Top 20 Notorious Real Life Narcos

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Top 20 Notorious Real Life Narcos

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp & Q.V. Hough
These men and women ran vast criminal empires. For this list, we'll be looking at the most infamous drug traffickers in history. Our countdown includes Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas, 'Freeway' Rick Ross, Christopher Coke, Pablo Escobar, and more!
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Top 20 Notorious Real Life Narcos


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 notorious real life narcos.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most infamous drug traffickers in history.

Any of these stories shock you? Let us know in the comments!

#20: The Arellano Félix Family

After the arrest of Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo in 1989, his cartel broke up into three factions. One of those was the Tijuana Cartel, handed down to his seven nephews and four nieces - the Arellano Félix Family. Smuggling cocaine and marijuana to eager consumers in the United States, they became one of the largest and most violent organizations in Mexico. However, after many of the brothers were incarcerated or killed, the group lost substantial territory in Baja California to the Sinaloa Cartel - one of the other factions from Gallardo’s empire. The Tijuana Cartel is now headed by Enedina Arellano Félix, one of the few female criminal leaders in the world.

#19: Bumpy Johnson

Born Ellsworth Raymond Johnson in South Carolina, Big "Bumpy" Johnson was sent to Harlem in 1919 to live with his sister. His parents hoped it would improve his behavior, but instead, he met gangster William Hewett and began working for him. Johnson subsequently embarked in a war with mob boss Doug Schultz and became a successful drug trafficker. He served two prison terms and was arrested over 40 times! In 1952, he was arrested and sentenced to the world-famous Alcatraz Prison, where he may have aided in the legendary escapes of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers.

#18: Ismael Zambada Garcia

This narco has been called “Mexico’s Last Drug Kingpin”, and with good reason. Otherwise known as “El Mayo”, Zambada has sole leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel, previously run in association with the likes of El Chapo. Originally a farmer, Ismael Zambada Garcia later immersed himself in the trafficking of Colombian cocaine. In fact, his career dates back to the early days of the Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, making this Mexican drug lord a mythical name in the business. He’s never been arrested, and he’s been known to physically alter his appearance through plastic surgery. Decade after decade, Garcia looms over the Sinaloa cartel, while somehow evading authorities.

#17: Ramón Arellano Félix

Of the infamous Arellano Félix family, it’s Ramón who deserves his own entry. The most ruthless member of the family. Ramón was in charge of the cartel’s enforcement. His build was certainly imposing and may have resulted in his role as enforcer; Ramón stood at 6’2’’ and weighed 220 pounds. In 1997, Ramón was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, and the following year he sanctioned a hit in Baja California that resulted in the deaths of 18 people, all from the same family and including several children. Ramón was killed in 2002 during a traffic stop. During the famous trial of El Chapo in 2018, cartel accountant Jesus Zambada García testified that Ramón was whacked by dirty cops on the orders of El Chapo.

#16: Nicky Barnes

One of the successors to Bumpy Johnson, Nicky Barnes controlled much of the New York drug trade throughout the 1970s. Barnes is famous for forming The Council, a group of African American criminals who worked closely with the Italian mafia to distribute heroin across North America. He became known as Mr. Untouchable and enjoyed spending his fortune on fashion, publicly displaying an air of style and confidence. Barnes was finally arrested in 1978 and vindictively turned informant after learning that another Council member was sleeping with his mistress. He implicated over 100 people, leading to the indictment of 44 traffickers. Released from prison in 1998, he lived under witness protection until his death in 2012.

#15: Frank Lucas

Famously portrayed by Denzel Washington in the 2007 film “American Gangster,” this North Carolina native handled his business directly and violently. While the Ridley Scott film took some creative license with its depiction of Frank Lucas, there’s no denying that he was a larger than life character with a knack for surviving. Even with numerous jail stints during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Lucas somehow managed to survive the perils of the drug industry, and claimed to have made over a million dollars per day. Despite all the glitz and glamor, the massive unloading of heroin upon the streets of New York City vastly affected an entire generation.

#14: Osiel Cárdenas Guillén

This Mexican man was working as a mechanic when he became involved with drug lord Juan García Abrego. Following Abrego’s arrest in 1996, Cárdenas killed his rival Salvador Gómez and began leading the Gulf Cartel. He also created Los Zetas , formed from deserters of the Mexican Army. They served as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel and became infamous for their horrific violence. Despite this, Cárdenas remained under the radar. That is, until he held FBI and DEA agents at gunpoint and became the target of a manhunt. He was placed on the Most Wanted List and was finally arrested after a gunfight in 2003. Guillén is currently serving a 25 year sentence at USP Terre Haute.

#13: Rocco Morabito

This Italian mobster was literally born into a life of crime, being related to mob boss Giuseppe Morabito. Giuseppe ran a crime syndicate in Southern Italy known as ‘Ndrangheta. Rocco took to the family business and began trafficking cocaine between South America and Italy. In October of 1994, Morabito became a fugitive and hid out in countries like Brazil and Uruguay. He remained hidden from the eye of the law for 23 years, but he was eventually found in 2017 after enrolling his daughter in high school under his surname. Morabito was arrested and sent to prison, but he escaped with three other inmates through a hole int he roof. He was recaptured in Brazil in May of 2021.

#12: “Cocky” Curtis Warren

This Englishman rose to prominence in the late ‘80s by partnering with a drug trafficker named Brian Charrington. With Charrington’s yacht, the two travelled to Venezuela and became entangled with Colombia’s Cali cartel, agreeing to smuggle cocaine across country borders in shipments of lead ingots. By the late ‘90s, Warren had amassed a fortune worth tens of millions of pounds, and he was running a smuggling operation through his personal vineyard in Bulgaria. His villa was eventually raided, and authorities found £125 million worth of drugs, weapons, and cash. After spending time in a Dutch prison, Warren was arrested again in 2007 under conspiracy to smuggle drugs and sentenced to 13 years behind bars.

#11: Christopher Coke

Another man born into crime, Christopher Coke was the son of drug lord Lester Coke, who founded the Jamaican organization Shower Posse. The cartel was composed of violent drug smugglers with territories in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the US. Christopher was assimilated into his father’s business, and when the patriarch passed away in 1992, Coke began running the Shower Posse at just 23 years old. In 2010, the Jamaican military tried extraditing Coke to the US, but his cartel fought back. The result was the Kingston Unrest, which resulted in over 73 deaths. Coke was finally captured while attempting to disguise himself as a woman and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

#10: Rafael Caro Quintero

This man is one of the most powerful people in the Mexican drug trade. Not only did he co-found the Guadalajara Cartel with Miguel Félix Gallardo, but he’s also the brother of Miguel Quintero, who once ran the Sonora Cartel. During his time with the Guadalajara Cartel, Quintero was involved in the kidnapping and murder of several people, including DEA agent Kiki Camarena and American journalist John Clay Walker. After serving 28 years of a 40 year sentence, he was released in 2013, but US authorities immediately called for his re-arrest. Today, Quintero is suspected of running the Caborca Cartel based out of Sonora. He remains at large, and at $20 million, he has the biggest bounty of anyone on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

#9: Arturo Beltrán Leyva

As the man that reportedly introduced “El Chapo” to the drug trafficking trade, this narco was originally groomed by the “The Lord of the Skies,” Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Alongside his four brothers, Arturo Beltran Leyva protected the Sinaloa Cartel as the leader of the hit squad “Fuerzas Especiales de Arturo”. Yet after a 2008 beef with “El Chapo” and the subsequent murder of El Chapo’s son, Leyva and company aligned with other factions while further establishing themselves through complete violence and political corruption. As the heat intensified and a 2 million dollar reward was put out, Leyva found himself cornered by the Mexican Marines, resulting in one of the more controversial Narco deaths of the 21st century.

#8: Felix Mitchell

Before cocaine took over the United States in the 1980s, this Oakland native was the preeminent heroin distributor in his native California. Leading the “69 Mob,” Felix Mitchell aka “Felix the Cat” amassed such power that his lifestyle inspired a wealth of gangs, all gunning for the elite status associated with the Oakland narco. Mitchell’s 1985 conviction and subsequent jailhouse murder essentially opened the door for even more Bay Area violence, defying the expectations of the government. Meanwhile, international news coverage of his funeral procession only cemented his status among dealers and the community at large.

#7: Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo

The story of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo has been immortalized in Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico,” in which he’s portrayed by Diego Luna. Known as both The Boss of Bosses and The Godfather, Gallardo co-founded the Guadalajara Cartel in the late ‘70s. Thanks to strong connections with Colombian drug traffickers, the Guadalajara Cartel controlled much of the Mexican drug trade throughout the ‘80s and shipped narcotics between Mexico and the United States. His downfall came after the kidnapping and killing of DEA agent Kiki Camarena. Gallardo was arrested in ‘89 and sentenced to 37 years in prison. He is now living out his days in a small cell in a maximum security prison.

#6: Griselda Blanco

Known as “The Godmother” among other names, this Colombian narco preceded the rise of Pablo Escobar. Although Griselda Blanco is mostly known for her Miami-Medellin connection, she was originally the leader of a New York City drug ring during the mid-70s. Reportedly the mastermind of up to 200 murders, Blanco’s lack of empathy and $80 million per month distribution network led to some turbulent years in south Florida, as the “Cocaine Cowboys” dominated the Miami drug scene. Even in the face of a 1985 arrest and subsequent conviction, Griselda managed to maintain a longstanding presence in the cocaine industry until she was ultimately killed in a 2012 drive-by shooting after a return to Medellin.

#5: Khun Sa

Undoubtedly the most famous drug lord of the infamous “Golden Triangle,” this narco was less about glitz and more about guerilla warfare – though the Burma-born Chang Chi-fu’s moniker, Khun Sa, which means Prince Prosperous, may suggest otherwise. And as the commander in chief of his own army, Khun Sa evolved into the definitive opium dealer. He also worked with the aforementioned Frank Lucas to bring 90% pure drug product into the United States, effectively hooking even more addicts due to the substantial quality increase. Khun Sa supposedly surrendered to authorities in 1996, but was never arrested; meaning he managed to stay a free man in self-imposed “retirement” until his death in 2007.

#4: Amado Carrillo Fuentes

In 2014, the leader of the violent Juarez Cartel, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, was arrested, ending a turbulent reign over Mexico. But it was his older brother, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, that originally made the organization such a threat to their peers in the cocaine industry. Known as “El Senor de los Cielos,” or “Lord of the Skies,” Amada Carillo Fuentes took control in 1993 upon the murder of boss Rafael Aguilar Guajardo. Fuentes’ time in the drug trade earned him as much as $25B, while his jet fleet used for laundering money back and forth between Mexico and Colombia earned him respect, if not notoriety. In a strange twist of events, however, Fuentes mysteriously passed away during a 1997 plastic surgery procedure, while the doctors involved paid the ultimate price.

#3: ‘Freeway’ Rick Ross

Not to be confused with the rapper Rick Ross, this is the man that controlled the Los Angeles drug trade for the entirety of the ‘80s. In fact, the influence of Freeway Rick Ross extended deep into American pop culture, as he was the most prolific cocaine distributor thanks to a Nicaraguan connection. What began as a Southern Californian operation evolved into a billion dollar business, with Ross becoming directly tied to the Iran-Contra affair, as depicted in the 2014 film “Kill the Messenger.” It's safe to say, there’s never been an American narco more talked about than Freeway Rick Ross.

#2: Joaquín Guzmán [aka ‘El Chapo’]

Since the late ‘70s, this elusive drug lord has been affiliated with organized crime. As the kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo has been infamously connected to the influx of cocaine in the United States. Even so, he’s become somewhat of a mythical figure for his brazen escapes from prison and certainly for his controversial interview with Sean Penn. Over the course of several decades, Joaquin Guzman Loera established himself as a vicious and uncompromising narco, showing no mercy for his enemies while accumulating unfathomable power and wealth in the process. Known as “The Last Godfather,” El Chapo’s reach extends far beyond his native Mexico.

#1: Pablo Escobar

In life, this Colombian was a folk hero to some and public enemy #1 for others. And in death, Pablo Escobar’s legacy has been extensively documented, both in film and television. In his rise to power, “El Padrino” capitalized fully on the public’s wants and needs, manipulating those around him while silencing anyone who posed a threat. As a result, Escobar’s unprecedented empire made Colombia the central headquarters for a worldwide import/export operation, with international authorities at the mercy of something they didn’t fully understand. But as Pablo Escobar continued to push back against law enforcement, law enforcement pushed even harder, leading to a violent yet final confrontation in 1993 in which he was killed by Colombian National Police.
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