Although Kanye West have given new meaning to the phrase “the life of Pablo,” the aforementioned forename is often most attributed to notorious, Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, who has taken ownership of it despite notable contributions to humanity by the likes of artist, Pablo Picasso and poet, Pablo Neruda.
At the height of his drug smuggling operation in 1989, Escobar was worth an estimated $30 million USD (adjusted for today’s inflation rate) – making him the seventh richest man in the entire world – thanks to the efficiency of his Medellin Cartel which was able to smuggle 15 tons of cocaine into the U.S. every day which turned their $5,000 USD spent on production into $50,000 USD in street value. To put that in perspective, Escobar was getting paid off 365 days of the year on weight as substantial as two African elephants and controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine trade.
In a more contemporary context, Escobar’s notoriety and ruthless business acumen became synonymous with Joaquín Guzmán Loera – also known as “El Chapo” – who the DEA called “the leading drug trafficker of all time,” and “the godfather of the drug world” as the drug lord of the Sinaloa cartel.
In fact, the same official speaking on behalf of the DEA noted that El Chapo was more successful than Escobar himself, saying, “Pablo’s business in Colombia was based on the exportation of cocaine. With Chapo, he not only has the importation of cocaine, but marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, and he is exporting them not only to the U.S. but to Asia and Europe.”
When he was arrested on charges in 2014, The Washington Post noted, “Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán [was] the man who supplied more illegal drugs to the United States than anyone else on Earth.”
Having taken on a mythical status thanks to a number of daring prison escapes both in 2001 and 2016, he remains one of the most cited drug lords alongside Pablo Escobar.
With Narcos season two premiering tomorrow on Netflix, here are five more notable drug lords you should be familiar with.
Leroy “Nicky” Barnes
Leroy “Nicky” Barnes rose to prominence in Harlem in the 1970s after forming “The Council” which was a recognized organization in the criminal underworld with ties to the Italian crime family, the Lucchese’s, who they supplied raw heroin. This deal was brokered through a friend of Barnes, Matty Madonna, with whom he had spent time with inside of Green Haven State Prison for drug charges.
Although he had several run-ins with the law, Barnes earned a reputation that no matter what he was caught with – including $500,000 USD worth of narcotics – no prosecutor or judge could make the charges stick so the he was ever forced to endure the entire length of his sentence. Additionally, he would often lead surveillance teams on hundred-mile-an-hour car rides into New York City and then out again with no apparent purpose.
In 1974, police officers discovered more than $130,000 USD in cash in Barnes’s car, and claimed that he tried to bribe them. The following year, Barnes was found not guilty in the bribery case, and acquitted in the murder case involving Clifford Haynes who was the brother of a “Councilman” girlfriend who had run away with some of the organization’s money.
By 1976, Barnes had at least seven major lieutenants working for him, each of whom controlled a dozen mid-level distributors, who in turn supplied up to 40 street-level retailers.
A New York Times article reported that Barnes owned 300 suits, 100 pairs of shoes, and 50 leather coats. His fleet of cars included a Mercedes-Benz, a Citroen-Macerate, and several Thunderbirds, Lincoln Continentals, and Cadillacs. To prevent his cars from being seized and forfeited, Barnes set up phony leasing companies to make it appear that the cars he drove were not owned by him, but merely rented.
Nicky Barnes solidified his reputation as “Mr. Untouchable” with the release of a 1977 New York Times Magazine cover story written by Fred Ferretti which chronicled his drug exploits and seemed to spit in the face of law enforcement officials who were hellbent on putting him away on charges of distributing heroin.
President Jimmy Carter reportedly saw the article and put pressure on the Justice Department to prosecute Barnes to the fullest extent of the law which resulted in a conviction that same year for flooding black neighborhoods with heroin and charges of narcotics racketeering.
Barnes was sentenced in 1978 to life in prison without parole and was sent to the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois to serve his time.
In the words of the prosecutor, Barnes controlled “the largest, most profitable and venal drug ring in New York City.”
In 1984, Barnes testified against four men who made up the aforementioned “Council” – Guy Fisher, Frank James, Wallace Rice and Ishmael Muhammed – who all received life without parole. Barnes felt he had been wronged by his associates, especially Fisher.
“When I went to the joint, I gave Guy Fisher a woman of mine and told him to look out for her, take care of her,” Barnes said. After learning they had become romantically involved, Barnes was ready to speak.
In passing sentence, the judge said that Mr. Barnes’s testimony was “convincing, devastating and indeed shocking.”
Eventually, Barnes was resentenced to 35 years and housed in a special Witness Security Unit at Federal Correctional Institution and was released in August 1998.
Much of what we know about the drug trade through media coverage and shows like Narcos is that it was a boy’s club – where women were viewed solely as sexual beings to be pined after which often resulted in feuds like in the case of Nicky Barnes.
Griselda Blanco’s exploits dismiss that idea.
Predating Pablo Escobar’s rise to prominence in Colombia, Blanco was known as “The Godmother of Cocaine” while the would-be “Patron” was still stealing cars in Medellin.
From an early age, Blanco was forced into a life where the streets beckoned and a person had to do whatever it took to survive. Bouncing between pickpocketing and prostitution, early reports point to her kidnapping a wealthy young boy when she was only 11 years old. When the family refused/was unable to pay the ransom, Blanco executed her hostage.
Blanco’s first husband was illegal immigrant smuggler, Carlos Trujillo, whom she eventually married and had three children with, but divorced and allegedly later had murdered over a drug dispute.
Blanco’s second husband was Alberto Bravo – a known cocaine trafficker. Soon after, they emigrated to Queens in New York City where Blanco came up with smuggling tactics at the time which were unlike anything the DEA had seen before and centered on a lingerie shop that sold underwear with special compartments inside for drug mules to pack with cocaine.
Prior to their arrival, much of the drug trade was facilitated through the Italian crime families like in the aforementioned arrangement between Nicky Barnes and the Lucchese’s.
Since Blanco and Bravo had connections and roots in Colombia, they soon flourished and were making millions of dollars. Not surprisingly, their operation drew the attention of law enforcement whose “Operation Banshee” – the largest sting of that era – busted them in 1975.
As the grand jury convened to levy charges, both Blanco and Bravo escaped back to Colombia where there were no extradition measures in place at the time.
According to TIME, it was during this this temporary exile that she is said to have killed Bravo in a shootout over disputed drug money.
If there were a single, brazen act on American soil which illustrated both Blanco’s reach and her sociopathic tendencies, it was the murders at Dadeland Mall in Suburban Miami where two gunmen used a .45 caliber MAC-10 machine pistol emptying the 30-round clip in a few seconds inside Crown’s Liquors.
According to The Daily Beast, “Dadeland did not just represent the year’s 37th and 38th drug homicides. The brazen assassination, at midday, in a mall packed with families and ordinary Miamians, was a worrisome escalation. Miami’s police chief told a friend that he feared the Colombians were turning Miami into Medellín. The shootings also introduced ‘cocaine cowboys’ to millions of Americans and almost overnight gave South Florida a Wild West reputation. A prominent Miami executive, Arthur Patten, told TIME: ‘I’ve been through two wars and no combat zone is as dangerous as Dade County.’”
In 2004, Blanco was deported back to Colombia. Officials believed at her height she had been responsible for importing a ton and a half of cocaine per month into the United States and 40 murders.
Blanco was killed when she was 69 years old by motorcycle-riding assassins as she walked out of a butcher shop in Medellin, according to a report in the Spanish-language newspaper El Colombiano.
Griselda Blanco’s name has come up again recently after Jennifer Lopez attached herself to a project about her life.
“I’ve been fascinated by the life of this corrupt and complicated woman for many years,” Lopez commented. “The idea of teaming with HBO felt like the perfect fit for finally bringing Griselda’s story to life.”
Amado Carillo Fuentes
Known as “Lord of the Skies” because of his usage of jetliners to ferry cocaine into the United States, Amado Carillo Fuentes’s ties to the illicit trade began at birth as hew was the nephew of Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, aka “Don Neto,” the Guadalajara Cartel leader.
Although there were established roots with the Guadalajara faction, Carillo Fuentes rose to the top ranks of the Juarez Cartel which was formed formed in 1970 and became the principal drug-trafficking organizations in central northern Mexico.
Unlike other dealers of the late ’80s who lived a lavish lifestyle which seemed to mock law enforcement, Carillo Fuentes was a low-profile kingpin who behaved like a businessman.
The Washington Post reported that Carrillo Fuentes made an estimated $25 billion during his tenure.
In 1996, for reasons that remain unclear, Carillo Fuentes lost his influence with Mexico’s security forces with whom he had easily been able to influence and bribe. American officials estimated that he paid as much as 60 percent or more of his billion-dollar revenues to the police, politicians and generals in Mexico to buy protection.
“His infrastructure was starting to collapse. No one could withstand the focus,” a senior U.S. drug official said, adding that Carrillo made a critical mistake: “He got too big, too notorious.”
In a bold and perhaps last-ditch effort to avoid capture, Carillo Fuentes underwent cosmetic surgery at Santa Mónica Hospital in Mexico City where he underwent procedures on his face and abdomen under the care of physician, Jaime Godoy Singh.
Carrillo Fuentes survived the surgery but died hours later from a mix of anesthetic and a sleeping drug, Dormicum, which led to heart failure.
Following Carillo Fuentes’s death, officials discovered the bodies of Jaime Godoy Singh and two other people stuffed into oil drums, partially filled with cement and abandoned along the main highway between Mexico City and Acapulco.
But for many, they thought Carillo Fuentes’s death was an elaborate ruse. However, U.S. officials weren’t so convinced.
“The rumor has as much credibility as the millions of sightings of the late Elvis Presley,” a statement from the DEA said.
Osiel Cárdenas Guillén
A onetime car mechanic and policeman, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen took control of the Gulf cartel in Mexico in July 1999 after assassinating Salvador Gómez – a close friend of his – which earned him the nickname, “Mata Amigos” (Friend Killer).
While in control, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen oversaw a vast drug trafficking empire responsible for the importation of thousands of kilograms of cocaine and marijuana which flowed south to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas and into other Southern states. Drug ledgers seized in Atlanta in June 2001 indicated that the Gulf Cartel generated more than $41 million in drug proceeds over a three-and-a-half-month period in the Atlanta area alone.
Cardenas-Guillen was also responsible for the formation of the Zetas – comprised of former members of an elite unit of the Mexican military, Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) – who became his personal bodyguards and eventually his mercenary wing in his quest to expand his reach.
In 2007, Osiel Cárdenas was extradited to the United States along with 15 other dealers and charged with the involvement of conspiracies to traffic large amounts of marijuana and cocaine. In exchange for a 25-year sentence, he agreed to collaborate with U.S. agents in intelligence information, and $30 million USD of his assets were extracted from underground bunkers and dispersed throughout various Texas Law Enforcement branches to help curb drug practices which he had perfected.
“I apologize to my country, Mexico, to the United States of America, my family, to my wife especially, my children, for all the mistakes I made,” Cardenas said in court, adding “I am remorseful.”
When the Zetas discovered that he had been providing intelligence to the U.S., they declared war against the Gulf Cartel over the betrayal.
“The Zetas split is really the first of a series of schisms and fractures in the major cartels’ organizations that leads to the incredibly prolific violence that we see from 2008 to 2011,” said David Shirk, principal investigator at the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico Project. “It’s really the beginning of the cartel wars. … The last decade has been Mexico’s Vietnam, only it’s happening at home, right down the street, rather than televised from across an ocean.”
Immortalized in the 2007 Ridley Scott film, American Gangster, where he was portrayed by Denzel Washington, Frank Lucas has claimed he made $1 million USD a day selling heroin on 116th Street in Harlem during the 1970s.
Beginning as a small-town North Carolina thief, Lucas got his start as a peripheral player for Harlem crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, an associate of the Genovese crime family.
Unlike other traffickers of the era who relied on Mexico and South America as the major means for production and import, Lucas looked at the turbulent events occurring in Vietnam at the time as an opportunity.
U.S. Army Master Sergeant, Leslie “Ike” Atkinson and Frank Lucas cultivated a relationship in Bangkok, Thailand in 1974.
While Lucas has always contended he used the coffins of dead American GI’s to smuggle heroin from the Golden Triangle to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Atkinson has denied the “cadaver connection” and instead said they managed to fool the DEA by using furniture.
In an interview with The New York Times, Lucas double-downed on his original assertion, saying, “We had him make up 28 copies of the government coffins… except we fixed them up with false bottoms, big enough to load up with six, maybe eight kilos…It had to be snug. You couldn’t have shit sliding around. Ike was very smart, because he made sure we used heavy guys’ coffins. He didn’t put them in no skinny guy’s.”
Although the market was flooded with product from Nicky Barnes and others with street nicknames like Tru Blu, Mean Machine, Could Be Fatal, Dick Down, Boody, Cooley High, Capone, Ding Dong, Fuck Me, Fuck You, Nice, Nice to Be Nice, Oh — Can’t Get Enough of That Funky Stuff, Tragic Magic, Gerber, The Judge, 32, 32-20, O.D., Correct, Official Correct, Past Due, Payback, Revenge, Green Tape, Red Tape, Rush, Swear to God, PraisePraisePraise, KillKillKill, Killer 1, Killer 2, KKK, Good Pussy, Taster’s Choice, Harlem Hijack, Joint and Insured for Life, Lucas’s “Blue Magic” was the most sought-after.
“That’s because with Blue Magic, you could get 10 percent purity,” Lucas told New York Magazine. “Any other, if you got 5 percent, you were doing good. We put it out there at four in the afternoon, when the cops changed shifts. That gave you a couple of hours before those lazy bastards got down there. My buyers, though, you could set your watch by them. By four o’clock, we had enough niggers in the street to make a Tarzan movie. They had to reroute the bus on Eighth Avenue. Call the Transit Department if it’s not so. By nine o’clock, I ain’t got a fucking gram. Everything is gone. Sold . . . and I got myself a million dollars.”
Lucas became the target for law enforcement when detectives noticed that not only was he wearing a $100,000, floor-length chinchilla coat and matching $25,000 hat from two Midtown furriers, but he also had better seats than Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand and Vice President Spiro Agnew who were all in attendance at Madison Square Garden in March 1971 for a fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
“I left that fight a marked man,” Lucas remembered.
In 1976, Frank Lucas was arrested and sentenced to 70 years in prison for his involvement in the heroin smuggling ring.
The next year he began giving evidence to prosecutors that led to the convictions of more than 100 narcotics violators, and in 1981 his 40-year Federal term and 30-year state term were reduced to time served plus lifetime parole.
- Featured/Main Image: Dallas News