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Think “infamous, filthy rich drug lords” and the names Pablo Escobar and El Chapo might spring to mind. These men weren’t just a couple of gangsters – they were the blood-soaked CEOs of illicit business empires, even turning up on the Forbes rich list.
But what about the lesser-known, but no less frightening, figures who made a killing during the “war on drugs”?
The Cocaine Godmother
One of the worst kingpins of all time was actually a queenpin: Griselda Blanco. The mobster matriarch made her first kill at the age of 11, when she reportedly shot another child from her neighbourhood in Colombia. Blanco grew up to become a prime player in the Miami drug wars, turning Florida’s party town into the 80s equivalent of Dodge City while riding high on a tsunami of cocaine.
Blanco had a penchant for smoking crack and throwing wild orgies. She was also an underwear entrepreneur, manufacturing lingerie with secret pockets for smuggling drugs. After serving a long prison stretch, she was eventually shot and killed by an assassin on a motorbike. Ironic, given that Blanco herself pioneered this method of eliminating rivals in her Miami heyday.
Felix Mitchell was no ordinary West Coast gangster. Known as the “Cat” after classic cartoon character Felix the Cat, he was a charismatic man-about-town who went from high school dropout to multi-millionaire,
He owed it all to heroin, which he distributed through California’s housing projects with a little help from local kids. Mitchell was flamboyant, fashionable and weirdly adored as a folk hero, but it all came to an ugly end in 1986, when Felix was knifed to death in prison.
What followed was a funeral of legendary proportions, with his body carried by horse-drawn carriage past thousands of grieving admirers. One radio personality compared it to Martin Luther King’s passing. The slain drug lord also inspired a phrase, the “Felix Paradox”, which describes a situation where the arrest of a major kingpin actually leads to a rise in crime and violence thanks to the power vacuum it creates.
The Lord of the Skies
Pablo Escobar’s successor as one of the world’s major cocaine kingpins, Amado Carrillo Fuentes was dubbed the “Lord of the Skies” thanks to the fleet of jets he used to smuggle the white stuff. His ingenious operation made him one of the richest outlaws of all time, with billions of dollars to his name. But he was a little too smart for his own good.
Undergoing secret plastic surgery to radically alter his appearance, Fuentes died while recovering from the procedure. Bad news for him, and bad news for the hapless plastic surgeons who administered the scalpels. Two of the doctors were later found buried in oil drums, encased in concrete, showing signs of having been brutally tortured before execution. That said, stories still swirl that Fuentes actually faked his own death and is still out there somewhere. According to the DEA, “the rumor has as much credibility as the millions of sightings of the late Elvis Presley.
The Boss of Bosses
Cartel boss Arturo Beltran Leyva knew the importance of branding. Some of his hit men wore flak jackets emblazoned with a logo, “FEDA”, which was a Spanish acronym for “Special Forces of Arturo”. Mired in violence, the “Boss of Bosses” originally worked for the notorious drug lord El Chapo, before he turned on the kingpin and had El Chapo’s son murdered by a hit team of around 15 gunmen.
Arturo Beltran Leyva’s own downfall was even more unsubtle. While throwing a Christmas party at his lavish home in 2009, he and his pals came under explosive attack by Mexican government forces, and Arturo went on the run. Just a week later, he was cornered in another luxury property by no fewer than 200 Mexican marines, along with a couple of military choppers and two army tanks. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t make it out of that one alive
The Opium King
Khun Sa, aka the Opium King, wasn’t just a drug lord. He was also a warlord, commanding a Burmese militia group while moonlighting as an international drug smuggler. From the 70s onwards, he was the major player when it came to flooding the United States with heroin. His product was, in the rather admiring words of the DEA, the “best in the business”.
A shamelessly cocky character, even by the notoriously immodest standards of other drug lords, Khun Sa even offered to sell his entire drugs operation to the United States government. The US said no thanks, and Khun Sa eventually gave up the criminal overlord business to have a quiet retirement. And, unlike his bad guy brethren, he died not in a hail of bullets, but from natural causes.