The Most Brutal Drug Kingpins

The life of a drug lord often seems very glamorous. The leaders of drug cartels have frequently made Forbes's list of the richest people in the world. Acquiring that wealth, though, often requires playing dirty. This list features the most brutal drug kingpins - people who wouldn't hesitate to murder for the sake of their profits. The people on this list have killed to amass power, get revenge, avoid apprehension, eliminate competition, or just to intimidate rivals.

These notorious drug lords live in a truly Darwinian world where only the strong survive. They have stopped at nothing to succeed, even murdering innocent civilians, women, and children. There's no telling how many lives the drug wars have taken. 

Photo: Colombian National Police / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Pablo Escobar
    Photo: Colombian National Police / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Pablo Escobar was the head of the Medellín cocaine cartel in Colombia in the '70s and '80s; at one point, he controlled 80% of the cocaine that entered the United States. According to Forbes, Escobar was one of the top 10 richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $30 billion. He moved so much cash from place to place that he bought a Learjet just to transport his money.

    He achieved this great success by killing rivals and bribing government officials. If he couldn't buy officials, he often killed them. He once planted a bomb on an airplane to kill a presidential candidate, and instead killed 110 civilians. He is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of 4,000 people.

  • Griselda Blanco
    Photo: Metro Dade Police Department / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Griselda Blanco

    Griselda Blanco (who went by the nicknames the Godmother and the Black Widow) was said to be a mentor to Pablo Escobar before they later became enemies. Blanco was one of the founders of the Miami-based cocaine trade that tore apart the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She got her start designing and manufacturing women's undergarments meant to conceal smuggled cocaine.

    Blanco was a violent, ruthless person even in childhood. Allegedly, at age 11, she kidnapped a child from a wealthy neighborhood, and when she couldn't get a ransom, murdered him instead. As a drug kingpin, she murdered rival drug dealers, most often by ordering drive-by shootings via motorcycle. She would order her assassins to kill everyone in the area as well, including women and children. She even shot her own husband point-blank over a drug deal. She was responsible for up to 250 murders during her lifetime. She plotted to kidnap JFK Jr., though her attempt was foiled.

  • Joaquín Guzmán Loera (El Chapo)
    Photo: Drug Enforcement Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Joaquín Guzmán Loera (El Chapo)

    Joaquín Guzmán is better known as El Chapo, named for his short stature. In 2014, the US Treasury referred to him as "the most powerful drug trafficker in the world." With the Sinaloa cartel, El Chapo transported cocaine, methamphetamine, cannabis, ecstasy, and heroin from Colombia and Mexico to the US.

    As of his arrest in 2014, El Chapo had exported more drugs to the US than anyone else on Earth, including more than 500 tons of cocaine. This was the crime lord's third arrest - twice before he had escaped prison, in 2001 and again in 2015. For his second escape, he used a tunnel dug 33 feet below the prison, complete with lighting, air ducts, and a motorcycle.

    El Chapo is responsible for countless murders, and his victims include family members of rival drug traffickers.

  • Osiel Cárdenas Guillén
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Osiel Cárdenas Guillén

    Osiel Cárdenas Guillén's nickname was "The Friend-Killer" because he murdered his mentor and friend in order to take over the Gulf cartel. Cárdenas amassed an army of mercenaries, deserters from the Mexican Army, who came to be known as Los Zetas.

    In 2003, Cárdenas was captured and extradited to the US. He is currently in prison in Texas. After his arrest, Los Zetas separated from the Gulf cartel, and to this day, their methods remain extremely brutal. The US government has described Los Zetas as "the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico."

  • Omar Trevino-Morales

    Omar Trevino-Morales is the former leader of Los Zetas, considered to be the most violent drug cartel currently in operation. They have also branched into sex trafficking, kidnapping, and gun-running operations.

    They are known to use brutal tactics like torture and beheading to intimidate rivals. They allegedly killed 72 undocumented immigrants just to prevent them from being recruited by one of their rival cartels. In perhaps their most brutal attack, Los Zetas murdered approximately 300 civilians in the town of Allende in 2011 as payback after two drug traffickers from that town stole $5 million from the group.

  • Amado Carrillo Fuentes
    Photo: Mexican federal authorities / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Amado Carrillo Fuentes was known as "The Lord of the Skies" because he used a fleet of private aircraft to transport cocaine to the United States from Mexico. During his heyday in the 1980s and '90s, Fuentes transported more cocaine to the US than any other trafficker in the world, using 22 private jets and airliners. He was one of the wealthiest criminals in history, worth over $25 billion.

    In 1997, Fuentes died while undergoing plastic surgery to change his appearance, as he was being hunted down by authorities at the time. While his badly bruised corpse was put on display in an open casket, some believe that Fuentes faked his death and went into hiding. Mexican authorities insist that Fuentes is dead, but rumors abound that he fled to Germany or Chile, with some pointing to the large, twisted hands of the body as not belonging to Fuentes. 

    The surgeons who operated with Fuentes were later found dead, stuffed inside oil drums.