7 Most Notorious Drug Lords of the 20th Century

The drug trade brings with it money and violence, whether the drug lords are dealing Colombian cocaine or Burmese opium. These men and women shaped an underground economy through which millions of dollars passed, not annually, but weekly or even daily. The lives of these individuals and their cartels impacted their communities in a variety of ways and were, largely, cut short by the violence that they had chosen. The most notorious drug lords of the 20th century left behind a legacy of violence and poverty, generational addiction, and even wild, roaming hippos.

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Pablo Escobar in 1976.

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar (December 1, 1949 to December 2, 1993) was a Colombian drug lord. At the height of his power, Escobar and his drug cartel provided approximately 80 percent of the cocaine available in the United States.  Sometimes called the “King of Cocaine,” by 1990, Escobar was one of the richest men in the world. He lived in a massive compound that included a zoo, gardens, and a play area for children. While the animals in his zoo were relocated, a herd of hippos escaped and now remains in the area near his compound in Colombia, breeding and causing difficulties for local people and officials.

Escobar began his career in the early 1970s. After starting out in small-scale smuggling, he began working for larger drug lords, handling kidnappings for ransom by the mid-1970s. In 1975, Escobar opened direct routes to the United States to traffic cocaine produced in Colombia to the United States. By the 1980s, Escobar’s Medellin Cartel was trafficking a significant portion of the 70 to 80 tons of cocaine reaching the United States annually.

Conflicts between cartels were common in Colombia, with regular acts of violence, including kidnapping and murder of other traffickers and local officials. Regardless of his role as a drug lord, Escobar was elected to office as part of Colombia’s liberal party, and constructed hospitals, schools and churches throughout western Colombia. He gained the support of the Catholic Church for his efforts, separating these two parts of his life.

Escobar death

The drug trade, largely run by the Medellin Cartel and Escobar, contributed to making Colombia the murder capital of the world. Both the Colombian and American governments considered Escobar to be an enemy of the state and a key player in the drug trade. Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by Colombian police on December 2, 1993, a day after his 44th birthday. The economy, safety and government of Colombia still struggle with the impact of Escobar’s activities.