It takes a certain kind of personality to be a true drug lord. Surely, it’s all about the money and the rivers of cash that flow into the pockets of major drug kingpins every single day. Yet, it’s also about having a certain kind of outsized personality, one that combines a hyper-entrepreneurial spirit with a dictatorial edge. It’s about power, money, control, and living outside the edges of straight society. A drug lord has to be able to manage hundreds of henchmen and minions, control inventory everyone wants to steal, and a cash flow that has no paper trail, along with fighting off rival entrepreneurs that may emerge from any angle, to the death if necessary. In other words, it’s not so easy to be a drug lord.
Naturally, the kind of people who are attracted to this kind of lifestyle have to begin with at least one or two screws loose. The rewards are great, but the risks are pretty drastic, and longevity in the business isn’t a real option for most. To those who gravitate to the impossible challenge, it’s an adrenaline-fueled power trip for as long as they can make it last. Since they’re in it for a good time and not necessarily for a long time, extravagance is the norm and not the exception. From luxury cars and properties to crocodiles in the swimming pool, no whim is too over the top or exorbitant as an indulgence. Check out our list of the 15 of the world’s most outrageous drug lords, and take a peek behind the curtain of their extravagant lives.
15. Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, Known As El Chapo
Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera has become renowned the world over as El Chapo (or “Shorty Guzmán”), head of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. He is considered the king of the drug kingpins, having exported more drugs into the U.S. than anyone else. First jailed in 1993 in Guatemala, he was serving his term in Mexico when he escaped by bribing prison guards, allegedly by hiding in a laundry cart. In 2014, he was recaptured and sent back to jail, but he broke out again in 2015 through an underground tunnel. Authorities believe that two of the prison guards were Sinaloa plants. He was recaptured for a second time in January 2016 and through the fall of 2016, the United States pursued extradition of the Mexican drug lord to face charges on American soil. In 2009, El Chapo, along with other cartel heads, was indicted in a Brooklyn court on conspiracy charges related to the importation of more than 264,000 pounds of coke between 1990 and 2005. He also faces charges in Arizona, California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida and New Hampshire. In late October 2016, Judge Vicente Bermudez, who presided over El Chapo’s appeals, was shot outside of his home.
14. Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, Known As Pablo Escobar
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a larger than life figure, a Colombian drug lord infamous for his ruthless practices and limitless ambitions. He was beloved by the poor who benefited from his generosity, feared and respected by his rivals, which included the Colombian military and U.S. government. During his heyday, his Medellín cartel was responsible for about 80 percent of the cocaine that found its way onto U.S. soil. He is believed to be responsible for literally thousands of deaths, including the murders of military figures, judges, journalists, drug biz rivals, and anyone who got in his way. Born in poverty in 1949, he rose through the cartel’s ranks and led a lavish, public lifestyle, even running for office to the Chamber of Representatives of Colombia. Eventually, the feuds and violence that turned Medellín into the murder capital of the world turned the public against him. In 1991, he negotiated a surrender that included preferential treatment at a prison that came to be called La Catedral, which included a bar, jacuzzi, and landscaping with a private waterfall. He continued to run his drug empire and eventually escaped in 1992. Escobar was killed in a gun fight with the Colombian National Police on December 2, 1993, after an electronic surveillance team established his hideout.
13. Matt Bowden, King Of Legal Highs
A flamboyant figure with blonde cornrow braids who dressed like a rock star, Matt Bowden was a fixture in New Zealand’s dance clubs during the early 2000s. He and his wife, Kristi, were meth users, which Matt claims is the inspiration for what he thought of as a way out (a legal drug called benzylpiperazine or BZP). It had been developed as an antidepressant in the 1970s but rejected because it seemed a little too appealing to people with addictive issues. At the same time, it had a low risk of overdosing, so Bowden is said to have thought of it as a “safe” alternative to crystal meth that allowed people to work and live normal lives. He began manufacturing in India in 2000 and sold BZP in New Zealand under the company name Stargate International in convenience stores and head shops. The idea became a widespread success, with a New Zealand study finding that more than 20 percent of the adult population had tried his “legal party pills.” Part of a global wave of internet-fueled drug innovation, when BZP was banned in 2008, Bowden, along with the rest of the legal high biz, diversified to other synthetic drugs but eventually moved to Thailand in the summer of 2016 after his company ran into financial trouble and failed to pay its creditors.
12. Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal
Texas native, Edgar Valdez Villarreal, was a linebacker during his high school days in Laredo and spent several years running pot and cocaine through the American South. Eventually, his business dealings led him to the Mexican border, where his blonde hair and blue eyes earned him the nickname, “La Barbie.” After a violent takeover around the Texas borders, La Barbie pulled a runner from his native land and fled to Mexico, where he got mixed up with the Sinaloa cartel (the one headed by the infamous El Chapo). The Beltrán Leyva cartel, the division where La Barbie found himself, prospered, importing about 40 tons of coke each month. La Barbie applied American-style PR tactics, taking out newspaper ads and placing editorials that vilified his drug world rivals. He is rumored to have made the viral video that allegedly shows the execution of four assassins who’d been sent to kill him. But, as the political tides turned against the drug cartels in Mexico about a decade ago, La Barbie shopped around for a deal with American authorities to inform against his compadres, eventually landing one with the F.B.I. Yet, the cartels found out, driving him into hiding until 2010, when he was finally captured by Mexican police. After five years in a Mexican prison, he was extradited back to the U.S. in 2015 and pleaded guilty to drug charges in January 2016.
11. Roland “Kerwin” Espinosa Jr. – All In The Family
Roland “Kerwin” Espinosa Jr. was a Filipino drug lord who was aided in his drug empire by his father, who happened to be Mayor of Albuera in the Leyte province where they lived. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has called the Espinosa’s part of the “narco-politicos” that he has vowed to put out of business. Kerwin’s drug syndicate operated in the Eastern Visayas region of the country and included local media figures along with a senator and Dad the Mayor. While the family-owned drug empire operated successfully for years, it became the target of President Duterte’s anti-drug push in 2016. The Espinosa empire was targeted in a sweep that included several corrupt members of the police force and a supposed deal was struck for the two to surrender. Espinosa Sr. made a tearful public plea to his son to go through with the surrender, but it fell on deaf ears — and cost his family the preferential treatment they’d earned based on their ability to bring him in. The fugitive ran all the way to Abu Dhabi, where he was finally nabbed by local police and Interpol on October 17, 2016, and subsequently sent back to the Philippines. After Espinosa Sr.’s arrest, police found more than 11 kilos of methamphetamine hydrochloride and several illegal guns at his mayoral residence, where officers were fired on by armed guards.
10. Horace Mayfield III – The South
Deeply entrenched within a community and with strong police ties, it sometimes takes a massive effort to bring down a drug lord. Police in Georgia and South Carolina gave themselves a pat on the back after shutting down what they say was a multimillion dollar drug operation that was headed by kingpin, Horace Mayfield III. Mayfield’s operation is said to have consisted largely of funneling illegal drugs from Atlanta to the rural areas of Georgia and South Carolina, including pot, meth, and coke to the tune of about $9.5 million annually. Mayfield’s operation was said to be a violent one, as a member of the Gangster Disciples, a gang feuding with The Bloods in Stephens County, Georgia. The 10-month investigation by the Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office was dubbed “Operation Maywolf” and involved more than 200 law enforcement personnel. It netted about $1.5 million in drugs seized at the scene, along with 24 arrests which included that of seven active police officers.
9. Wei Hsueh-Kang And The United Wa State Army Of Myanmar
Wei Hsueh-Kang, also known as Prasit Chivinnitipanya, is a native of China who became the Southern Military Commander of the United Wa State Army, the largest heroin trafficking syndicate in Southeast Asia (and maybe even the world). He’s been a target of the U.S. DEA for two decades or so, who claim Wei is not just a military commander, but the organization’s financial genius and CEO. The United Wa State Army/Party (USWA/P) is an ethnic armed rebel group funded by drug money. The WA Army controls large sections of territory in eastern Myanmar, an area that forms part of the so-called Golden Triangle, a renowned drug producing area of the world that includes Thailand and Laos along the Mekong River. Along with heroin and methamphetamine, Wei is said to be involved in the trade of jade, a semi-precious gemstone. Controlled by organized crime, local people suffer while millions of dollars worth of jade are mined in northern Myanmar every year. Wei Hsueh-Kang is on the U.S. Department of State’s Most Wanted List, with a $2 million reward on offer to anyone who can supply information leading to his arrest.
8. Haji Lal Jan Ishaqza – King Of The Poppy Trade
In 2014, U.S. officials congratulated themselves on finally bringing Haji Lal Jan Ishaqza, a key figure in Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade, to justice. It’s something they were able to do in cooperation with Afghani authorities. Any positive feelings on the conviction evaporated, however, when he was able to bribe his way out of prison later that same year. The price was said to have reached as high as $14 million USD and was divided among several layers of the judicial system. It’s a common happening in Afghanistan, although the price was still relatively high. Ishaqza began plying his trade with opium paste in the 1980s. By the 1990s, he was building his own labs to turn the paste into heroin. He set up shop in Kandahar after the Taliban was driven out in 2001, and found an ally in Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother to then Afghani President Hamid Karzai. He lived under that protection until Ahmed Karzai was killed in 2011. President Obama added his name to a public list of international drug kingpins in 2012. Haji was arrested after a shootout with authorities the same year and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. Since his prison buyout, his current whereabouts are not known.
7. Rocco Morabito – Mafia Kingpin
Born in 1966, Rocco Morabito represents the old school Mafia, boss of the ‘Ndrangheta, which is said to be the most powerful of all the Mafia organizations in Italy. It is so all-encompassing that it accounts for about 3.5 percent of Italy’s GDP and is believed to involve more than 60,000 people internationally. Rocco is a native of the Calabria region in the south of Italy and was literally born into the lifestyle as a member of the Morabito gang. It was the media who gave him the nickname “King of Cocaine” and he wasn’t shy to being in the public eye. Rocco was known for his lavish parties, expensive lifestyle, and his ubiquitous gray double-breasted suits. Drug lord link: Rocco is alleged to have been a favorite associate of infamous Mexican drug lord, El Chapo. Rocco is still on Italy’s most wanted list, on the run from a 30-year sentence for drug and conspiracy convictions that date back to 1994. With his strong connections to Latin America, some theories have him currently in Brazil, where he could continue to operate his business.
6. Semion Mogilevich – Russian Mob Boss Of Bosses
Semion Mogilevich is the boss of bosses in the Bratva, or Russian mob, and is known for his trademark cigars and fedoras. Along with a big chunk of the international drug trade, Ukrainian-born crime boss, Semion Mogilevich, and his gang are pretty much up for anything. The Russian mobster is called the “Brainy Don” because of his economics degree, something that may have played a part in one of his gang’s more famous crimes. The gang used the ruse of the East European gas trade to defraud unsuspecting investors in Pennsylvania to losses of $150 million. He’s also been known to delve into contract murders, international human trafficking, and even trading nuclear material. Semion controls many natural gas pipelines through Russia and Eastern Europe and is alleged to have meddled with the international gas markets. Semion was indicted in 2003 and arrested for tax evasion in 2008. He is known to have over 100 sham companies, along with bank accounts in 27 countries. Yet, the charges were later dropped. Semion currently lives in Moscow and is rumored to be on friendly terms with Vladimir Putin.
5. Mihael Karner, Slovenian Steroid King
Slovenian drug kingpin, Mihael Karner, doesn’t deal in highs, other than those that can be obtained from endorphins from working out. He’s said to have made more than $50 million USD since 2000, selling illegal steroids over the Internet. Anabolic steroid sales are banned unless prescribed by a physician in both the U.S. and Slovenia. Mihael’s reach extends over a web-based network through the U.K. and Italy and involves multiple shell companies and intermediaries who arranged the shipments. Customers buy the steroids by Western Union or money wire transfer that goes directly to a bank in Austria. The elusive, Mihael, has been hunted by four different countries for the last decade. Karner and his wife were arrested at the Austrian ski chalet they owned in 2011 but vanished after being released on bail. Despite ongoing efforts, he is thought to still be running his business as usual out of Slovenia. He’s been indicted in the U.S. along with his wife and brother for money laundering and drug trafficking. Yet, with no extradition treaty between the United States and Slovenia, the chances of collecting him are minimal.
4. John Harun Mwau – Politician, Drug Kingpin, Or Both?
Decried by his many enemies, yet beloved by the Kenyan public, it’s difficult to say whether he was a true drug lord or just a misunderstood politician. Harun Mwau of Kenya could be categorized as either or both. John Harun Mwau is a leader of the Party of Independent Candidates of Kenya, was elected as the MP (Member of Parliament) for the Kilome region of the country. At one time, Harun actually served as chairman of the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC). A former policeman, he was also known to be an excellent sharpshooter. Harun is said to have started up in the drug trade while traveling to international shooting competitions when he was still an active member of the police force. While he has insisted that he’s not in the drug trade at all, Harun Mwau has never provided an explanation for his obvious riches, including a $750 million USD business empire. In 2011, he was put on U.S. President Obama’s infamous lists of international drug kingpins, a move Mwau says was motivated by a desire to seize his properties and other U.S.-based assets. Despite all of the investigations and public charges (including the public indictment by the Kenyan Parliament), nothing has stuck. As of fall 2016, Harun has entered the race for governor of Nairobi in the upcoming 2017 elections.
3. Griselda Blanco, The “Cocaine Godmother”
Griselda Blanco, a rare woman drug lord known as the “Cocaine Godmother,” became infamous during the 1970s and 1980s, a period known as the “cocaine cowboy” days of Miami. Griselda grew up poor in the slums of Medellín, Colombia, and began her criminal career as a pickpocket. She soon graduated to the drug trade, however, and was considered a pioneer of the Colombian drug smuggling biz. Three of her four sons (one of them named Michael Corleone after the Godfather character) ran the business with her. She also went through several husbands, two of whom she killed herself. She was renowned for her excessive lifestyle and sharp temper and found her way to Miami, where authorities believe she was responsible for more than 40 deaths. It was the death of a 2-year-old, however, who was gunned down instead of his father during a hit, that ignited the public and law enforcement. She was eventually convicted of three murders and sentenced to about 20 years in jail. She had been destined for the death penalty, but in a bizarre twist, the prosecution’s lead witness was involved in a phone sex scandal with three secretaries from the Miami-Dad State Attorney’s Office, weakening their case. After her release from prison in 2004, she was deported to Colombia, where she was gunned down on the street in 2012.
2. Brian Charrington – British Drug Smuggling Kingpin
British drug lord, Brian Charrington, became well known for his bold and brazen business style. Always a colorful figure, Charrington was a used car dealer at one time. During the 1990s, he was simultaneously working as police informant as he ran an extensive drug importation business with the help of corrupt officers. Dubbed one of Europe’s ten most wanted by the press, he managed to weasel out of convictions in four high-profile trials. He did serve time in Germany for cocaine smuggling in 2003 but was back in Spain in 2006. In 2007, a Spanish court found him not guilty of a plot to import marijuana. Charrington’s lifestyle was the stuff that legends are made of, including reputedly keeping crocodiles in the pool of his Spanish villa. He was nabbed by authorities in Spain in August 2016 on the suspicion of drug trafficking as well as murdering a rival in the biz. Brian was arrested along with son Ray at the upscale yacht club where they were members. Spanish police found more than 200 kilos of coke at his properties, and authorities seized a fleet of luxury cars along with more than $500,000 in cash.
1. Merlin Alston, NYPD Cop
Merlin Alston was an NYPD officer in the 46th Precinct of the Bronx, something of an anomaly on our list. Although he wasn’t technically what you’d call a “drug lord” himself, he has faced charges for being the Departmental friend, bodyguard and protection to many who do qualify for the title. A Bronx drug kingpin told the court and federal prosecutors that the New York cop drove him to his appointments and provided protection for his coke runs using his service revolver. Merlin, on trial in the fall of 2016 for conspiracy to distribute narcotics and firearms possession, is said to have tipped off several drug dealers about the NYPD’s investigations. Several dealers testified at the trial in the fall of 2016, including one who said Merlin gave him a card for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which the dealer says he used more than 30 times to avoid charges after being stopped on anything from traffic charges to weapons and drug possession. The New York cop and Bronx cocaine lord were high school buddies who never lost touch, even when their lives took them on ostensibly different paths. Alston’s bail was revoked and he went back to jail for the duration of his trial after a key witness was found strangled, with his body crammed into the back of his BMW just before he was set to testify.