Dirty Money: The Richest Drug Lords Of All Time

World Money

Drug lords or ‘kingpins’ are some of the most notorious criminal masterminds of the modern age. They control an extensive network of underlings involved in various stages of the illegal drug trade. While most drug lords conduct their affairs with unsubtle blatant disregard for the law, it’s notoriously difficult to bring them to justice: The intricate  network beneath the Kingpin ensures that by the time the money reaches the end of the chain, it’s usually almost impossible to trace responsibility to the drug lord himself.

The Kingpin rarely, if ever, gets his hands dirty. It is, rather, the drug smugglers and dealers in the firing line who are often apprehended. So when law enforcers want to crack down on the illegal activity at the source, they must work delicately and slowly to build a concrete case against the drug lord pulling the strings. Undercovers officers are known to infiltrate the drug cartel with the help of informants and other trusted connections to the illegal organization.

During the 1970s, United States President Richard Nixon launched what he called the War on Drugs – an initiative to reduce the production, consumption and distribution of  ‘illegal psychoactive drugs’. In his attempt to crack down on the drug trade – or ‘public enemy number one’ – Nixon oversaw spending of more than $1 trillion. But the illegal drug trade was resistant to Nixon’s efforts; according to a report released by the Global Commission on Drug Policy in 2011, the war on drugs failed. Popular opinion among historians holds that the War on Drugs in fact pushed things further underground: the harsh penalties against drug dealers entrenched those susceptible citizens – who had limited means and scant opportunities, and were involved in drug dealing to finance their betterment and education – into a permanent underclass.

According to same Global Commission report, if the United States was to end the War on Drugs and legalize drugs instead, savings on incarceration and enforcement would run to over $40 billion – of course, this was met with opposition from the countless organizations who resist the legalization of drugs. Indeed, the drug lords themselves may well oppose the legalization of illegal narcotics; if the sale of drugs is brought under government control, the billions of dollars in the Kingpins’ pockets would be absorbed as taxes. The Global Commission on Drug Policy estimates that the revenue from legalizing drugs would come to over $45 billion: As long as this multi-billion dollar industry is now in the hands of drug barons, a select few individuals will rake in hundreds of millions annually, while underlings are imprisoned or even die in the process. We’ve compiled a list of ten of the very richest of these Kingpins in the world, with their shocking estimated net worth.

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10. Rafael Caro Quintero – $650 million


Former drug lord Rafael operated the now-disintegrated Guadalajara cartel in Mexico. Rafael is one of four brothers all involved in high-value drug deals throughout Mexico. Quintero had numerous huge marijuana farms in Mexico – at one point his cartel was said to control Mexico’s marijuana and opium supplies – and Quintero’s cartel was also heavily involved in the distribution of Columbian cocaine. During the 80s, the Caro Quintero Cartel paid millions of dollars in bribes to law enforcement officials and forged relationships with a number of politicians in the region. Rafael was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 40 years for the murder of a federal agent, but he was released in August this year after it was determined his trial for murder should have been carried out at state level, not federal level – indeed, this drug lord was never pinned down for his drug crimes, which would have been federal, but was only ever incarcerated for murder. His release, predictably, caused uproar in the United States.


9. Griselda Blanco – $2 billion


Known variously as the Cocaine Godmother, the Black Widow, and La Madrina, Griselda Blanco was a notorious smuggler and founder of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia. Blanco was responsible for running enormous amounts of cocaine into Miami, New York and Southern California – a racket worth a reported $80 million annually. A documentary on Blanco tells how she had a criminal mind even as a child; at 11, she allegedly kidnapped, ransomed and shot a child from a wealthy area near the slum where she lived. In 1975, federal agents indicted Blanco on drugs charges but she escaped to Colombia and continued to smuggle drugs for another ten years. With a vicious reputation, she is believed to have ordered more than 200 murders during her career. In 1985, Blanco was finally imprisoned but was released in 2004 and  deported to Colombia – where she was assassinated outside a butcher’s shop in 2012. It’s been rumoured that Jennifer Lopez will play Blanco in a movie depiction of her life.


8. Carlos Lehder Rivas – $2.7 billion


One of the most eccentric and most megalomaniacal drug lords, this half-German and half-Colombian criminal was a co-founder of the Medellin Cartel. Starting off as a small-time stolen car dealer and later a drug dealer, Rivas built up an empire and bought a plan to smuggle drugs. In the late 70s, Rivas hijacked an island near the Bahamas – the infamous ‘Norman’s Cay’ – through buying up property and pushing out the island’s residents; there, he operated a huge drug smuggling network, which served as an air base with a functional runway secured by armed troops, attack dogs and a fleet of aircraft. When the government in Colombia started extraditing drug traffickers to the United States for trial, Lehder was sentenced to prison for life plus another 135 years.  However, he offered testimony against other notorious drug lords in Panama in 1992 on condition that his sentence would be decreased to 50 years only.  During the trial, it was reported that Rivas was anti-American and anti-Semitic – and was passionate about the Third Reich.


7. Orejuela Brothers – $3 billion


Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela controlled the Cali Cartel – based in Columbia – which was bringing in billions of dollars yearly at its peak. During the 90s, Cali Cartel was the biggest smuggler of cocaine in the United States reportedly cornering 90% of the cocaine market internationally. At the height of the Cali Cartel’s ‘successs’ in 1996, Gilberto was captured and sentenced to fifteen years. In 2006, the duo’s security guard acted as an informant for law enforcers and both brothers were sentenced to 30 years and an additional 87 months for money laundering. On a plea bargain, immunity was granted for 29 members of the Orejuela family who were implicated in the illegal drug trade.


6. Jose Rodriguez Gacha – $5 billion


Yet another Columbian – and another member of the Medellin Cartel – Gacha was known as El Mexicano for his fascination with Mexican culture. The title was further fitting because the smuggling routes that Gacha controlled ran from Mexico to the United States. Gacha set up a number of labs in the jungles of Colombia where hundreds of his workers lived and manufactured cocaine. In 1988, Gacha was listed on Forbes’ list of billionaires – but the police shot him to death just the following year after Gacha’s son mistakenly led police to his father.


5. Khun Sa – $5 billion


During the 70s and 80s, 90% of the heroin in New York City was being smuggled from the Golden Triangle in Asia. The triangle that spread across Laos, Myanmar and Thailand was headed by Khun Sa, the ‘Opium King’ who had unified a large portion of the region with the help of his drug-funded private army. His heroin empire was the largest that the world has seen until date.  In the late 90s, Khun Sa offered to sell his opium empire to the Australian government for $50 million a year over 8 years, which would have cut off the heroin trade in Australia and the U.S. at its source, but the government refused on the grounds that they wouldn’t pay a criminal. He later proposed the sale to the U.S. who also refused. It’s reported that in 1996 Khun Sa gave himself up to the Burmese authorities but he was never extradited and went on to live peacefully in Rangoon before his death of natural caused in 2007.


4. Ochoa Brothers – $6 billion


More members of the infamous Medellin cartel feature at number four among the richest drug barons of all time. The three Ochoa Brothers – Fabio, Jorge and Juan – became key operators in the Medellin Cartel in the 1970s. They accumulated huge wealth; in 1987, Jorge was named on the Forbes’ billionare list with a person net worth of $3 billion. The brothers were on the radar of the law enforcement after they became suspects in the death of cartel pilot-turned-informant Barry Seal in 1986. Each of the three brothers surrendered to the authorities in 1991 and thanks to a plea bargain they were free within six years. Though not much was heard of them after their release Fabio Ochoa – the youngest of the three – was arrested and sent to prison in 1999 for drug smuggling.


3. Dawood Ibrahim – $6.7 billion


Ranked as the third richest drug lord in the world, Ibrahim is the leader of organized crime ring ‘D-Company’ which controls drug dealing, but is also known for its counterfeit operations, extortions and arms deals. Ibrhaim is a global terrorist who was linked to Osama Bin Laden. D-Company is rumoured to fund the Indian film industry or ‘Bollywood’. Dawood has amassed untold wealth through his involvement in organized crime and his money seems to have bought him protection – though he’s wanted by Interpol, his whereabouts are unknown.


2. Amado Carrillo Fuentes – $25 billion


Carrillo – otherwise known as ‘The Lord of the Skies’ – was among the top drug traffickers in Mexico. He was known for transporting Colombian cocaine to several municipal airports and dirt airstrips in Mexico, via 22 private 727 jet airliners. His fortune – though unconfirmed – has been rumored to have grown to $25 billion.  Carrillo was highly sought after by both the Mexican and U.S. government and in an extreme attempt to maintain his cover he had plastic surgery and underwent liposuction: It was during this operation in 1997 that Carrillo died. Following his death, two of the physicians who had been involved in Carrillo’s fatal operation were tortured and murdered.


1. Pablo Escobar Gaviria – $30 billion


Even the most out of touch among us, with no interest in the shocking world of international drug trading, know Pablo Escobar’s name. Escobar started off as a petty criminal in Medellin. He grew up to become reputed as the most violent drug lord of the legendary Medellin Cartel,  and was one of the longest-standing members of the international drug cartel who remained with the organization until its last days. A special group of Colombian police, called the Search Bloc, was formed to primarily hunt Escobar down. The Search Bloc eventually killed EscobFar in 1993 – although some, including members of his family, say Escobar killed himself. With Escobar’s death, the Medellin Cartel came to an end. Although he has been linked to hundreds of murders, Escobar was involved in politics and was known for helping the poor in his community; his death was mourned by many, and he has since been immortalized in film and television.