The World's Scariest Drug Lords

Murder is just part of the game when you’re running one of the world’s largest drug empires. The Fix examines 10 of the most ruthless.

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Propelled by greed, desperation, and a sheer lust for power, the world's most notorious drug barons lead contradictory existences: brazenly snuffing out hundreds of lives while fearfully guarding their own. Though many have amassed sumptuous mansions and spectacular fortunes, they have little time to savor the fruits of their labor. Instead, surrounded by armies of bodyguards, they are constantly on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement agents and jealous competitors.

Not long ago, the drug world’s aristocracy was largely dominated by Colombians, who imported thousands of tons of cocaine to the U.S. each year. But since the U.S.-supported crackdown on Bogota's drug barons, the action has largely shifted to Mexico, where local police and government officials have proved unable to stem a mounting tide of bloodshed among competing cartels. (15,273 people died here as a result of drug violence in 2010 alone.)  Not content to limit themselves to cocaine, Mexico’s drug barons have also branched out into marijuana and methamphetamines, engaging in a brisk cross-border trade that earns them anywhere from 10 to 20 billion dollars every year. According to recent DEA estimates, one out of every five Mexican citizens is directly or tangentially affiliated with the rug trade, which explains why the government has been so powerless to stop it.

But in a world filled with thousands of wannabe gangsters, it takes a special blend of ruthlessness and savvy to get to the top of the heap. Meet the  wealthiest -- and most wanted -- drug lords in the world.

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Joaquin Guzman Lorea
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His associates may call him “El Chapo” -- or “Shorty” – but don’t let his nick name fool you. Though short in stature, this gangster is the most powerful drug runner in the world and his bank account and ruthless reputation are both larger than life. Each year, he and his Sinaloa cartel move billions of dollars of drugs through Mexico and into the U.S.  He conveys much of his contraband under the radar – literally – by moving cash and narcotics through an elaborate tunnel system that his minions constructed beneath the border.

Described as “one of the top criminals in the entire world” by the DEA, the 53-year-old Guzman is well acquainted with authorities on both sides of the border. After officials seized 7.3 tons of cocaine from his organization in 1993, he started serving a stretch in a Mexican prison -- only to escape in the back of a prison laundry van in 2001.  Since then, Guzman’s Sinaloa army has been engaged in a violent turf war with Mexico’s Juarez cartel that has left a trail of 550 bodies in 2010 alone. In 2009, Forbesranked Lorea the 41st most powerful person in the world – ahead of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

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Zhenli Ye Gon
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Like a comic book supervillain, 48-year-old Zhenli Ye Gon leads a dangerous double life. On the one hand, he is the legal representative of Unimed Pham Chem Mexico, a legitimate pharmaceutical company; on the other, he is alleged to be the kingpin who manufactures and transports much of the crystal methamphetamine that currently plagues large swaths of 21st-century America. The Chinese-born attorney has longstanding ties to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel. During a surprise raid on his Mexico City mansion, police confiscated upwards of $200 million in cash concealed in the building's walls and under the floorboards. Not long after, two Mexican federal agents involved in the raid mysteriously turned up dead. When he's not working, the hard-partying Ye enjoys playing $200,000 hands of high-stakes baccarat on the Vegas strip, where the DEA suspects he's lost some $126 million to date.

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Ismael Zambada García
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At 63 years old, Ismael Zambada Garcia is an old hand in the drug game. He is also one of the most wanted smugglers in Mexico. Jose Vasconcelos, a leading anti-drug prosecutor in Mexico, branded Garcia "drug dealer number one." American authorities recently told the Associated Press that they soon expect to add him to the FBI's Most Wanted list. Garcia's Sinoloa cartel operates as a distribution hub for Colombian cocaine en route to the United States.  While internal turf wars have claimed many of his rival kingpins, Garcia still remains, consolidating his power as his competitors disappear. His staying power may be attributable to his ability to build alliances with a variety of cartels – and the plastic surgery and wardrobe of disguises he uses while moving through Mexico.  Garcia also makes use of police corruption, greasing the wheels of his distribution network with steady bribes.  He has evaded capture for decades, despite Mexican and American bounties totaling more than seven million dollars.

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James Bulger
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The ruthless former leader of an organized crime group that controlled extortion and drug deals from in Boston, James Bulger is dangerous enough for the FBI to offer two million dollars to anyone who can provide information leading to his arrest. The government is pursuing him for his role in a series of gruesome murders committed from the early 1970s through the mid 1980s but he's eluded capture thus far, often by using elaborate disguises. A soft-spoken, polite man, he enjoys time spent with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig. The two of them are sometimes spotted taking dreamy hand-in-hand journeys on beaches and through parks.  But his corny romantic streak and well-publicized love for animals hardly tempers his capacity for ruthlessness: he's believed to have had a hand in numerous homicides and carries a knife with him at all times.

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Eduardo Ravelo
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A Capo of the Barrio Azteca organization and a trusted liaison to the deadly Juarez cartel, the 42-year-old Ravelo has positioned himself as a pivotal fixer on the Mexican-American drug corridor -- thanks to his longtime relationships, access to power (and powder), and embrace of bloody murder. He rose to the leadership of Barrio Azteca in 2008, after shooting and stabbing his mentor and predecessor to death.  Since then, in addition to running a brisk trafficking business, Ravelo and Barrio Azteca have also served as freelance hit men for other Mexican cartels.

Indicted in Texas in 2008 for a laundry list of crimes -- from racketeering to counterfeiting to conspiracy -- Ravelo reportedly escaped from public view after enlisting the services of a friendly plastic surgeon who radically altered his face and fingerprints. He now reportedly resides in Ciudad Juarez, on turf well controlled by his Barrio Aztecas and protected by a constant cavalcade of bodyguards and armored trucks. Ravelo now ranks among the 10 Most Wanted by the FBI, which offers $100,000 for information leading to his arrest.

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Jose Luis Saenz
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Born in 1975 in East Los Angeles, Jose Luis Saenz made his bones at age 23 after he staged a daring double murder.  A member of the murderous Maravilla gang, Saenz allegedly lured in a couple of rival Trece gangsters with the promise of a drug deal before offing them. Three years later, in 1998, he allegedly kidnapped and killed his girlfriend because of her knowledge about his prior homicides.  In the ensuing years, his power quickly grew along with his ruthless reputation: in 2008, a Missouri state trooper discovered $610,000 in cash marked "Toro" – Saenz's alleged nickname – in the stash box of a rental car driven by two Lott Stoner gangsters (one of whom Saenz was seen killing on a surveillance video).  The FBI added Saenz to its 10 Most Wanted list in 2008. Undaunted, he continues to work as one of the cartel's top enforcers along the Mexican-American drug corridor.

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Hector Beltran-Leyva
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Left to run his family's drug business after Mexican troops killed one brother, Arturo, and arrested the other, Carlos, by all accounts Hector Beltran-Leyva did a pretty good job. His cartel presides over an empire built on cocaine, marijuana, and heroin production and wholesaling—as well as human trafficking, money laundering, murder and gunrunning. Once affiliated with Joaquin Guzman’s bloody Sinaloa cartel, Beltran-Leyva and his followers later switched their allegiance to the newly minted Los Zetas crime syndicate (which was founded by a crew of high-profile deserters from the Mexican Army’s Special Forces). Thanks to a steady campaign of corruption and intimidation, Leyva loyalists have managed to successfully infiltrate Mexico’s political and justice system as well as the country’s police and intelligence services, tipping off the cartel to planned anti-drug operations long before they occur.
 

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Hajji Juma Khan
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Currently detained in Guantanamo Bay with the possibility of a plea deal still lingering, 66-year-old Juma Khan rose to power in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and quickly managed to build the largest drug operation in the region.  Before the American invasion, Khan had labored as a run-of-the-mill provincial drug smuggler in Afghanistan's Nimroz province, just a few miles away from the nation's Iraqi-Pakistani borders.  When U.S. forces drove the drug-hating Taliban out of the neighborhood, Khan deftly stepped into the power vacuum left after their defeat. Within a few months, he dramatically broadened his turf. As the opium trade surged in the wake of the U.S. invasion, the wily Khan bought off his rivals and bribed Afghani politicians of President Hamid Karai's government to further consolidate his power.  By 2006, in recognition of the drug lord's strong position, the U.S. decided to work with him, paying him in cash to meet with CIA and DEA representatives in Washington DC. After providing the U.S. with much-needed intelligence on ongoing Taliban operations, Khan was confident that that he could keep his contraband career going without fear of prosecution. He suffered a rude awakening in 2008 when he was arrested in Indonesia and extradited to New York to faces charges under a new narco-terrorism law. While his lawyers angle for a plea deal, his final fate is yet to be determined.

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Glen Stuart Godwin
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Tired of laboring anonymously as a mechanic and tool salesman, G.S. Godwin decided on a mid-life career change.  Determined to make a killing as a drug dealer, in 1980, he and his roommate plotted to rob and murder a pilot-cum-drug-runner they knew – and succeeded, after Godwin punched, kicked, strangled, and stabbed the pilot 36 times. The murderous marauders then loaded the body onto a truck that they blew up in the California desert.  After two daring prison escapes and a hit on a Mexican cartel caballero, Godwin, now 52, is rumored to be roaming restlessly through Latin America, even as he continues to direct his lucrative trade from abroad.  The FBI lists him among its 10 Most Wanted fugitives, offering $100,000 for information leading to his arrest.

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Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villareal
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A Texas-born high school football star nicknamed "La Barbie" for his handsome Ken doll features, Edgar Villareal was supposed to become a professional football player. Instead, he decided to enter the drug business and fled to Mexico in the late 1990s after he was arrested for intent to distribute marijuana.  His early forays in the drug game only served to whet his appetite: Villareal came to rival Hector Beltran Leyva for control of the Beltran Leyva cartel.  His rise to underworld prominence included his 2010 U.S. indictment on charges to distribute thousands of kilograms of cocaine.  Mexican officials believe that Villareal oversaw the transport of cocaine from Mexico to the U.S. on the scale of one ton per month between 2004 and 2006.  By 2009, Mexican authorities had listed Villareal among their Most Wanted drug traffickers, offering $2.3 million for information leading to his apprehension. Arrested in August 2010, he now faces life charges in both Mexico and the U.S.