“Everyone has a price, the important thing is to find out what it is.”
― Pablo Escobar
Colombian drug baron Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria became the richest criminal of all time and one of the planet’s wealthiest men via the production and distribution of drugs. To get where he got, he had to buy people. To buy people, he had to first find out their price. Everyone has one, as we’ve learned. Everyone except the man himself, perhaps. After all, how do you buy someone worth £50bn in today’s money…?
Escobar made more money through drugs than anyone else ever had or probably ever will. He wasn’t alone in amassing an incredible fortune through narcotics, though. The man sits atop a sizable heap of folk who have built empires selling illicit substances.
This list of them here isn’t exhaustive. It isn’t even what can be seriously considered highly accurate, numbers-wise . Don’t blame us, though - we’re not being lazy with our research. There’s a very good reason why it’s not really possible to collate a precise list of history’s richest drug barons…
These people don’t exactly declare their earnings, pay their taxes or publish their accounts. Their wealth can only really be estimated. The figures are, in all likelihood, pretty close to how much money they made through narcotics, but without rifling through their ledger books, we’ll likely never truly know the exact numbers.
Also, the drug barons you’ll read about here all have one rather major thing in common - most are either dead or in jail. So, hey, who knows - maybe there are richer kingpins still active out there outranking and out-earning these characters. We may well find out in the future.
For now, take this as a highlights reel. Here are some of the criminal history’s most cash-rich drug lords:
The Ochoa Brothers
Juan David, Jorge Luis and Fabio Ochoa Vásquez were co-founders of the Medellín drug cartel. Alongside Jose Rodriguez Gach and Pablo Escobar, they ran the show in the 1980's. It was a boom period for drug trafficking, with the USA able to hoover up as much cocaine as Colombia could produce.
Working alongside Escobar, the tricky trio made around £4bn between them. While their moustachioed counterpart made all the headlines, they made plenty of money and even managed to outmanoeuvre the man, eventually giving him and others up in exchange for reduced sentences. It may have been coke they sold, but the three brothers were pure grass.
Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar
The only drug lord to feature here that is still at large (although his assets have been frozen), Indian criminal kingpin Kaskar made more than £5bn through protection, blackmail, murder and terrorism. Although most of that enormous ill-gotten fortune came from selling drugs.
Due to his involvement in the 1993 Bombay bombings that saw more than 250 people die, Kaskar - the head of the D-Company crime syndicate - had a £20m bounty on his head. No one has ever claimed it. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
Amado Carrillo Fuentes
Fuentes was known as ‘El Señor de Los Cielos’ (The Lord of the Skies) because of his huge fleet of planes that he used to smuggle weed and coke up to the US. He took over as the head of the Juárez drug cartel after assassinating his boss, Rafael Aguilar Guajardo and stepping up the operation in a serious way.
The Lord of the Skies made more than £20bn during his career, but wouldn’t live long enough to enjoy his riches. He died on an operating table during a botched plastic surgery procedure in 1997, aged just 40.
Colombian Griselda was a serious player in the crowded cocaine smuggling business in the 1970s and ‘80s. She was able to move up to £60m worth of the white stuff up to America each and every month.
Blanco may have stood no taller than 5ft, but she wasn’t a woman to trifle with. Believed to have killed multiple enemies, starting when she was just 11, ‘La Madrina’ embraced the gangster lifestyle and lived lavishly. She was thought to have had a personal wealth well into the billions when she was shot and killed in 2012. In fact, Griselda Blanco was the first - and only - billionaire female criminal.
Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán
Famous for his frequent daring escapes, the diminutive Mexican trafficker known mostly by his nickname ‘El Chapo’ got seriously rich from pushing product over the border. The Sinaloa cartel boss made so much cash, it’s believed he spent BILLIONS on bribes alone.
In 2019, a US judge ordered him to forfeit well over £10bn while sentencing him to life in prison. Which shows you the kind of money the man earned in his career.
Khun Sa was a Burmese warlord who made north of £5bn shifting heroin during the 70s, 80s and 90s, supplying a huge percentage of the west’s opium throughout that time.
He funnelled a lot of his money into creating an army of over 20,000 men (The Mong Tai Army), more than the actual army of Burma boasted at the time. The heroin cash funded Shan insurgency in Burma/Myanmar for decades.
Last, but not least… El Patrón himself. There are so many tales of the fabulous wealth that the world’s most famous ever criminal had at his disposal, that to relay them here is almost pointless. You’ve heard that he was so rich that he imported hippos just to splash about in waters on his estate. It sounds an extravagance because it was. But when you could pull in hundreds of millions of pounds A WEEK, why not?
It’s estimated that Escobar earned hundreds of BILLIONS of pounds in his career as the most successful drug trafficker in world history. At one point he was the seventh richest man in the world. Not bad for the son of a farmer, eh?
- Rafael Caro Quintero: The Guadalajara Cartel co-founder made endless millions shipping Grade A marijuana to America.
- Al Capone: The idea that the mafia swerved drugs is largely a myth. Chicago mobster Capone made hundreds of millions shifting cocaine and was a heavy user himself.
- Freeway Ricky Ross: ‘Freeway’ Ricky ran an enormous coke operation out of LA, making him one of the USA’s richest drug traffickers of the 1980s.
- George Jung: ‘El Americano’ worked with the Medellin Cartel importing drugs into the US on an industrial scale. His story was told in the 2001 Johnny Depp film Blow.
- Frank Lucas: American heroin importer as played by Denzel Washington in Ridley Scott’s underrated crime flick American Gangster.