Since the late 1970s, two men have emerged as the most powerful and most dangerous drug lords in the world.
Pablo Escobar, a farmer’s son from rural Colombia, and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a product of Mexico’s rugged Sierra Madre mountains, delivered immeasurable amounts of cocaine and other drugs throughout the world during their respective reigns – Escobar’s came to an end on a dingy Medellin rooftop in late 1993, and Guzmán’s appears to be over after his extradition to the US in January.
During their respective climbs to the top of the narco food chain, they amassed obscene amounts of wealth – and exposed the world to unimaginable levels of terror.
While a direct comparison of Escobar’s Medellín cartel and Guzmán’s Sinaloa Federation is difficult – they’ve dealt with different products, competition, and markets – looking at the groups’ leaders side by side gives some idea of their power and influence.
Born to a humble farming family near the city of Medellín in north-central Colombia, Pablo Escobar started his career committing various petty crimes. He graduated to smuggling and soon began carting shipments of marijuana.
By the late 1970s, he and several associates began trafficking cocaine out of Colombia (one of the main cocaine producers in the world), and by the early 1980s, their Medellín cartel was shipping hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine north to the voracious US market.
While Escobar’s income and wealth are hard to measure, it’s believed he was raking in $420 million a week by the mid-1980s, which would amount to roughly $22 billion a year. By the end of that decade, he was supplying 80% of the world’s cocaine and smuggling 15 tons of it into the US every day.
He spent lavishly on himself and his family and was a patron of local causes, building apartments and soccer fields and handing out cash to the poor. These acts of charity won him popular support and bolstered his image as a man of the people.
“Pablo was earning so much that each year we would write off 10% of the money because the rats would eat it in storage or it would be damaged by water or lost,” Escobar’s brother Roberto wrote in a 2009 book.
Escobar’s illicit empire attracted the attention of the Colombian government, which attempted to shut down his operations. Clashes between the government and drug traffickers unleashed a yearslong wave of violence in Colombia.
The Colombian government, with US assistance, deployed a special force to bring Escobar down – though that force was badly bloodied in its first encounter with the cartel. By the middle of 1991, the government’s campaign forced Escobar to concede, and he negotiated an agreement that allowed him to lock himself up in a jail of his own design in the highlands near Medellín.
By the middle of 1992, evidence that Escobar was conducting cartel activity from his prison compelled the government to try to apprehend him. Instead, Escobar fled the prison and went on the run.
During this time, he and his family traveled from hideout to hideout, never staying in the same place for more than two days.
At one point, Escobar torched $2 million in cash to help his family stave off cold weather.
He eventually separated from his family, hiding out on his own. On December 2, 1993, his luck ran out. Colombian security forces – believed to be working with Los Pepes, a vigilante group that was also tracking Escobar – converged on the Medellín home where he was staying.
When they burst through the door, Escobar scrambled onto the rooftop. Like many details of his life, it’s unclear who fired the shot that killed the most powerful – and most dangerous – drug lord in the world.
Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán
While Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is not the first drug baron to emerge from the Sierra Madre mountains of Sinaloa state in northwestern Mexico, the state’s namesake cartel rose to global standing under his watch.
As the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzmán oversaw marijuana and poppy cultivation that covered more than 23,000 miles of Mexico – an area larger than Costa Rica – as well as a network that has operatives in 17 of Mexico’s 32 states and operates in nearly 50 countries, including an extensive network in the US.
The cartel is believed to control 35% of the cocaine produced in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug, and according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it supplies 80% of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine flowing to the Chicago region of the US each year.
The Sinaloa cartel is also believed to have an immense international footprint. Cartel activity has been reported in Australia, Hong Kong, and the Philippines in recent years.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Latin American organizations like Sinaloa are looking to expand their operations into new markets, using trafficking routes through Africa and Asia.
“El Chapo” is no stranger to law enforcement, either.
In 1993, not long after he ascended to Sinaloa’s upper ranks, Guzmán was arrested in Guatemala, where he had fled after a cartel shootout in Guadalajara killed a Catholic cardinal, and locked up in a Mexican prison. He stayed there until he escaped in 2001, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart.
He was on the run for 13 years before he was caught in Mazatlán, on the Sinaloa coast, in February 2014. Seventeen months later – a period that didn’t interrupt his managerial duties – he escaped again in spectacular fashion.
According to one report, his cartel henchmen dug a mile-long tunnel under the prison only to come up under the wrong part of the prison. Undetected and undeterred, they simply dug another tunnel.
After six months on the run, Guzmán was recaptured in early January 2016 in Los Mochis, a city in Sinaloa state not far from where he was born. The drama around him has not slacked since he was rejailed.
Amid the legal wrangling, worries about another escape persisted. In early May, Guzmán was shuttled from his cell at a prison in central Mexico to another facility outside of Ciudad Juárez.
The move was reportedly prompted by a sudden blackout at the jail holding him, which likely spooked many high-level Mexican officials who would have been humiliated by another breakout.
In mid-August, Guzmán’s lawyers won an appeal to have the kingpin transferred back to the facility in central Mexico he was incarcerated in and broke out of.
Guzmán remained locked up near Ciudad Juárez, however, as reviews of the transfer order and other appeals were carried out.
Guzmán is now in the US at a high-security facility in Manhattan, waiting for legal proceedings against him to play out.
Evidence revealed by US prosecutors sketches a highly detailed case describing a complex criminal organization responsible for moving massive quantities of drugs, corrupting extensive networks of law enforcement and politicians, and unleashing brutal violence on its rivals and bystanders in Mexico.
According to US prosecutors, many of Guzmán’s compatriots, including Colombian drug traffickers, are ready to testify against him.
Behind bars, he is presumably safe, though that may not be the case for the rest of his clan. In June, scores of armed men descended on Guzmán’s mother’s home in central Sinaloa state. The attack left several people dead and may have been launched by a cartel with which Sinaloa has long feuded.
The prospect of intercartel warfare affecting the Guzmán family deepened in August, when gunmen stormed into a posh restaurant in Puerto Vallarta, down the Pacific coast from Sinaloa state, and kidnapped at least one of Guzmán’s sons. The son, Alfredo, was released unharmed days later.
These incidents come amid rising violence throughout Mexico, driven by the fragmentation of some of Mexico’s criminal organizations as well as by deepening conflict between the Sinaloa cartel and its only real rival for power in Mexico’s narco underworld: the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
The CJNG is believed to have played a role in Guzmán’s son’s kidnapping. It is also challenging the Sinaloa cartel in Tijuana and battling Guzmán’s organization for control in Colima state, home to Mexico’s largest Pacific port – conflicts the Sinaloa cartel is confronting as it wages its own internal struggles.
For the time being, the Sinaloa cartel is on top of Mexico’s narco hierarchy, but the organization Guzmán leaves behind will face no shortage of challenges in the years to come, and former allies and foes alike will be left to wonder what, if any, information the erstwhile Sinaloa kingpin will reveal to his new captors.