as The Council, which controlled the heroin trade in Harlem, New York during the 1970s. In 2007 he released a book, Mr Untouchable, written with Tom Folsom, and a documentary DVD of the same name, about his life. In the 2007 film American Gangster, Barnes is portrayed by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Zhenli Ye Gon (traditional Chinese: 葉真理; born January 31, 1963, Shanghai, People's Republic of China) is a Mexican businessman of Chinese origin accused of trafficking pseudoephedrine into Mexico from Asia. At the time of his arrest, he had $207 million cash and 18 million Mexican pesos in his house. He claimed that he was forced by Javier Lozano Alarcón, putatively identified as the Secretary of Labor, to keep it at his home and that this money would be used during Felipe Calderón's presidential campaign in 2006. He is the legal representative of Unimed Pharm Chem México. The charges against him were dismissed with prejudice in August 2009 as a result of the efforts of his attorneys, Manuel J. Retureta  and A. Eduardo Balarezo.
Michael Christopher Coke (born 13 March 1969), a.k.a. Dudus, is a Jamaican drug lord and the leader of the Shower Posse gang. He is the youngest son of drug lord Lester Lloyd Coke whose extradition had also, prior to his 1992 death in a Jamaican prison cell, been requested by the U.S. Until the younger Coke's handover to U.S. forces on 24 June 2010, "Dudus" served as the de facto leader of Tivoli Gardens in the city of Kingston; prior to his 2010 capture Jamaican police were unable to enter this neighborhood without community consent.
The son of a prominent drug lord, Coke grew up wealthy, going to school with children of the country's political elite. Ruling the gang where his father left off, he became a leader in the community of Tivoli Gardens, distributing money to the area's poor, creating employment, and setting up community centers.
In 2009, the U.S. began requesting his extradition, and in May 2010, a recalcitrant Government of Jamaica issued a warrant. That same month the government took steps to capture Coke. In a run-up to Coke's arrest, more than 70 people–all but one of them civilians–died in a 24 May 2010 raid of Tivoli Gardens. He was arrested at a Jamaican checkpoint on 22 June 2010.
Demetrius Flenory is known as one of the co-founders of the Black Mafia Family, a Detroit-based drug-trafficking organization involving the large-scale distribution of cocaine throughout the U.S. from 1990 to 2005. There are currently plans to produce a film based upon his career.
Following the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, significant changes occurred in the structure or drug trade, departing from massive cartels such as Juan David Ochoa's Medellín cartel. Drug lords have begun breaking the large cartels into much smaller organizations. In so doing, they decreased the number of people involved and shrank their role as targets—most likely in an attempt to avoid the fate of their predecessors. With newer technology, drug lords are able to manage their operations more effectively from behind the scenes, keeping themselves out of the spotlight and off the FBI and DEA wanted lists. These smaller cartels are slowly proving to be safer and more profitable for those involved.
Up until the demise of Pablo Escobar, in many instances, drug lords essentially ran the governments of the locations they controlled through bribery and assassination. However, this way of controlling their operations is becoming less prevalent. One of the most-notorious examples of the treatment given to drug lords is in the incarceration of Escobar. Although Escobar was, after turning himself in, jailed for his participation in drug trafficking in Colombia, the "jail" in which he was captive was a million-dollar palace built with his own funds. Another famous crime lord who enjoyed lightened jail life was Al Capone, who continued to run his business from his jail cell, which contained tables, chairs, a bed, flowers, and paintings. For drug lords of the past, jail often served as a way to avoid further persecution.
Another trend that has been emerging in the last decade is a willingness of local authorities to cooperate with foreign nations, most notably the U.S., in an effort to apprehend and incarcerate drug lords. Recently, especially in the last five years, countries have been more willing to extradite their drug lords to face charges in other countries, an act that not only benefits them directly but also gives them favor with foreign governments. Mexico extradited 63 drug dealers to the U.S. in 2006. However, extradition may be prohibited if the person faces the death penalty.