Over the past two decades, Tony Montana has become the pop-culture measuring stick for the excess and ruthlessness that follow the life of a drug lord. But in terms of life imitating art, Tony’s exploits as a kingpin are rather mild compared to some of his real-life counterparts, who we’re assuming might’ve just cornholed him if he ever crossed their paths.
Before everybody gets their panties in a wad, we’ll tell you right off the bat that Pablo Escobar isn’t on this list. Not because he wasn’t the most notorious drug lord in history, but because there’s nothing we can’t tell you that hasn’t already been said about the guy, so we won’t waste the space or insult your intelligence. But here are nine more real-life drug lords you may not know so much about.
9 Christopher Coke
Behold, the dark side of the Rasta island paradise known as Jamaica. With a nickname like “Dudus,” it might be easy to imagine the perfectly-named Christopher Coke as the small-potatoes weed guru that always crashed on your couch in college, and not the leader of the most powerful gang in Jamaica. When the Jamaican government issued a warrant for his arrest, such was the support for Coke that the city of Kingston declared a state of emergency and had to bring in the military before he was apprehended.
8 Carlos Lehder
As a founding member of the Medellin cartel, Carlos Lehder was Stringer Bell to Pablo Escobar’s Avon Barksdale. Along with George Jung, Lehder was revolutionary in utilizing planes to transport drugs across international borders instead of human mules. Once he got enough cash, Lehder cemented his place on this list and fulfilled a dream every guy shares by buying his own personal island in the Bahamas.
Needless to say, the combination of enough cocaine to croak Godzilla and the absence of any law turned the island into the kind of depraved fiefdom only previously thought possible in the mind of Hunter S. Thompson.
7 Amado Carrillo Fuentes
The DEA describes Amado Carrillo Fuentes as the “most powerful trafficker of his era” (mid-’90s). In his day, Fuentes moved four times as much cocaine into the U.S. than any other trafficker in the world, reportedly with a fleet of up to 27 Boeing 727s.
Fuentes would be higher on this list of not for his ignominious cause of death—botched plastic surgery. No dramatic shootouts, duels, fugitive chases or assassination attempts for this guy. He fought the shoddy medical standards of Mexico, and the shoddy medical standards of Mexico won in a TKO. Perhaps most tragically, he wasted a positively metal nickname—‘The Lord of the Skies”—for a nip and tuck.
6 Manuel Noriega
The villain in pretty much every ’80s action movie starring Chuck Norris or adapted from a Tom Clancy novel was probably modeled after Manuel Noriega. He dressed in military fatigues, strong-armed his way all the way to the top of Panama as its de facto dictator and was ambitious enough to diversify his malice through drug trafficking.
Drug running was really only a side-gig, though, behind running a freaking country with an iron fist dipped in Che Guevara’s ball sweat.
5 Joaquin Guzman Loera
One man currently reigns supreme over the hot, steaming pile of Dodge City on steroids previously known as Mexico since their government declared war on the cartels in 2005, and that man is Joaquin Guzman Loera. As the head of the Sinaloa cartel, “El Chapo” was ranked by Forbes in 2009 as both the 41st most powerful person on the planet, and the 701st richest, with a net-worth of about $1 billion.
In 2007, his well-known marriage ceremony to an 18 year-old was so heavily guarded that the Mexican army dared not fuck with him.
4 Ismael Zambada Garcia
Before there was El Chapo, there was Ismael Zambada Garcia, or “El Mayo.” Garcia is to Mexico what Pablo Escobar was to Columbia—the man most responsible for making the national drug trade international and upping the bloody stakes to unimaginable levels.
What’s most notable about Garcia is his sheer longevity—he’s survived and prospered for more than three decades in a business that’s about as safe and secure as being Courtney Love’s fuck-buddy.
3 Khun Sa
If you did heroin in the ’80s, there was a coin-flip’s chance it came from Khun Sa. Acting as the general of his own private army that numbered in the tens of thousands, Sa ruled over the Golden Triangle from deep within the Burmese jungle like a real-life Colonel Kurtz, except not as fat or crazy as Marlon Brando. But we won’t hold that against him, seeing as few people can be simultaneously fat and/or crazy as Marlon Brando was.
2 Diego Montoya
A simple, honorific “Don” in front of your name can be subtly scarier than any other nickname, including Scarface. Also scary is the idea that one man can infiltrate an entire country’s navy and use it as his personal shipping system, as Don Diego Montoya did with the Colombian navy while he was boss of the Norte del Valle cartel.
Granted, the Colombian navy probably consists of two wooden-hulled schooners with cannons pointing out the sides, but that’s still diabolically impressive. If SPECTRE was still around as James Bond’s nemesis, this guy would be at the head of the table deciding which subordinate to incinerate.
1 Fabio Ochoa Restrepo
Unless you’re a citizen of Colombia or otherwise somehow thoroughly immersed in the country’s drug history, odds are you’ve never heard of this guy—just the way he preferred it. Restrepo was officially known as a horse breeder, rancher and businessman, like Tony Soprano is known as a waste management consultant.
Restrepo had three sons—Jorge Luis (who in 1987 landed on Forbes’ list of 20 richest men on the planet), Fabio (who reportedly shipped 30 tons of cocaine a month to the U.S. between 1997 and 1999), and Juan David—who were each instrumental in the rise of the Medellin cartel.
He’s never been directly linked to any drug money, but to assume he didn’t wield immense influence over the operation his brood helped found is like assuming Al Capone wasn’t behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre because he was “out of town” that day.
If you don’t want to take our word for it, heed the sentiments of Jon Roberts, a former Miami-based associate of the cartel:
“As many people want to believe that Pablo Escobar was the king of cocaine, they can believe that, but the man that was really the king was Ochoa.”
For more gangstery goodness, check out our rundown of Seven Terrifying Female Gangsters.